Well-cast roles and creative ideas boost WNO’s ‘Don Giovanni’

(Scott Suchman) - Ildar Abdrazakov as Don Giovanni and Barbara Frittoli as Donna Elvira in Washington National Opera’s production of “Don Giovanni.”

(Scott Suchman) - Ildar Abdrazakov as Don Giovanni and Barbara Frittoli as Donna Elvira in Washington National Opera’s production of “Don Giovanni.”

Two truisms, and a truth: Mozart is honey for the voice. Mozart is the cornerstone of opera. Mozart is an acquired taste. There, I said it.

The first half of “Don Giovanni,” in John Pascoe’s 2007 Washington National Opera production that the company revived on Thursday night, lasts for more than an hour and a half. If you’re an opera lover, you know it by heart; if you’re new to opera, it can feel kind of long.

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“How did you like ‘Don Giovanni’?” I once asked some friends who had seen it for the first time. “We liked it!” they said, brightly. “Really?” I said. “I thought the production was kind of boring.” “Oh,” they said, with relief, “we thought it was boring, too!”

Pascoe’s production — which I missed the first time around — isn’t boring. Any director who cares enough about an opera to make a real story out of it, rather than just moving singers around the stage, gets some sympathy from me, and Pascoe had a few good ideas, notably the palpable attraction between Giovanni and Donna Elvira.

Elvira made her first entrance cradling a baby in her arms, wearing skin-tight clothing under a kind of riding coat (Pascoe’s sets and costumes weren’t on the same level as his storytelling). When she first spotted Giovanni, she rushed over and threw her arms around him, telling him how awful he was and how much she hated him while kissing him and caressing him and letting him kiss back. It was a fine encapsulation of an obsessive love/hate/lust relationship that carries on throughout the opera.

It helped that the two roles were well-cast — in line with what appears to be WNO’s recent policy of getting a couple of strong leads and filling the rest of the parts more or less adequately. Pascoe’s vision of Elvira worked because Barbara Frittoli had the chops, and the figure, to carry the part. Mozart may not be honey for every voice, but it certainly fits hers better than some of the heavier Verdi stuff she tries out. And while there were a few slightly shaky moments, she sang with integrity.

Ildar Abdrazakov sang Leporello in this production in 2007 and has, for the past few years, been groomed as an up-and-coming star bass — notably at the Metropolitan Opera (“Attila,” Enrico in “Anna Bolena”) — without ever quite delivering the goods. So his Giovanni was, to me, a happy surprise. He sang soundly and seemed perfectly comfortable, and credible, as the World’s Sexiest Man— not something every young bass or bass-baritone can pull off: carelessly sexy in the robust Champagne aria, wistful and serious and quiet in the serenade “Deh, vieni alla finestra.” It was nice to see a young singer beginning to get in touch with his promise. His Leporello was Andrew Foster-Williams, who has shown his reliable, sandy bass-baritone in several WNO productions, and who was equally reliable here without establishing a strong profile.

Meagan Miller, the Donna Anna, was new to WNO but not to the region, since she sang for a couple of summers at the Wolf Trap Opera. Her Mozart sounded less like honey than vinegar, with a sharp edge and inexactness about pitch, though her Anna certainly had humorous touches, with a tendency to hysteria that found expression in frequent blubbering and a wild volley of pistol shots sent after Giovanni’s retreating form at the end of Act I.

Juan Francesco Gatell’s Ottavio was tightly dignified, with a voice that was dry but accurate.

Another of Pascoe’s very good ideas colored the Don’s relationship to Masetto and Zerlina, the peasants whose wedding he disrupts with an attempt to carry off the bride. This “Giovanni” was set in a Fascist Spain, with the Commendatore (Soloman Howard, with a generously scaled bass voice) and Giovanni as two black-uniformed higher-ups. Small wonder that Zerlina (Veronica Cangemi, in a pretty but anodyne portrayal) was quick to capitulate to Giovanni’s wishes, and that she got so nervous when Masetto (Aleksey Bogdanov, doughty but less imposing than he’s been here in the past) stood up to him, despite the arrival of some sinister-looking henchmen — another moment of psychological credibility.

Mozart seems to be a taste the WNO orchestra is still acquiring; under the company’s music director, Philippe Auguin, this performance was more assured than last spring’s “Cosi fan tutte,” despite a little shakiness from the brass.

Certainly the audience was eager to like it; all of the laugh lines of Lorenzo da Ponte, the opera’s librettist, were greeted with hearty chuckles by the opening-night crowd. Didja know Don Giovanni seduced 1,003 women in Spain? Didja know he can smell a woman coming? If you know the opera, you accept the tradition that makes these lines funny. If you don’t, you might smile politely and wish that better casting had made this evening, for all its strong moments, a better argument for why you, too, should acquire this taste.

Don Giovanni

continues through Oct. 9. On Sept. 29, it will be broadcast live at Nationals Park as one of WNO’s “Opera in the Outfield” offerings this season. On Oct. 13, the singers in the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist program will present their performance of the work.

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