The combination of Donmar Warehouse artistic director Michael Grandage and gifted baritone Mariusz Kwiecien sounded like a potent one — the former making his Metropolitan Opera directing debut with a new production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” the latter introducing New York to his acclaimed interpretation of the title role. But it was not to be, thanks to an injury that sidelined Kwiecien. Fill-in Peter Mattei could not save the evening from a sense of letdown: Grandage has conceived a staging that respectfully goes through the paces without delivering much in the way of insight or excitement.
It’s perhaps churlish to grouse about Mattei when he stepped in on such short notice, but the fact remains he lacks the charisma of Kwiecien, who has always been a powerful presence onstage. As the seductive Don, Mattei comes off more like a tall, gawky frat boy out of a Judd Apatow film, and his voice, while fluid, does not carry the burnished, oaken quality one craves for the part.
This was a production built to showcase Kwiecien’s star charisma, which might have invigorated the proceedings. Grandage’s main departure from tradition is to move the action from the early 17th century to the mid-18th, and to add a bit more groping and fondling than we’re used to seeing. Set and costume designer Christopher Oram creates a production heavy on monochrome, with a unit set depicting three tiers of balconied windows that frequently split apart into modular sections and serve as a kind of arcaded backdrop. What looks striking at curtain’s rise begins to wear thin by the end of the long evening.
Grandage does, however, deliver a coup for the finale: Giovanni makes his trip down to Hell accompanied by huge bursts of real flame so powerful you can feel the heat shooting out into the auditorium.
The cast is uneven, with bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni giving the evening’s most appealing and well-rounded performance as Giovanni’s beleaguered servant Leporello. Ramon Vargas is a model of elegance as Don Ottavio; his exquisite “Il mio tesoro” in Act II earns him a sustained ovation. Joshua Bloom is an endearing Masetto with fine-grained tone, but Stefan Kocan proves a wobbly-voiced, unimposing Commendatore.
The women fare poorly, with Barbara Frittoli as Donna Elvira making particularly rough, patchy sounds throughout Act I. Marina Rebeka is a believably tortmented Donna Anna, and her voice rings out impressively in its upper register, but she lacks the weight and gravity necessary for the role’s heavier, more declamatory sections. Mojca Erdmann is serviceable but little more as Zerlina.
In the pit, Fabio Luisi ably substitutes for the indefinitely-sidelined James Levine; he conducts from a harpsichord, on which he accompanies all of the opera’s recitatives.