Don Giovanni

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte
Met Opera on Demand
Metropolitan Opera, New York
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Huguette Tourangeau as Zerlina, James Morris as Don Giovanni

How do you solve a problem like Don Giovanni? Mozart’s opera was considered by George Bernard Shaw to be the greatest ever written and, when you see a really good production, it’s difficult to disagree. At the heart of it lies a problem, though, and one that very few recent productions have successfully tackled.

Mozart based the work on the legend of Don Juan, a notorious anti-hero, presenting him as an attractive seducer. By playing it straight, you risk normalising, or at best trivialising, rape and, in a world where there’s much greater awareness of the issue, directors have a real challenge with the material. Most of the stagings I’ve seen in the last 20 years have fallen flat on all fronts by trying to subvert the basic ethos of the opera.

In 1978, these things were scarcely thought about, so the Met were able to give a conventional presentation without worrying about any discomfort it may cause in years to come. Musically, the production (now available to stream) is so good, it’s tempting to push social issues aside and just enjoy a wonderful entertainment. If you can just accept this is an old story about a rollicking adventurer who can’t stop seducing women (and gets his just reward), you might be able to do that.

Richard Bonynge doesn’t seem an obvious choice for conductor of this opera and his reading is hardly spectacular, but it is a perfect showcase for the talents of a stellar cast.

A regular at the Met for nearly 50 years, bass-baritone James Morris is not the most charismatic of Dons but he knocks spots off most current exponents of the role. It’s a big voice that came into its own later when he became a notable Wotan for the Met. His wily servant Leporello is sung by Gabriel Bacquier, the French baritone, who died last week at the age of 96. He had a talent for discreet clowning, so never overdoes the comedy and is a joy to watch.

Joan Sutherland is a giant presence as Donna Anna, in fact she feels almost too big for the part. It’s a great role, with some glorious arias, but she seems almost constrained by its limitations. She was never more comfortable than when she could dominate the stage in roles like Lucia di Lammermoor.

The other soprano role of Donna Elvira is taken by Julia Varady, never quite a household name but hugely respected in the profession. She’s perfectly cast as the avenging victim who pursues the Don after being deserted by him. Just watch the way she responds in silence to Leporello’s “Catalogue Aria” early in the opera. A mark of a great dramatic performer, opera singers included, is the ability to listen as well as speak or sing. Her pin-drop focus, here and in her later aria “Mi tradi” is astonishing, comparable to that nowadays of an artist like Joyce diDonato.

Like Teresa Berganza in Joseph Losey’s film of Don Giovanni (of similar vintage), Huguette Tourangeau is on the mature side for Zerlina, the young country girl seduced by the Don, but she’s equally delightful, although her pronunciation sounds a little more French than Italian in places.

Don Ottavio, often considered the biggest wimp in opera despite two breathtaking arias, is handsomely sung by British tenor John Brecknock, who holds his own in such exalted company.

The staging is elegant and unfussy and thoroughly traditional.

In case you haven’t tuned into it yet, the Met’s web site is streaming a nightly opera for free, and it is available until 6:30pm EDT the following day. After that, there are a number of ways of tapping into this opera and others at will. The Met Opera On Demand service offers annual ($149.99) and monthly ($14.99) subscriptions as well as a one-off payment ($4.99) for those who have limited time or only want to watch the occasional opera.

Reviewer: Simon Thomas