What delicious irony that The Met: Live in HD performance of Don Giovanni will be held Saturday. The premiere in Prague, with Mozart conducting, took place exactly 224 years ago on Oct. 29, 1787. A mere coincidence? Perhaps. But how wonderful.
Mozarts opera is about the legendary Don Juan, an entitled aristocrat with too much time on his hands, an insatiable libido and an obsessive-compulsive tendency to keep track of his conquests.
Mozart composed the opera during the summer of 1787, working with his favorite librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, a well-known womanizer himself. Giovanni would follow another Mozart-da Ponte success, The Marriage of Figaro. The creamy wit of that comic opera made Mozart a hero of sorts, the entertainment celebrity of the hour, the gossip magnet of Prague. Music lovers eagerly awaited the next production.
So in late October, Don Giovanni, a tragicomedy, opened. Full of odd, often uncomfortable humor, Giovannis womanizing hijinks open the opera and dominate the story. But the arrogant young man and his sometimes reluctant, sometimes complicit servant Leporello are always running. The question is: How much bad behavior will society tolerate? Thats the subtext, and an alert viewer may be aware of conflicting emotions depending on how charming the baritone who sings Giovanni can make his slippery character. And how sympathetic the other baritone can make the servant Leporello. The same goes for the female singers, but dont get me started.
The story begins with a seduction and turns dark almost immediately. The entire opening section offers one of operas most spellbinding panoramas. Nothing like it had been done before and rarely since the late 18th century. Giovanni woos Donna Anna, then confronts her father, the Commendatore. A duel ensues and ends badly, setting up the complex fabric of a tragicomedy. Its nothing if not cinematic.
The same could be said for the ballroom scene in Act I. Its also revolutionary in its filmic nature and musical invention. As our anti-hero makes his way through a joyous party, three separate dance bands play. Mozart conceived of this the summer of 1787, not 1987, and not for Hollywood, where the technique is used all the time these days.
Everything that happens in Act I reverberates through to the spectacular conclusion when the Commendatore confronts Giovanni, and the young aristocrat faces his destiny.
Between lust and final terror, Mozart and da Ponte sprinkled many comic moments. Leporellos List Aria has to be one of the funniest scenes in opera history. Leporello educates one of Giovannis former lovers about his masters purpose in life to bed every woman he encounters. The numbers are impressive all across Europe, country by country. Heres a spot for the comic effects of repetition. Listen for the key word España.
Polish-born baritone Mariusz Kwiecien will sing Giovanni in this new Met production. Those of us lucky enough to see Kwiecien perform the role in Santa Fe the summer of 2004 know what to anticipate a big voice matched by swagger and smarty-pants confidence. Marina Rebeka and Barbara Frittoli will sing the two aristocratic soprano roles, and Mojca Erdmann will portray Zerlina, the maid. Another operatic high point will be the quintessential seduction duet of all time Andiamo!
Baritone Luca Pisaroni sings Leporello and Stefan Kocán gets to die in Act I as the Commendatore and return as his ghost in splendid graveyard and banquet scenes. Its a part every self-respecting bass-baritone dreams of singing.
James Levine conducts, and the whole show has been conceived and shaped by Tony Award-winning director Michael Grandage.
The performance lasts four hours including intermission. Sung in Italian with English subtitles, this Giovanni has been much anticipated, a bit like the premiere in Prague.
For what many opera lovers, great writers, famous musicians and hoards of music lovers consider to be the perfect opera, four hours on a Saturday afternoon in October is worth a little sacrifice.