Lyric’s contemporary take on ‘Don Giovanni’

The Commendatore (Mika Kares) visits Don Giovanni (Lucas Meacham, back to camera), in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at Lyric Opera. (Photo by Kyle Flubacker)

What: “Don Giovanni”
Where: Lyric Opera,
20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: Through Dec. 8
Tickets: Lyricopera.Org/Giovanni

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

One of Mozart’s greatest operas takes a look into the disturbed soul of a sexual predator and gives an account of his final days as well as his descent into Hell. “Don Giovanni” is back at Lyric Opera of Chicago in an arresting production which doesn’t flinch.

This “Don Giovanni” is handsomely cast, leading with American baritone Lucas Meachem in the title role. Any effective Don Giovanni needs to exude both confidence and arrogance, have a flow of faux sensitivity, and display a powerful recklessness. Meachem does all this and more as he struts and swaggers across the stage. The sole disappointment in his performance is that he appears to hold back vocally for long stretches and only seems to give a full force vocal performance as we approach the end of the opera. (Italian baritone Davide Luciano will take over this role in the December performances.)

Lyric has also assembled fine sopranos to sing the roles of the women that The Don tries his moves on. Rachel Willis-Sørensen offers a moving Donna Anna, a high-born woman who tangles with “The Don” at the beginning of the opera. Precisely what happens between them is left unclear in the libretto (leaving both the audience and directors to decide in their own minds if Giovanni has committed a sexual crime or if Anna has managed to escape his clutches in time), but as a result of their fateful meeting, Giovanni murders Anna’s father, who had come to her rescue.

Willis-Sørensen, making her Lyric debut, sings with great dignity and her passion for vengeance is manifest. She maintains a proper exterior image while still conveying the deep horror of her experiences.

Amanda Majeski, an alum of Lyric’s Ryan Center who has previously sung with Lyric eight times, gives one of her very best performances on the Lyric stage as Donna Elvira, a woman seduced by Giovanni and who is still in love with him. She pursues him in a crazy attempt to win him back. Her continuing desire for the cad is one of many fascinating human puzzles Lorenzo Da Ponte has inserted into his clever libretto.

Majeski brings force and focus to the role, singing with a clear and ringing soprano. She also looks splendid in the orange culotte ensemble she wears when she makes her entrance. She gives Anna a fiery and exciting presence.

Chinese soprano Ying Fang makes her Lyric debut as the young, impressionable peasant bride Zerlina. Her voice is full of sweetness and innocence.

Leporello, Giovanni’s servant, is sung with silly abandon by English bass Matthew Rose, who is the source of much of the humor in the opera. He is deliciously amusing singing the Catalog Aria, an account of all of Giovanni’s exploits to date. He knows how to cower and how to use dance moves for a laugh.

Finnish bass Mika Kares makes his Lyric debut as the Commendatore, Donna Anna’s father. When Giovanni makes a visit to a cemetery and sees the grave of the man he murdered, he speaks to the statute above the grave and invites him to dinner. In The Don’s final scene, the door to his home is swung open to reveal the ominous statue at the Commendatore’s grave standing in the doorway. Kares is made up to look like a statute, and the effect is chilling and marvelous. He sings with chilling intensity as well.

Americans Ben Bliss (tenor) and Brandon Cedel (bass-baritone) are Don Ottavio and Masetto, respectively. Both do fine work as the men who love women who have had to deal with Don Giovanni.

James Gaffigan conducts, and the music from the pit is well balanced, but the opening is rather anemic and the pacing at times is a little slow. The work by the chorus is gorgeous.

Robert Falls, artistic director of the Goodman Theater, directs the action sometimes with a loose hand, often letting scenes run for stretches with nothing going on. But he effectively emphasizes not only the criminality of Giovanni, but also his perceived entitlement—that is, his complete blindness to the fact that he’s a despicable criminal.

Some will see this as a “Don Giovanni” for the Me Too era, and it is, but we should remember that this 1787 work clearly proves that the problems posed by sexual predators has been recognized for centuries. Falls adds cocaine snorting and a sex slave in bondage for topicality, but Mozart and Da Ponte already knew what they were doing.

This production is a revival of the one Lyric Opera first presented in 2014, again with Falls in the director’s chair. It is true to opera’s intent and at times is biting in its ferocity. Yet it seems less successful than five years ago. The first time around, all the action, all the special touches, seemed perfectly fitted to cast members. This time around, it comes off as if new pieces were scooted into place, not all perfectly enmeshed with the action and story.

The updating to 1920s Spain is harmless, but why? The appearance of a bicycle gang is more than a little wonky and the sea-serpent-like hedges are only slightly less unsteady than they were five years ago.

This is a strongly cast opera with great music. “Don Giovanni” has been Lyric’s calling card since the company was established in 1954. Lyric has never gone for more than 11 years between “Don Giovanni” productions. This one isn’t perfect, but it is very good indeed.