Don Giovanni: Sex First, Then Hell

Ailyn Pérez and Ryan McKinny in Don Giovanni.
Ailyn Pérez and Ryan McKinny in Don Giovanni. Photo by Lynn Lane
Dark. Dark. Dark.

Impossible to believe, but Houston Grand Opera, in its tetrad-production of Don Giovanni with Royal Opera House, The Israeli Opera, and Gran Teatre del Liceu, has taken all the joy out of opera's most bad-ass character, Don Giovanni, a.k.a. Don Juan.

Depicted by legendary librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte (who receives his own world premiere opera April 26 at HGO via composer Tarik O'Regan and librettist John Caird), Don Giovanni (charismatic baritone Ryan McKinny) is at best a rapscallion, an unrepentant seducer, a master manipulator, a liar, a cad, a bounder, an egotistical bastard, and, perhaps, Exhibit A for the #MeToo movement. He makes no excuses for his reprehensible acts. When he smells a woman, she is his. And then he's off in search of another.

We cringe at his amoral flippancy, his utter disregard for propriety, his total lack of shame or remorse. Yet...there's always a “yet” with this Spanish rascal...we watch him like one of those talentless Kardashians. We can't believe it. How does he get away with his outlandish behavior? Everyone's powerless to stop him. He mesmerizes them with charm, flattery, maybe a sweet serenade, and they fall into bed.

Yes, he's a rogue, a black-hearted one, but, somewhere deep within us, we have to smile at him. We have to admit, we envy his success, the danger, the game. Now when he commits murder – he stabs the father of his latest victim Donna Anna (soprano Ailyn Pérez, exceptional), who can't make up her mind if she hates the bounder or likes the rough stuff – he goes too far. But soon after his escape, his servant Leporello (baritone Paolo Bordogna, exceptional) reels off his astonishing list of conquests to former lover Donna Elvira (Melody Moore, of the creamy voice), who pines for him regardless of his infidelity, and we're laughing at the outrageousness of it all.

In the “Catalog” aria, there are no less than 2,065 names, from all over Europe, of all description, of all variety. In a witty visual, the names of the women fill the scrim until it's completely covered. (This is the best use of video designer Luke Halls' amazing projections that add a surreal other layer to the opera, as they blend seamlessly, magically, with set designer Es Devlin's rotating house with its panels, doors, and staircases. At times, the box resembles an op-art M.C. Escher print that has no beginning or end.)

The Don's merry conquests continue when he woos peasant girl Zerlina (soprano Dorothy Gal, rather faint opening night) during her marriage party, no less, with dumbfounded husband Masetto (bass Daniel Noyola, in fine form) in the throes of being cuckolded before his honeymoon. Meanwhile, Donna Anna continues her pursuit, with puppy dog finance Don Ottavio (blissful tenor Ben Bliss) in tow for revenge; as Donna Elvira skulks about not knowing what to think, but if only Don Giovanni would look at her.

Bad behavior is always punished in 18th-century opera, so Giovanni must have his comeuppance. In a bit of bluster and hubris, Giovanni mocks the statue of Anna's father, the Commendatore (fathoms-deep bass Kristinn Sigmundsson), and asks it to supper. With a shocking blast of stentorian low notes, the statue accepts. He arrives at the drunken party and with a clasp of his stony hand drags the unrepentant, screaming Giovanni into hell. So much for the pleasures of wanton sex.

At the top of his powers – when was he ever not at the top of his game? – Mozart fills this tale of the dissolute Don with ravishing textures, incredible melodies, and fabulous soundscapes. It is a unique opera and has been an audience favorite ever since its Prague premiere in 1787. Subtitled a “playful tragedy,” Mozart's musical inventive genius, combined with Da Ponte's sophisticated barbed wit, created a masterpiece that is evergreen. The work holds relevance for any era, even #MeToo. Obviously, this was on the mind of director Kaspar Holten since there are two articles in the program discussing Mozart's Don and where he might fit into the current social movement.

Maybe that's why the fizz has dissipated from this production. There's not much fun in the outlandish Don. He's left the party before the opera began. McKinny looks the part, for sure. Handsome and lithe, he's devilishly attractive. It's easy to see how seduction is Giovanni's second-nature. He sings the role very well, maybe with less oomph than normally accorded the character, but acts it even better. But the production's so gloomy, so Stygian, that he seems resigned to his fate scenes before his ultimate punishment. But McKinny's “Serenade” to Elvira's maid, with its simple mandolin accompaniment, is sublime. Sly and relaxed, he sprawls against the wall and spins out Mozart's effortless melody. It's love in music. He could out-woo Orpheus.

It takes the entire first act for everyone to get into the mood, except Pérez, as Anna, who rouses the audience whenever she appears. Donna Anna is one of Mozart/Da Ponte's most complex characters, whose personal journey goes from (in this production's view) begging her seducer to stay, then shock at discovering her dead father, to vengeful harpy at abandonment, to consoling her fianceé, to contrite lover. She has true feelings for this libertine, but she also says she loves stuffed-shirt Ottavio, who's waiting around for her to stop grieving and marry him. What's a woman to do? Pérez is magnificent, with thrilling projection, flawless technique, and volcanic presence. She and Bordogna, as scene-stealing Leporello (who's strangely attired like Chico Marx), supply the treasured performances here.

Maestro Cristian M?celaru's plodding tempi don't help anybody. This is the slowest Giovanni in ages. Mozart always sounds better when given a little swing. The finale's entrance into hell, though, is appropriately thunderous, even if the Don isn't dragged below stage to fiery torturous death, so much as enveloped in psychic inky darkness. Each man makes his own hell, they say.

Though the overall look is chic, the special effects truly special, and the overall singing quite sumptuous, I'm in no hurry to ever see this production again. But for those who have never experienced Don Giovanni live, you won't be harmed by this ultra-contemporary construct. This opera might make you think. You might reconsider sexting, too.

Don Giovanni continues through May 5 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Friday and Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Wortham Center, 500 Texas. For information, call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org.$20-$270. You can pay your age for an opera ticket if you are under 25. Call ahead and bring ID. There are also a limited number of $15 tickets available for first-time opera goers and student groups. Call ahead for information.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover