Keller’s main goal is simply to let us know who the people in this opera are and why they behave the way they do. Anna’s obsession with Giovanni has clearly more to do with her strong sexual attraction to him than revenge for her father’s death—her withering gaze on her ineffectual fiancé, Ottavio, during the postlude to her vengeance aria (Why am I engaged to this worm?) speaks volumes. The complexity of her motives is fully explored and effectively contrasted with the more obvious frustrations that gnaw at Elvira or the zestful Zerlina’s uncomplicated libido. Giovanni himself is presented as the self-focused center of the storms he stirs up, a force of nature and as such an eternal mystery. Everyone interacts with choreographic grace, a staging as notable for its beauty of design as much as for its thoughtful insights into the opera’s characters.
The directorial approach is not so regulated that it inhibits the singers from contributing their own expressive ideas, which is perhaps one reason why I find Thomas Hampson a bit disappointing in the title role. He is a cultured, musical baritone whose choices are never less than intelligent, but in this context his rather faceless, coolly detached Giovanni lacks the magnetism and dangerous allure that would explain his fascination for everyone onstage. Hampson is especially pale next to René Pape as the Don’s servant Leporello, a bundle of comic energy and a joy to hear. Even Ildar Abdrazakov as Masetto, Zerlina’s bumpkin boyfriend, projects more personality and dimension than the nobleman who is constantly outwitting him. In Keller’s scheme, Ottavio appears even more nerdy than usual, a fact that Gregory Turay has no problem emphasizing, although it’s a shame his tenor sounded out of sorts on opening night.
The three principal ladies are the main joys of the current cast, each presenting a different vocal and physical type, each a perfect fit for the role. As Anna, Anja Harteros is a tall, dark beauty whose smoldering emotions erupt into cascades of gorgeously produced tone, all right on the mark and thrilling to hear. Christine Goerke isn’t afraid to show us Elvira’s shrewish side, or how that façade so often melts into the vulnerable woman this wronged creature truly is. She, too, sings brilliantly, if occasionally with a touch of acid that may not be to all tastes. Zerlina does not offer more charm and spunk than Hei-Kyung Hong, whose honeyed soprano brushes her two arias exquisitely. The whole performance benefits from James Levine’s careful shaping of the score, his sensitivity to the singers, and the orchestra’s relishing of the opera’s many instrumental miracles.
One man’s vision is another’s nightmare. I can’t say that the production of Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse recently offered by Lincoln Center’s “New Visions” series at the John Jay Theater sent me reeling out the door in horror, but it was pretty weird. Several of the opera’s characters and more than a third of the score had been jettisoned by Philippe Pierlot, who also conducted the small period-instrument orchestra. What was left of the opera was enacted by nearly life-size puppets created by the Handspring Puppet Company, each one manipulated by a puppeteer and the singer of the role. Behind them was a screen showing mostly medical videos of operations, barium meals, gastroscopies, angiograms, arthroscopy, etc. Go figure.
There was nothing especially offensive about the concept and design, all from the fertile imagination of director-designer-animator William Kentridge. In fact, the musical aspects of the performance (originally produced by Théâtre de la Monnaie of Brussels) were never less than admirable, in particular the expressive treatment of Monteverdi’s vocal lines by Kristina Hammarström (Penelope) and Furio Zanasi (Ulisse). Still, the whole package struck me as arbitrary to the point of meaninglessness, a self-indulgent romp in a mixed-media sandbox that never established any real contact with an opera that so movingly celebrates man’s triumph over blind fate.
Any evening devoted to the life of Pauline Viardot (1821–1910) is guaranteed to be a winner, and the New York Festival of Song’s recent program in Merkin Hall did not disappoint. A protean figure, Viardot sang, composed, and acted as muse for virtually every major European composer from Rossini and Berlioz to Brahms and Fauré. She was the great love of Russian playwright-novelist Ivan Turgenev; her father, Manuel Garcia, was the first Almaviva in Rossini’s Barber of Seville; her elder sister, Maria Malibran, reigned as the Callas of her day; and her brother, the younger Manuel, was the age’s most celebrated singing teacher.
Practically every phrase of Viardot’s career was celebrated in a program titled “A Bel Canto Dynasty.” Songs by the whole family were included, along with a cornucopia of goodies by the important composers who were inspired by Viardot’s voice, intellect, cosmopolitan sophistication, and sheer charm. Stephanie Blythe stole vocal honors with her richly textured, voluminous mezzo-soprano, but soprano Dina Kuznetsova and baritone John Hancock gave much pleasure as well. Thanks are once again in order to NYFOS’s artistic director, Steven Blier, who devised the program, played the delicious piano accompaniments, wrote the fascinating program notes, and provided the witty spoken commentary.