Abdrazakov, Schrott, Phillips, Bell, Siurina, Castronovo, Soar (d) / Gardner
This is neither the most urgent, nor the grandest, nor the most starry Don Giovanni the Met has put together over the years, but it might still be the very best. What it is -- to be clear -- is the best, most precisely, and most satisfyingly delineated incarnation I can remember, successful in every way that last month's Figaro failed and more, and an unreservedly recommendable triumph.
It starts, as ever, in the pit. As in his Carmens here two years ago, ENO music director Edward Gardner provides precise, measured, almost chamber-textured conducting. If he does not provide the wild daemonic electricity that, say, Nezet-Seguin might have offered, he also does not step on and bludgeon his singers as David Robertson did. Instead Gardner gives them a framework, a well-delineated space for their own work -- and they take it.
That they do and did is to the great credit of each -- all the applause at curtain was well-deserved -- but the essential catalyst seems to have been one who did not get a bow: revival stage director Louisa Muller, whose first title-page-credited Met work this seems to be (she has assisted on other shows here in the past, including the original version of this production). Muller, against the coarsening tide of the time, has worked with the cast to bring forth a feast of humanizing detail, in tune with and making visible not only the individual characters of performer and role, but Mozart's music itself. From the very first Anna-Giovanni confrontation on the balcony, scenes that tradition has allowed to become homogenously just their "gist" have been more precisely opened up to show multiple and various relations and moods (simultaneously at times, successively at others) -- as emotions flash or slowly work their way across each player's body and musical line. (In the most extended and striking example, simple positioning shifts allow Phillips and Castronovo to play her solo "Non mi dir" as a wonderfully revealing and believable couples' fight/reconciliation.) Some of this may have been trying to appear in the original premiere, but, perhaps due to revolving casts, not much did. The work of original director Michael Grandage and designed Christopher Oram in providing the most detailed frame of the Gelb era remains as helpful as I thought it would be. (The one physical flaw -- the dead Commendatore's silver braiding that looks too much like a skeleton shirt -- has been nicely patched by the ghost's keeping his arms within his cloak until the fatal handshake.)
Some players, of course, need no particular frame of conductor and show. Ekaterina Siurina is always clearly who she is: a wonderfully uncomplicated -ina/-etta. Her Susanna was a significant part of the last great Mozart/Da Ponte revival (that fall 2007 Figaro), and, character-wise, Siurina's happily familiar (she does not, as Mojca Erdmann did, break ground -- but it doesn't matter) way with this -ina is, as one would predict, firm ground for the volatility around her. And yet, whether from long unjust absence or growth over time, it had not occurred to me that her sound would be so big, so clear, so quite as delicious as her nice-soubrette phrasing. There are limits: sometimes one wants complications. (Yes, it turns out that "Siurina" may be Russian for "Ruth Ann Swenson".) But the opera world in which Siurina isn't the obvious first-choice Russian Adina is a crazy one.
Opposite her, as Masetto, debuts British singer David Soar, who has a tenor's name but a lyric bass instrument, which he -- well in the spirit of this revival -- isn't afraid to use to whiny-toned effect. Is he basically a character singer? Though he's quite good at it, he showed flashes of a voice for more.
If this run does lose proportion and disintegrate, I fear it will be from Erwin Schrott loosening up too much and breaking the ensemble dynamic. But that didn't happen this first night, and unless&until it does his Leporello will be one of the show's amazing highlights. What served him so poorly in the title part -- the pile-on of tics that could not add up to a significant (anti)hero despite his lead-quality instrument -- is, within this role and context, the basis for his greatest night at the Met. Schrott does not, I should already note, merely tic: in accord with the rest of the show, everything has its place, including non-action and non-reaction. In fact it's the slackness of his default deadpan that is most and almost endlessly amusing, providing priceless contrast for an ever-imminent facility in plastique great and small, mild and jarring. If his voice -- which sounds great here -- goes the way of Netrebko's last beau's, Schrott may yet have a future in cinematic comedy.
His master is nearly as drastically transformed from his last Mozart appearance: where, in the just-closed Figaro, Ildar Abdrazakov looked pressed and harried all night, he seems now perfectly in his element, filling stage and ear with confident seduction and star shamelessness. Was it the conducting? An aversion to low comedy work analogous to Schrott's affinity for the same? A chemistry as harmful there as is obviously successful here? Hard to say, as an observer, but Abdrazakov is back to his impressive form.
Most bizarrely precise on stage is Emma Bell's Donna Elvira, who presents unmistakably as English. This isn't exactly in accord with the text, but does nicely pin down the never-quite-wholly desperate quality of Elvira's desperation. Bell lacks the moral-emotional force of predecessors Susan Graham and Dorothea Röschmann, but that didn't actually turn out to be essential here. Her actual singing and negotiation of Elvira's hurdles was above average and improved as the night went on.
Finally, the noble couple of Suanna Phillips' Donna Anna and Charles Castronovo's Don Ottavio benefitted much (perhaps most) from being presented precisely and seriously. Her trauma-victim Anna (the gut-punched reaction to both her father's death and her recognition of the killer is excellently done) is the more wounded of the ladies, and the more forceful. Phillips sings the part with a lovely even sound rarely managed by an Anna, and though it may actually be a bit lovelier than one would prototypically want, the physical cues here let her coherently present a hurt rather than vengeance-besotted woman.
Meanwhile Ottavio here is, for Castronovo's lovely laments (his wonderfully plaintive First Prisoner in Beethoven's Fidelio seems to have been the first and only time I've previously seen him at the Met) more personally closed than usual -- he is very much a man of his context, one in which the justice of humans is powerless and the supernatural must intervene -- until that really touching back-and-forth of this revival's "Non mi dir" (not changed musically -- it's in fact a complement). Appealing sound too, strongest in a warm midrange.
The Met usually succeeds with Don Giovanni by rolling out the star power -- and, in fact, it did so as recently as the spring (with Andrew Davis, Finley, Terfel, Polenzani, etc.). It rarely is able to transmute the parts into the ensemble magic that has come out so regularly in its Figaros. But -- not least due to the best revival direction I can recall, and some of the best "Personenregie" by anyone in the Gelb era -- this run is a terrific exception, and yet another reason to regret the preservation of last season's absurd moviecast cast. Don't miss it.