By Bryson David Hoff
Comedy is hard, especially when it tries to tackle uncomfortable subject matter.
The line between depicting terrible behavior and endorsing it is razor thin and gets even thinner for a comedy written in the 18th century but being performed in the 21st. In view of this, the quality of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s seminal opera Don Giovanni, is a particularly impressive achievement, as is the interpretation of the classic piece currently on stage at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Drawn from the stock characters of the comic theatre of Mozart’s time, Don Giovanni follows the ill-advised exploits of a completely amoral nobleman (baritone Lucas Meachem) as his sexual predation causes mounting complication and confusion in a small Spanish village. His unrepentant pursuit of women leads him afoul of more and more residents of the town and eventually puts even his immortal soul in peril.
There are no two ways about it: this is a comic opera whose lead character is an unrepentant rapist. The very first scene of the opera consists of Don Giovanni attempting to flee the house of a wealthy man because he has been discovered trying to rape his daughter and, to his credit, director Robert Falls stages the scene with full respect for how reprehensible the act is. It is a scene that effectively sets the tone for the opera: Don Giovanni is not, as in some productions, a hedonistic bon vivant whose antics the audience is meant to treat with grinning incredulity. He is an animalistic, brutal man whose good looks and pedigree have shielded from having to learn any empathy or human decency.
For his part, Meachem revels in this characterization. His Don Giovanni is a morass of barely-concealed smarm, and the over-the-top aristocratic swagger Meachem assumes belies just how hard the character has to try to pretend at humanity, seeming most in his element in scenes like the famous finale, where he is free to allow his animal impulses to run free. In an art form based primarily on voice, a performance like this can remind you how much nuance is gained when an opera singer is an accomplished physical actor as well.
The rest of the principals, many of whom are appearing on the Lyric stage for the first time, are likewise excellent and at opening the cast was in good voice, if still finding their groove with the conductor in some of the score’s more allegro moments. However, special attention must be paid to soprano Ying Fang in the role of Zerlina, the peasant bride who becomes a target for Don Giovanni and later a conspirator to bring him down. In addition to a clear, ringing singing voice, Fang reveals herself to be a similarly gifted actress. She takes what can all too easily be a flat ingénue role and imbues it with both an inner vitality and whip-smart canniness that comes dangerously close to stealing the show. She, along with her Masetto Brandon Cedel, also achieve one of the surprising rarities in opera, even in the 21st century: honest-to-God romantic chemistry. Her Lyric debut alone is worth the price of admission and one can only hope that she will be back in seasons to come.
With all this talk of character psychology and the darkness of the themes, it is important not to understate that this Don Giovanni is still unequivocally a comedy. The difference being that, unlike productions of the past that relied on the sly, trickster nature of the title character for laughs, by liberating the work’s central figure from the burden of charm, Falls finds a deeper well of comedy in just how reprehensible his Don Giovanni can be. The fact that he and Leporello (bass Mattew Rose) frequently take the edge off of dicey moments by indulging in cocaine and that when their relationship has reached a breaking point by the last scene the two fall into a literal food fight could easily come off as cheap bits of low comedy in a lesser production. Here, though, it all seems part and parcel to the pervasive air of darkly comic lawlessness that is set right by the supernatural intrusion of the ending.
All in all, there is much to recommend here. The shrewd adaptation at work in the Lyric production should serve as a reminder that the overriding theme of the story is, after all, justice. And in a world that has grown to hate the sins of Don Giovanni even more than when the piece was written, perhaps this old story is now more relevant than ever.
The Lyric Opera of Chicago presents “Don Giovanni” through December 8. More information and tickets are available here.