After more than two centuries, critical opinion remains divided on whether Mozart's "Don Giovanni" is a tragic opera with funny moments or a comic opera with somber underpinnings. But there has never been much argument about the quality of the score, always recognized as extraordinary. Among the late Mozart operas, "Cosi Fan Tutte" may be more ecstatic in its vocal intertwinings, "Le Nozze di Figaro" more tender and vulnerably soulful, and "The Magic Flute" more cosmic and mysterious. But "Don Giovanni" gives us what Samuel Johnson claimed to have found at Charing Cross in London: "the full tide of human existence."
The Washington Opera's new production, which opened Saturday night at DAR Constitution Hall, is something of a miscellany, with some excellent singers and others who are distinctly miscast. Like the recent "Aida," the company's first production in Constitution Hall (which will be its home for the rest of 2003 while the Kennedy Center Opera House is rebuilt), this "Don Giovanni" is mostly reliant on projected images for its setting. Moorish towers loom above sun-dappled trees; clouds chase each other across the sky; loops of film run their course, then repeat themselves. Actual physical scenery is kept to a minimum -- some chairs, tables and a recalcitrant door that refused to obey its handlers on opening night.
A hundred years ago, the Metropolitan Opera was celebrated for what it called its "nights of seven stars." Not all the singers in "Don Giovanni" need be "stars," but it remains necessary to find seven solid artists to bring seven substantial and complicated characters to life. Top honors in this production go to Robert Pomakov as Leporello -- a terrific singing actor with a richly expressive baritone voice, unflagging high spirits and just a hint of John Belushi in his comedic makeup. His half-boastful, half-apologetic "Madamina" set a high-water mark for the evening with its multifaceted detail.
The Uruguayan bass Erwin Schrott proved a seductive, appropriately oily Don Giovanni, at once captivating and repellent. Schrott has a fine, slightly florid voice, nicely blended from top to bottom. The champagne aria was lithe and exciting, with just a hint of menace. And while I prefer a simpler approach to the Serenade -- these gorgeous 90 seconds of music flow so smoothly that they need little additional emphasis -- Schrott brought home the Don's erotic urgency.
Irina Mataeva made a fetching, sweet-toned Zerlina -- irresistibly charming in "Batti, batti" and teasingly self-assured in its natural follow-up, "Vedrai, carino." Hung Yun's Masetto was well sung, if rather under-characterized. Tatiana Pavlovskaya employed her lean, fierce soprano voice effectively as the wraithlike Donna Elvira (a dangerous "Ah, chi mi dice mai"). And Fyodor Kuznetzov's sepulchral utterances from the Commendatore were the stuff on which nightmares are fed.
I was less happy with Natalia Ushakova's performance of Donna Anna. Her pitch sense is only approximate, a shortcoming that was magnified by her tendency to poke stiffly at notes instead of singing them full out. And Daniil Shtoda was a bizarre choice for the role of Don Ottavio: His voice is small and strained, and I wondered whether he even knew what "Dalla sua pace" was all about. "Il mio tesoro" was better -- Shtoda's breath control may be his strongest attribute -- but never began to take on the seamless beauty of tone necessary for a fully persuasive performance.
Artistic Director Placido Domingo conducted the Washington Opera Orchestra and Chorus with energy and enthusiasm. He knows the score thoroughly and accompanied his singers with as much consideration and communication as he could muster from his awkward position (at Constitution Hall, the orchestra plays behind the stage action, necessitating that all exchanges of ideas between conductor and characters take place over closed-circuit television).
Stage director John Pascoe managed to turn this "Don Giovanni" into pretty good drama, and the opportunity to sit more or less in the middle of the stage action, without an orchestra pit to separate spectator from players, is stimulating. That said, it remains pretty much impossible to watch the singers and the supertitles at the same time (even when the titles are working, which they weren't for a good portion of Saturday night).
In short, DAR Constitution Hall is proving a better stopgap for the Kennedy Center than its worst detractors feared, but it will be good to have the Washington Opera back home again next year.
"Don Giovanni" will be repeated tonight, April 3, 6, 9 and 11.