Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Metropolitan Opera

Rebecca Franks reviews the Met's new production of Mozart's dark masterpiece

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A darkly comic tale of seduction and betrayal, murder and just deserts. Fine fare, or so I thought, for a first trip to New York’s Metropolitan Opera. This iconic American company is, after all, renowned for its lavish sets, world-class singers and big-budget productions. After savouring some of the Met magic thanks to live cinema broadcasts over the past year, a New York night at the opera was a Big Apple experience I was eager to sample.

How disappointing, then, that Michael Grandage’s new production is less visual feast, more visual famine. Billed as traditional, the production is set in mid 18th-century Spain. A large building with two floors of balconied windows – in which vignettes can be played out – dominates the stage for the whole opera. Dilapidated in feel, the dark browns of its wood offers little contrast to the costumes in murky autumnal hues. So far, so dull.

Such an imposing set, too, demands bold direction. Yes, there were one or two nice touches - in Leporello’s catalogue aria, for instance, the front is swept away to reveal windows filled with all Don Giovanni’s women. There’s some amusing hiding round corners and loitering under windows, visual jokes that bring out the work’s lighter moments. For the most part, each character is well developed, even if nothing new is on offer. And the all-important demise of the Don is, I’ll grant, impressive. In Grandage’s vision, the fires of hell are pretty toasty, the heat of the massive flames that leap out of the stage palpable near the back of the stalls. But that doesn’t make the opera - for the most part the cast seems to have been consigned to the front of the stage, where they just stand and sing.

Enough of the gripes. If this had been a concert performance, this would be a very different review. The music was glorious. Stepping in to the title role after Mariusz Kwiecien injured his back in the dress rehearsal, Peter Mattei proved a suavely seductive anti-hero. Amusing in his comic touches, despicable in his guilt-free murderous actions, this Don Giovanni was all too plausible. Mattei’s superb singing was matched by a uniformly strong cast. Barbara Frittoli was a first-rate Donna Elvira, while Luca Pisaroni convincingly portrayed the frustrations and intimacies of the master-servant relationship. Ramón Vargas earned large cheers for his Don Ottavio, thanks to his well-executed arias but not his lacklustre depiction of his love for Donna Anna, and as Zerlina and Masseto, Mojca Erdmann and Joshua Bloom made a playful, vocally well-matched pair. But the stand-out performance for me was from Marina Rebeka as Donna Anna. Her pure voice has a fullsome richness and she sings Mozart sublimely.

In another last-minute change, the Met’s new principal conductor Fabio Luisi took over the baton from an indisposed James Levine. Luisi does an excellent job at the musical helm, both in front of the orchestra and, for the recitative, at the harpsichord; clarity and precision might be his hallmarks but it’s not at the expense of pacing, drama or excitement. Yes, this is a performance of musical glories. But let’s hope the production is consigned to the flames soon.

Rebecca Franks is reviews editor of BBC Music Magazine