A supreme Mattei leads an inspired cast in Met’s “Don Giovanni”
Peter Mattei has been exceptional in everything he has done in New York the past two years–the title role in last season’s Eugene Onegin at the Met, Count Almaviva in this season’s opener, Le Nozze di Figaro, and some pluperfect Mahler singing with the MET Orchestra and James Levine at Carnegie Hall. His performance last night, opening in the lead role in Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Met, was easily on the same level, if not beyond.
The baritone brought remarkable vitality to the role. Mattei sang beautifully, which is to be expected, and he did it with the effortlessness of a great athlete who makes the difficult look routine. At one point just prior to the great party scene in Act I, he picked up Zerlina—mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey—and carried her around the stage as if she weighed nothing, singing just as naturally as before without breaking a sweat.
Mattei glided and sprang about the stage like a cat, with a physical freedom that was part of a masterful characterization. Rather than the prototypical masculinity of Cesare Siepi, Mattei was the embodiment of utter confidence and egotism, delighted with his own charm and guile. Rather than attack the conventions and morals of society, he was unburdened by them.
He fit perfectly into Michael Grandage’s staging—which premiered in 2011—and Louisa Muller’s direction, which combined to pull off the challenge of making this ungainly drama work. Mozart’s opera is a strange composition, both brilliant and crippled. It takes a clear, unfussy view to pull off the trick of presenting the story of a sociopathic rapist and murderer as both a comedy and a morality tale.
At the finale, facing the ghost of the Commendatore—bass James Morris, revealing significant vocal strain but with a still-powerful stage presence—he was not only defiant but confident, eager to face his fate without repentance. It made sense of the whole performance and characterization–how he could begin the opera in mid-rape, show empathy for the dead Commendatore after their duel, and joke with and mock Leporello throughout.
Bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni sang Leporello, his darker color contrasting with Mattei’s lighter one. In no way did the singing or characterization present the misguided theatrical concept of Leporello as the Don’s dopplegänger, so when the two switch identities in the second act—so that the Don may continue his seductions while Leporello distracts Donna Elvira—it works comically and narratively. Pisaroni sang with command, and he managed the humor in the role without being clownish.
Mattei’s freedom was an ideal contrast for Donna Anna—soprano Elza van den Heever—and Don Ottavio—tenor Dmitry Korchak, making his Met debut. They are a necessary moral chorus to the drama, hounding the Don and exposing his crimes, but they are dramatically dull compared to the delicious fascination of Giovanni himself. Their music is excellent, of course, but their stand-and-sing arias are stolid compared to Giovanni’s recitatives and running dialogues.
Van den Heever was excellent all evening. She conveyed real dignity and personal loss in the opening scene, and her singing of “Non mi dir” was stunning, her musicality and expression surpassing her tremendous technique. Korchak was shaky in his company bow. He made a good complement to the ensembles with den Heever and Donna Elvira—soprano Emma Bell—but his “Dalla sua pace” was tough going, with uncertain intervals and inelegant phrasing. Perhaps it was nerves, as his “Il mio tesoro” proved more secure, but then “Calmatvi, idol mio” was unsteady. From simple quality of singing, Donna Anna turned her fiancée into a mere bolster.
Bell has a luscious, full voice, and it took time to open up. Her “Ah! Chi mi dice mai” seemed confined to a narrow range, but she sang superbly from “Non ti fidar” on, and her conflicted need for Giovanni was real, even as he bent her over the table at his own last supper.
Kate Lindsey, in the soprano role of Zerlina, was paired with bass-baritone Adam Plachetka as Masetto. Plachetka was also making his Met debut, and was strong throughout, making an attractive musical and comic pair with Lindsey’s Zerlina. Lindsey doesn’t have a girlish voice, but she kept her colors clear and unadorned, and made the characterization work without damping down the musical expression. Plachetka sang strongly and he was a fine and funny stage actor, moving with ease and showing his anger and frustration over the Don’s attentions to Zerlina without hamminess or buffoonery.
New York Philharmonic conductor Alan Gilbert was in the pit, and his musical direction was solid overall, but not flawless. The pace of the music was fine throughout, although there were enough differences between his and the singers tempos that it added to what has been a trend at the Met this year, and might indicate a lack of sufficient rehearsal time. Gilbert attacked the overture sharply, and pushed a sense of urgency, but there was insufficient tension through the Andante section. The recompense was an intense penultimate scene.
Don Giovanni continues through March 6; Jennifer Check and Ievgen Orlov replace Emma Bell and James Morris for the final performance metopera.org