Lyric Opera’s ‘Don Giovanni’ shimmers with gorgeous music, hilarious hijinks and wronged characters hellbent on revenge

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By Crista Zivanovic
Contributor

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As with its same production just five years ago, the music, sets and costumes in Lyric Opera’s “Don Giovanni” are lavish and beautiful — at times, spectacular.

And though to today’s opera-goers the juxtaposition of the charming but lecherous Don’s comical hijinks, along with the revelation of his callous, even brutal, darker side, might seem confusing and even offensive, director Robert Falls, artistic director of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, pulls it off with sympathetic clarity and wisdom. The production opened Nov. 14 and continues at the Civic Opera House in Chicago through Dec. 8.

The setting’s updated era – 1930s Spain — also helps to imbue Mozart’s characters with a more contemporary sensibility. Likewise, Walt Spangler’s cityscape is as evocative as his grand houses; Ana Kuzmanic’s colorful costumes are lovely to behold, reflecting both modernity and grandeur, befitting and delineating the various characters’ stations in life.

One year after Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s sparkling and groundbreaking “The Marriage of Figaro,” considered daring in 1786 for treating the lowly barber/valet Figaro as a social equal of the entitled, libertine nobleman Count Almaviva, came the even more complex and musically glorious “Giovanni,” the following year.

The tour de force opera is considered by some scholars to be a dramma giocoso, which mixes various genres – comic, pathetic, tragic and supernatural – rather than a simple opera buffa.

In “Don Giovanni,” the comic and the tragic are in full bloom, much like the sumptuous, verdant gardens of Don Giovanni’s estate, and the three women harmed by the narcissistic Don provide the compelling dramatic counterpoint to his hilarious antics and those of his conflicted, somewhat hapless servant, Leporello.

There is the elegant and justifiably outraged Donna Anna, who, with the aid of her devoted milquetoast fiancé Don Ottavio, is determined to exact revenge for the murder of her beloved father, the Commendatore; the passionate, heartbroken Donna Elvira, strong and defiant in her gaucho pants and boots, who nonetheless still pines for the Don’s affection despite her compelling anger; and the carefree Zerlina, who, though initially flattered and tempted by Don Giovanni, realizes her mistake and reconsiders her stalwart, if simple, fiancé Masetto.

Will Anna try to do away with Giovanni herself, both to avenge her father and her own sullied honor? Will Elvira somehow win him back, even though she knows in her heart he never was hers from the start? Will Zerlina succumb to his wooing, or

The lush set of faux gardens and shrubs featured in “Don Giovanni,” through Dec. 8 at Lyric Opera Chicago. (Photo by Kyle Flubacker)

will she come to her senses and seek refuge with her adoring Masetto?

The entire cast delivers one stunning turn after another, undergirded by the star power of baritone Lucas Meachem as Don Giovanni (to be replaced in December by Davide Luciano); Rachel Willis-Sorensen as Donna Elvira in her Lyric debut; Amanda Majeski as Donna Anna (a Ryan Center alumna in her ninth role at Lyric); and China’s Ying Fang, in her Lyric debut as Zerlina.

By the drama’s end, Don Giovanni’s fate takes a dark turn. The otherworldly climax, involving – literally – hellfire and the ultimate revenge by the murdered Commendatore, has been said by some to be inspired by the death of Mozart’s father, with whom he had a problematic relationship his whole short life (Mozart died at age 36, four years after the debut of “Don Giovanni.”).

Shortly before he composed “Don Giovanni,” Mozart’s father died, leaving a profound impression on Mozart. Some critics have suggested the Commendatore and Don Giovanni represent Mozart’s father and himself – with Mozart, the son, pushing to be free but who is still under the influence of his domineering father, even after his death.

Along these lines, one unfortunate visual shortcoming that tends to mar the dramatic ending is the tacky-looking statue of the avenging Commendatore’s ghost come to life. The costume and makeup of this oxidized metal figure as the ghost of a powerful man powerfully wronged, looks oddly cheap. Granted, it is the only serious misstep in this near-flawless production, but it feels all the more disappointingly glaring, given the crucial role of this “character” in damning Don Giovanni to the depths of the netherworld in what is meant to be a fiery, fearsome ending.

“Don Giovanni” is considered one of the greatest operas of all time by many aficionados – including composers Charles Gounod, Richard Wagner, and Giaochino Rossini (whose barber Figaro is the main character in his “Barber of Seville,” a prequel of sorts to Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro”).

Fans love it for its exquisite melding of lyrics and gorgeous music that shimmers with each character’s specific feelings, and  this “Don Giovanni,” which feels both timeless and timely, is highly recommended.

FYI: “Don Giovanni,” Civic Opera House, 20 N. Upper Wacker Drive, Chicago. Tickets start at $69, and are available at lyricopera.org and 312-827-5600.

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Crista Zivanovic has spent four decades as a veteran journalist and editor writing about and experiencing the arts and culture scene in Miami, Chicago, Detroit and Milwaukee, among other favorite cities. She joins Columnist Phil Potempa on-air as a contributor on Potempa’s weekly “Of Notoriety” radio show broadcast on WJOB 1230 AM. She can be reached at Crista.Zivanovic@gmail.com.