First-class cast, stylish staging make a “Don Giovanni” to die for at Lyric Opera

November 19, 2019
The Commendatore (Mika Kares) pays a visit to Don Giovanni (Lucas Meachem) in Mozart’s Don Giovanni at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo: Kyle Flubacker

When Lyric Opera of Chicago debuted Robert Falls’ production of Don Giovanni in 2014 to rave reviews and wide acclaim, one knew it would not be long before this most successful staging of the Anthony Freud era would be brought back for a return engagement.

And so it was Thursday night when Lyric revived the Falls production for another shot at Mozart’s dramma giocoso of the adventures of Don Juan.   

Falls’ staging remains a model of how to freshen up a cornerstone opera. Keeping the Spanish milieu, the time is updated to the 1920s yet works supremely well, with no anachronisms —well, apart from the Don’s cocaine-sniffing. Crucially, the opera is faithful to the opera’s spirit, with the music always kept front and center.

The visually striking and fluent production may be fool-proof theatrical titanium but Don Giovanni still needs a large ensemble of top singers to handle the myriad demands of Mozart’s music.

Not to worry. Once again, Lyric has fielded a first-class cast, an entirely new lineup with no holdovers from 2014. If anything, this second go-round is even more successful than the show’s debut. The tricky balancing of comedy and drama is seamlessly handled here and one can just lean back and enjoy one of Mozart’s most glorious creations, sung and acted by a terrific cast. 

When Ildar Abdrazakov pulled out of Lyric’s production on short notice (to be with with his wife in Europe during her pregnancy), things didn’t look quite so promising. 

Fortunately, Lyric Opera caught a break and was able to book Lucas Meachem to take over the title role for the November performances.

I first encountered Meachem in the 2002 Palm Beach Opera Competition and it was clear even then that this young baritone was going places. How gratifying to see him tackle one of the towering roles in the repertory with the kind of vocal command and dramatic intensity Meachem demonstrated Thursday night.

As admirable as his previous Lyric outings have been, nothing prepared one for Meachem’s Don, which delivered as consummate a performance of this difficult role as one is likely to encounter.

Five years ago, Mariusz Kwiecień brought his inimitable brand of aristocratic malevolence to the Don, one of his signaure roles. But Meachem’s more American Giovanni was just as valid; indeed he eased into the show’s version of the sexually prolific libertine as cocaine-sniffing, Jazz Era playboy with striking grace and assurance.

Vocally, his ample baritone finessed all the role’s demands, insinuating in his Serenade, throwing off a lightning “Fin ch’han dal vino,” and thunderous in his defiance to the Commendatore’s ghost in the final scene.

Dramatically, he was just as assured, providing the witty, raffishly charming side of the Don as well as an eruptive brutality. When Meachem’s Don violently rammed Masetto’s head into a brick wall there were gasps opening night. A career performance by a singer who is clearly revealed as one of the finest Don G’s of our era.

Don Giovanni (Lucas Meachem) attempts to calm Donna Elvira (Amanda Majeski). Photo: Kyle Flubacker

Matthew Rose as Leporello proved a superlative foil for Meachem’s Don. The two men showed a symbiotic rapport, throwing their dialogue back and forth with such rapid-fire ease one could almost believe they had been master and valet for years. 

Rose delivered a graceful Catalogue Aria and showed surprising agility in Leporello’s tongue-twisting patter in Act II. But mostly he was genuinely funny, a rarity in a role often played with clownish overkill; Rose’s goofy dance moves in the ensemble scenes were a hoot, cracking up Susan Graham, in the audience on a night off from Dead Man Walking.

As a flame-haired Donna Elvira, Giovanni’s rejected conquest turned relentless stalker, Amanda Majeski had her finest Lyric outing in many a season, delivering Elvira’s arias with tonal gleam and fluent agility. Dramatically she kept a fine balance as well, alive to the character’s comic absurdity yet presenting her as a real, conflicted woman and not just an obsessive loony.

The wild card among the principals was Rachel Willis-Sørensen, making her house debut as Donna Anna. She nicely conveyed the dramatic essence of the grieving woman whose father is killed by Giovanni while rescuing her from the Don’s attempted rape.

Similarly, her dark-hued soprano was well-suited to a role that calls for stoic dignity. Yet while she sang with poised, often lovely expression, Willis-Sørensen favored very slow tempos in her arias—mostly sustained but not always to the music’s benefit. “Non mi dir,” especially, dragged to the point of stasis, the concluding coloratura heavy with little spark.

A trio of young singers made impressive Lyric debuts in this production.

As Don Ottavio, Donna Anna’s faithful fiancé, Ben Bliss was a dignified and forthright presence, avoiding the role’s ineffectual nerd pitfalls and singing his two arias with a pleasing light tenor. If his extra grace notes in “Dalla sua pace,” diluted the simplicity of the vocal line, Bliss’s “O mio tesoro” was a model of Mozart vocalism, supple in tone and elegant of phrasing.

Ying Fang possesses the ideal soubrette voice for Zerlina, the country girl who Giovanni abducts on her wedding day. The Chinese soprano sang with bright, youthful tone, blending graciously with Meachem in “La ci darem la mano,” as Zerlina falls victim to the seductive Don.

Brandon Cedel displayed a strong bass-baritone as Masetto, and his refreshing, natural-guy portrayal proved just right for Zerlina’s justifiably discomfited fiancé, the epitome of righteous working-class anger.

With such consistently fine voices, the ensembles were a particular pleasure in this performance, not least a notably gracious Mask Trio from Majeski, Willis-Sørensen and Bliss.

Mika Kares was a commendable Commendatore, the Finnish bass bringing a commodious instrument and sonorous ballast to the role, with the ghostly visitor’s entrance making jarring impact. 

Once past a strangely awkward and low-energy opening scene, conductor James Gaffigan—who also helmed last year’s memorable Così fan tutte—led a vital, bracing account of Mozart’s score, building to an aptly cataclysmic climax when the Don gets his just desserts.

Don Giovanni runs through December 8. Davide Luciano sings the title role in the December performances. lyricopera.org


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