Mozart's "Don Giovanni" has an enigmatic hero/villain who is dragged down to Hell amid music that sounds as though it might have been composed in Heaven. It may be the greatest opera ever written. F. Murray Abraham, the host of the Metropolitan Opera telecast, makes that suggestion tonight (at 8 on WETA-Channel 26 and Maryland Public Television), and the Met's new production reinforces his opinion.
This is mildly surprising -- the Met is not a company specially attuned to Mozart, and director Franco Zeffirelli is better known for his work with Verdi and Puccini. But this is, to date, the most satisfying televised opera production of 1990.
Zeffirelli usually has some kind of a gimmick, and this time it is a particularly tricky one: historical piety. Instead of his usual intrusions, with the director leaving his thumb print everywhere as in his films of "Otello" and "La Traviata," we have Zeffirelli the invisible man trying to show it as closely as possible to the way the opera was staged when it was new, with lots of painted flats and not much attempt at three-dimensional realism. There is even a plaque set in the middle of the stage (the performers have to work around it) commemorating the opera's first performance in Prague on Oct. 29, 1787. Visually, the production is quietly opulent. There is nothing spectacular until the end, when Don Giovanni goes to his doom amid phantasmagoric glimpses of other sinners already suffering eternal torment. But earlier, the video camera catches more than one moment that looks, fleetingly, like a Renaissance painting brought to life.
James Levine conducts a well-paced, carefully balanced performance that does not attempt to match in style or sound the staging's visual fidelity to history -- this is clearly a modern orchestra playing in a 20th-century adaptation of Mozart's style, but it is a great orchestra and the music is well served.
The cast is almost ideal, with an emphasis on young performers that one finds too seldom in Met productions. Samuel Ramey is properly dashing and demonic in the title role, and he interacts well with the Leporello of Ferruccio Furlanetto and all three of the women who are his victims. Of these three, I was particularly charmed with Dawn Upshaw's visually earthy, theatrically alert and tonally exquisite Zerlina; her performance of "Batti, batti" and "Vedrai, carino" is surpassed only by her duet with Ramey in "La ci darem."
Also excellent (allowing for occasional slight edginess of tone) are Carol Vaness as Donna Anna and Karita Mattila as Donna Elvira. Jerry Hadley makes the rather one-dimensional figure of Don Ottavio more sympathetic than usual and has exactly the right kind of voice for his two arias -- two of the greatest tenor arias ever written. Commendable performances are given by Philip Cokorinos and Kurt Moll in the smaller but important roles of Masetto and the Commendatore.