Mad, bad and dangerous to know

From the first act of "Don Giovanni" at Lyric Opera of Chicago (from  left): Kyle Ketelsen (Leporello), Mariusz Kwiecien (Don Giovanni), Ana María Martínez (Donna Elvira), Antonio Poli (Don Ottavio), Andriana Chuchman (Zerlina) and Marina Rebeka (Donna Anna). -Michael Brosilow
From the first act of “Don Giovanni” at Lyric Opera of Chicago (from  left): Kyle Ketelsen (Leporello), Mariusz Kwiecien (Don Giovanni), Ana María Martínez (Donna Elvira), Antonio Poli (Don Ottavio), Andriana Chuchman (Zerlina) and Marina Rebeka (Donna Anna).
-Michael Brosilow

What: Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”
Where: Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Drive
When: through Oct. 29
Phone: 312-332-2244

Classical Music Critic

Don Giovanni” has returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago in a stunning new production featuring a Don Juan who is mad, bad and dangerous to know. Opening night Saturday offered a revelatory new production of the opera that launched Lyric 60 years ago.

Robert Falls, artistic director of the Goodman Theatre, has assembled a first-rate creative team — including Walt Spangler (sets) and Ana Kuzmanic (costumes) — and together they have created a richly detailed slice of Spain where the dark recesses of the world inhabited by a libertine with no compunction against rape or murder is emphasized without losing the elements of humor, love and righteousness animating the folks left in Giovanni’s wake.

Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, who has performed this role to acclaim around the world, serves up a coke-snorting, breast-grabbing, kinky Don Giovanni whose arrogant confidence has but a thin veneer of charm. This supremely bold characterization is matched with impeccable singing that combines elegance and swagger. Kwiecien conveys not only an unquenchable sexual appetite but also a profound hunger for danger.

The Falls view of Leporello — Giovanni’s servant and enabler — is far less comic than typically interpreted. Here he has the perfect singer-actor in Kyle Ketelsen, who shows us a right-hand man who envies his boss yet retains enough of his humanity to be shocked by the excesses. His singing is polished whether he’s dispatching a rapid-flowing passage or a conversational recitative.

Falls has set his production in 1920s Spain, allowing Donna Elvira, sung here by soprano Ana María Martínez, to be decked out in trousers and boots. She makes her entrance with a motorcycle, foreshadowing the fact that she’s going to drive right through every scheme Giovanni has up his sleeve. This Elvira has spunk and boundless energy.

At the heart of this production’s success is that even though we are in Spain in the years before the Civil War, the sets are made up of older, imposing buildings. These connect the 20th century setting with the 18th century imagined by Mozart and Da Ponte, creating a timeless effect, one often attempted but rarely achieved with the success seen here. Donna Anna (soprano Marina Rebeka) emerges from her home in a long dress we don’t associate with the Roaring Twenties, and the pain she experiences upon discovering the body of her dead father is one which needs no placement in time to be affecting. Rebeka inhabits her role with equal amounts of dignity and anguish and has gorgeous floating top notes.

Similarly, Zerlina appears in a simple, long-flowing dress that could pass for attire of a much earlier time. This peasant is realized as both innocent and feisty by soprano Andriana Chuchman.

The two fiancés of this opera often come off as dull men more affected by their own injured honor than by the damage Don Giovanni’s caused to the women they love. This production finds both men far more sympathetic. Don Ottavio’s love for Donna Anna is made clear by tenor Antonio Poli in heartfelt, heart-melting singing. Michael Sumuel’s pugnacious yet sullen Masetto is convincing and attractive.

Bass Andrea Silvestrelli is transformed into an amazing and unforgettable statue of the Commendatore for the denouement where he literally turns the tables on Giovanni. Silvestrelli has tremendous stage presence and he sings with the force of both heavy sculpture as well as moral conviction. Falls gives him a brief downstage silent cameo before the final scene, suggesting that the Commendatore has been looking down on Giovanni since the moment he was murdered.

The wonderful singing is enhanced at every turn with fantastic visuals. Spangler’s sets are stuffed with glorious beauty and details. One scene features large hanging lamps suggesting a Moorish design and giving off a moody yellow light. Don Giovanni’s home is surrounded by green hedges that give every impression they are creating chlorophyll in abundant quantities: they look live and real and lovely. The graveyard is the most striking of its kind I’ve ever seen on a stage. A brief dance scene has Rebeka, Martínez and Poli in wildly colorful costume garb and they have memorable footwork and hand gestures, thanks to choreographer August Tye.

Sir Andrew Davis leads the Lyric Opera Orchestra in a performance that brims with energy and excitement. The Lyric Opera Chorus is splendid, and mute actors and supernumeraries add depth to the story.

This is not your father’s “Don Giovanni.” The emphasis on sex for the sake of sex, the constant tracing of breasts, the implied touchings, the bound girl rescued by Donna Elvira (from who knows what fate), are all in your face. But Robert Falls is right to do this: Don Giovanni is not merely a suave seducer, he’s a heartless amoral who cannot separate sex from violence, should the latter be required to slake his desires. This new production proves that modern practice can combine with classic opera to create art of the highest order. This “Don Giovanni” should not be missed.