This 'Don Giovanni' Is More Parry Than Thrust

Erwin Schrott is a lusty don in the Washington National Opera production.
Erwin Schrott is a lusty don in the Washington National Opera production. (By Karin Cooper)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 27, 2007

Any performance of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" is something to be thankful for, and it seems almost churlish to wish that Washington National Opera's current production, which opened Thursday night at the Kennedy Center, were better than it is.

Still, if ever there was a generic "Don Giovanni," it is this one. John Pascoe's direction, sets and costume designs are mostly traditional -- trees, columns, balconies, smoke and period clothing -- and that's fine, so far as it goes, but one had the sense that the production could serve equally well for a lot of other operas written in the past 250 years. Close your eyes and imagine a performance of "Don Giovanni" (or, for that matter, "Don Carlo," "La Forza del Destino" or "Lucia di Lammermoor") and the chances are better than even that it will look very much like this.

WNO General Director Pl¿cido Domingo is such an extraordinary singer -- so versatile, so curious, so unfailingly intelligent in his artistry -- that one is usually half-tempted to give his conducting a pass. Still, on Thursday, he came off as an earnest, hardworking and reasonably well-prepared amateur, albeit an amateur who did his best to favor and support his singers (the purely orchestral music too often sounded plodding and shapeless). This is Domingo's company, of course, and he can pretty much do what he wants, but I wish he would realize that a great "Don Giovanni" needs a sure conductor as much as a great "Die Walkure" needs a clarion Siegmund (and there is probably no better Siegmund in the world today than Domingo).

Best in the cast was soprano Erin Wall -- a bright, charming, radiantly sweet-sounding yet dramatically astute Donna Anna. Erwin Schrott brought the necessary virtues to the role of Don Giovanni -- a mixture of suave charm and ferocious brutality, a healthy voice, a lusty stage presence that was heightened by the long periods of time he spent falling in and out of his open shirt. Ildar Abdrazakov made an animated, multidimensional Leporello.

If soprano Anja Kampe, in the role of Donna Elvira, was something of a disappointment, it is mostly because her previous appearances in Wagner operas with WNO have been so thrilling. Here, she came off as a Wagner singer trapped inside a Mozart character: Her voice is huge and resplendent but, especially in the first act, it also sounded hard-edged and simply misplaced. Tenor Shawn Mathey, as Don Ottavio, made a mess of "Dalla sua pace," but recovered to sing a credible "Il mio tesoro," although I still prefer a more dulcet tone in this music. Amanda Squitieri was an agreeable Zerlina and Trevor Scheunemann an appealingly hangdog Masetto.

WNO opened its 2007-2008 season with what seemed to me a well-sung but fundamentally wrong-headed and gratuitously abrasive rendition of "La Boh¿me." With "Don Giovanni," the company has played it safe and the results are a little dull. The troupe has managed to find a proper balance before and no doubt will again. In the meantime, you might consider a night or an afternoon with this "Don Giovanni" -- for the opera itself, of course, is something fine.

Don Giovanni, by the Washington National Opera. Performed in Italian with Enlish supertitles. Approximately 3 hours 25 minutes with one intermission. At the Kennedy Center Opera House, with various changes of casts and conductor on Monday, Thursday, Nov. 4, 7, 10, 13 and 16. For information or tickets, call 202-295-2400.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company