It was Simon Keenlyside himself who told Michael Cooper of the New York Times, “I felt a tick, and I knew it had gone” when recounting the night in Vienna, where he had to leave mid-opera. (I reported the event here.) It was thereafter that the British baritone underwent intense thyroid surgery, which the singer recalled as ‘a bad job.’ Just under two years later, he is – now – back on New York’s Metropolitan stage to perform one of his favourite opera roles, Don Giovanni.
His much-anticipated performance for many of his fans, including myself, was a simulcast, broadcasted to all around the globe. It is not the first time Keenlyside has had to sing as the Don in Michael Grandage’s dark and, often considered, lifeless staging.
Set in Spain in the early 18th century, a first-class cast including Hibla Gerzmava, Malin Byström, Serena Malfi, Adam Plachetka, Paul Appleby and Matthew Rose, gave way to a musically hypnotising and exciting work of scandalous drama – betrayal, deceit, and revenge. And let’s not forget – there’s plenty of womanizing from Giovanni.
The Met HD event was hosted by esteemed soprano Joyce Didonato who managed to catch up with some of the soloists during the interval. This included Keenlyside himself. Within seconds of the curtain going down at the end of the first act, Didonato was spoken to about revolution, liberty and the history of humanity by Simon, enthusiastically thanking the Zoology department of Cambridge University, a subject which he studied there. Seeming like much more than one had bargained for a Saturday night viewing, I couldn’t see the relevance these academic references had to the opera or Mozart, yet given the limited time, it was a testament to Keenlyside’s in-depth understanding, passion, and respect for Mozart’s work. Didonato hardly got the chance to ask him a second question.
Last night Keenlyside proved that he had mastered the role of Giovanni. He has the ability to display both a vulgar and licentious Giovanni to his servant Leporello whilst presenting a more polished Spanish gentlemen to others, including the noblemen and ladies he intends on wooing.
Many love the opera, Don Giovanni, for various reasons. Some believe that Mozart wrote it grieving the death of his father, which happened a year before the premiere of the opera. According to them, this generated his creative urge, making it a touch more personal to him. Other sources say he completed the overture the night before it premiered.
Despite the grey and unimaginative background, there’s much to enjoy in this Met production including the harmonious key structure and the musical symmetries which are tightly executed by the Met Orchestra under the baton of versatile conductor Fabio Luisi (well, at least from what I heard from the screens of Wimbledon’s Curzon cinema.) Luisi commanded a lyrical and yet powerful introduction to this performance, and the Met Orchestra performed with precision, paying particular attention to tempi and retaining full force for pivotal moments. The D minor chords from the overture and the supper scene, distinctively highlighting the Commendatore and the authority of moral justice, is just an example of one of these crucial moments.
Alongside the music, there’s the introspective viewpoint from all of the main characters. Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte deliberately imposed this as it gave the audience the opportunity to see these characters voice their deeper thoughts, concerns, and worries, serving to make the story more relatable to the audience. With Met HD, cinema audiences got an enhanced experience with cameras focusing on the character’s facial expressions when they were singing solo, or in a duet.
Plachetka did a tremendous job as Giovanni’s desperate servant. He seemed particularly at home singing the catalogue aria where he tells Don Elvira of the 1,003 Spanish, 640 Italians, 231 Germans, 100 French and 91 Turkish women he had seduced. Plachetka’s characterisation is inward thinking, constantly questioning the lack of morality of his employer, and at one point seeks to quit and leave, yet he’s won over by the four coins of gold which Keenlyside drops on the floor like crumbs of bread. A rotten scoundrel and deceiver Giovanni is, he points the finger at Leporello when he doesn’t succeed in getting his way with country, newbie bride Zerlina. Keenlyside’s Giovanni is cold, he has no merci for those that try to get in the way of what he desires.
Malin Byström deserves a salute for her challenging role as Giovanni’s former conquest Don Elvira. Her singing reflected the heartbreak and disappointment of Giovanni, so there was sheer gusto to her performance with vocal fluidity, which shined throughout the night.
Serena Malfi’s Zerlina was completely likable, enough to calm down Matthew Rose’s Masetto when he had been physically crushed by the Don. Little effort was required from Malfi to sing Batti, batti bel Masetto, and both her and Rose worked comfortably together, even though the woman considered leaving him on their wedding day. Rose also stood out as a fantastic singer as vengeful Masetto, playing the role of a duped lover, angry and frustrated to be sidelined by his love.
Donna Anna was gorgeously sung by Hibla Germzmava. She was absolutely astonishing. It was the first time I had seen her perform, and I’d love to her again in another coloratura role – she’d definitely hit the mark. You could sympathize with her Donna Anna who had not only been subjected to a horrifying rape attempt but saw her father’s blood drip to the ground.
Her fiancé Don Ottavio was performed by Paul Appleby, and he gave an entirely unique act. Don Ottavio’s character is usually written to be wet and weedy as he swears revenge to Donna Anna. Don Ottavio sings ‘if she sighs, I too must sigh’, and is usually conceived as a bore, yet Appleby revolutionizes Ottavio and makes him stronger and almost alpha-like. Mozart gave him beautiful music, which is the direct opposite to the lustful music of Giovanni, and Appleby more than complements this. When he sang Il mio Tesoro, he was a joy to listen to – I felt musically seduced.
Singing was pretty seamless last night, yet the camera work was poor, I’m afraid. There were several tweets from cinema viewers complaining there was a lack of surtitles and sound. For me, the serenading song to Don Elvira’s maid can easily capture the heart of anyone, however, for those sat in front of a cinema screen, the camera director decided to focus the singing on Keenlyside as oppose to the discreet and curious maid behind the curtain, which would have produced a much more lustrous and sensitive touch to the scene. Shame on them!
Other favourite scenes include the astonishing scene where there were two different dances happening at the end of the first act. The music is distinctive, and you can tell the difference between the peasants’ dance versus the noble. All characters are on stage, from country dancing to a waltz and a minuet. There’s also the sextet in act II which reaches a climax and everyone admits to being confused as to who the man is in front of them is. We know it is Leporello, but he is dressed as the Don. Disguised or not, in the face of god, we are all judged for our moral and immoral behaviour. Viva la liberty!