The Wrong-Way Don

Grand gesture: Bryn Terfel in Zeffirelli's overblown Don Giovanni.Photo: Beatriz Schiller

Always eager to please, the Metropolitan Opera has opened the new season with something for everyone. For those who demand sumptuous voices and little else, there is an all-star Don Giovanni. Connoisseurs who like to ponder a provocative approach to a classic may argue the merits of Jonathan Miller’s controversial Pelléas et Mélisande staging. Casual operagoers who only require a celebrity tenor onstage to make their evening can see Plácido Domingo in Samson et Dalila. And if shameless spectacle is wanted, there is always Franco Zeffirelli’s extravagant vision of Turandot, an apotheosis of glitzy chinoiserie that is by now a New York tourist attraction.

Of course, putting on opera is always a risky business, and nothing is ever perfect. The Met’s current Don Giovanni has a strong musical profile, to be sure, but the ten-year-old production hardly begins to come to terms with the piece. This brain-dead effort was also designed and directed by Zeffirelli, who seems totally unconcerned with the opera’s ambiguities, ideas that have intrigued and perplexed audiences for more than two centuries. Even as efficiently restaged by Stephen Lawless, the action amounts to little more than eight singers entering and doing pretty much as they please before heading for the wings. The sets are typically grandiose but neither strikingly original nor distinctive: much predictable columnry, unremarkable town-and-country panoramas, and a mysterious stage-filling cluster of kitschy cloud puffs that descend during the overture and the finale. There’s nothing beneath the glossy surface of this wan Don except what the singers of the moment can bring to it.

Bryn Terfel has now set aside Leporello for Giovanni, whom he evidently views as a complete rotter. There’s not even a trace of aristocratic charm about this brutal Don–how did such a reptilian sadist ever manage to seduce, by his servant’s count, 2,065 women? Still, it’s an interesting different take on the character, one no doubt still in the development stages, and Terfel already sings the part with more refinement and less mannerism than on his 1996 recording. He certainly lights a fire under Renée Fleming, whose Donna Anna is not only ravishingly sung but propelled by a passionate urgency unusual for her generally placid performing temperament.

The other singers are less vocally striking than Terfel and Fleming and not so dramatically independent. All six would benefit from a stronger directorial hand, especially Solveig Kringelborn, a generic Elvira without much character, and Paul Groves, several shades too pallid, even for Don Ottavio. Sergei Koptchak is commanding as the Commendatore, if the peculiar sound of his buzz-saw bass is to your taste, while Hei-Kyung Hong (Zerlina), Ferruccio Furlanetto (Leporello), and John Relyea (Masetto) would surely be more distinctive in a Don Giovanni that made better use of their talents. James Levine’s Mozart has put on weight in recent years; I prefer the leaner, brisker, and less sentimentalized approach the conductor took to this composer a decade ago.

I had a much better time at the revival of Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila. The Met seems to be the only opera house in the world that faithfully keeps this superbly crafted score in its repertory, and the current production is by far the best of the three that I have seen since the palmy days of Risë Stevens and Mario Del Monaco. The bold red-and-yellow splashes of color that dominate Richard Hudson’s stylized sets vividly reflect the opera’s sultry atmosphere, and Elijah Moshinsky’s direction invariably gets to the heart of the matter, delineating the clash of cultures and two mismatched lovers with finely detailed theatrical precision.

Of course Plácido Domingo is the main reason we have this splendid production at all, and for that alone, the great man has earned my gratitude. On the evening I saw him, Domingo was in top form, giving a more vocally secure, dramatically engaged performance than I would ever have thought possible at this late stage in his career. Not a moment was phoned in, the top notes were on target, the role’s lyricism came to him as easily as its declamatory rhetoric, and a real character emerged. No doubt spurred to action by this inspired Samson, Denyce Graves also surpassed herself as Dalila, adding musical and dramatic depth to her natural vocal and visual allure. With Sergei Leiferkus as a dangerously evil High Priest and conductor Mark Elder building up a head of steam in the orchestra pit, this superior Samson was as absorbing as it was unexpected.

I find it impossible to buy into Jonathan Miller’s idiosyncratic reimagining of Pelléas et Mélisande. Gone are the medieval mysteries of Maeterlinck’s play and the opera Debussy made out of it. Instead of a never-never land of shadowy forests, turreted rooms, misty grottoes by the sea, ivied towers, and overgrown castle gardens, we are confronted with a decaying, supremely ugly white-and-gray château designed by John Conklin. This visual conceit not only fails to put a new perspective on the opera but also contradicts Debussy’s atmosphere-specific score at every turn. But then, Miller has always struck me as an unmusical, intellectually inconsistent director who often seems buffaloed by simple blocking assignments. Two of the opera’s key scenes–Pelléas wooing Mélisande at the tower, and the jealous Golaud hoisting up his little son to a window to spy on the lovers–are completely sabotaged by the clumsy staging.

José van Dam was no doubt distressed to arrive at rehearsals and discover that his much admired Golaud, a classic interpretation, would have to look like the butler in Upstairs, Downstairs. Even so, Van Dam managed to rise above his surroundings to present his uniquely haunting, eloquently sung portrait of this tortured creature. It would be nice to have a tenor Pelléas and a soprano Mélisande again one day: Dwayne Croft must stretch his gorgeous baritone to the limits, and Susanne Mentzer’s earthy mezzo is all wrong for this ethereal waif from nowhere. It’s also perhaps a bit late in the day for Robert Lloyd’s Arkel, which is beginning to sound rather rusty. At least the Met orchestra plays this exquisite score to perfection, even if James Levine never quite finds its emotional center.

The Wrong-Way Don