The WNO last mounted “Giovanni” in 2012, in a high-concept, ornate staging; this version was comparatively streamlined. Erhard Rom’s minimalist sets — abstract enough to do double duty for “Samson and Delilah,” opening Sunday — became screens for S. Katy Tucker’s stylized projections.
The characters roamed in period costumes, many recycled from the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s designs, first seen at WNO in the 1980s (with new additions by Lynly A. Saunders). Director E. Loren Meeker’s main conceptual notion was a silent cohort of white-clad women, the Don’s past conquests haunting the stage, shifting the center of gravity toward a female vantage. There were flashes of wit (Elvira entering with a train of literal baggage was a nice touch). But the overall strategy was lean, eschewing grandeur, setting up the singers to succeed and then getting out of their way.
And the singing and acting were, on the whole, very good. As Donna Anna, Vanessa Vasquez deployed a crystalline or steely bite as the situation demanded, with finely drawn phrasing: refined wrath. Keri Alkema’s Donna Elvira took longer to warm up, but once there, put out rich sound edged with satin, a slight haze of fantasy. Vanessa Becerra was a bright, pert Zerlina; sometimes, pushing out volume, her intonation would drift sharp, but, when centered, her singing had an appealing effervescence.
Alek Shrader, as Ottavio, seemed to be in suboptimal voice, shifting from easiness to tight effort in higher range, backing off his top notes. Norman Garrett’s Masetto had fine-grained, dynamic tone and restrained power. Peter Volpe was appropriately stern and stentorian as the Commendatore. And the opera’s main odd couple was estimable. As the Don, Ryan McKinny unspooled smooth, stylish sound, a forceful snarl lurking beneath a suave veneer. And Kyle Ketelsen was a scene- and show-stealing Leporello: a gleaming, dynamic baritone, a dexterous command of the language and some punctilious comedic timing.
Timing was an issue for WNO principal conductor Evan Rogister; though the orchestra made balanced, polished sound, coordination between players and singers was often approximate. But the cleanly drawn, direct sense of storytelling, more efficient than opulent, compensated. Ketelsen’s comic skills, especially, often pushed the show’s knife-edge balance of horror and farce in the latter direction, but lurking tension propelled the show like a coiled spring.
Publicity and program notes explicitly referenced #MeToo and related movements. (“He’s spent his life betraying women,” the posters read. “Now time’s up.”) But it was damning enough indictment that Meeker didn’t need to underline the parallels. This production’s particular strength was revealing the Don’s unrepentant amorality as only the most obvious pathology. Ottavio’s self-centered impatience, Masetto’s jealousy and Leporello’s cynicism also victimize the women; nevertheless, as in reality, it remains women’s work to navigate, mitigate, placate. That the story feels true to human nature testifies to Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte’s incisiveness. That a straightforward interpretation is, in 2020, effortlessly timely? That’s on us.
Washington National Opera’s “Don Giovanni,” with a running time of approximately three hours, will be performed intermittently through March 22 at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House.