The big joke in Mozart’s 1787 opera “Don Giovanni” — one which he and his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, must have had a good laugh over — is that the title character, aka Don Juan, the great lover, never actually consummates any of the affairs he pursues. He’s thwarted again and again by his three intended targets — Donna Anna, Donna Elvira and Zerlina — and this is probably why they regarded it as a comedy (their term for it was dramma giocoso, roughly “playful drama”), even though it opens with a murder and ends with the Don being cast down to hell.
A “comedy” about a compulsive seducer? That’s something any opera company has to treat pretty gingerly these days, and Seattle Opera’s new filmed performance, though skillful, tends to avoid rather than address Don Giovanni’s challenges.
The performance, available for streaming (for $35) March 19-21 at seattleopera.org, is staged on a simple set, just one raised platform, with piano accompaniment by Jay Rozendaal and David McDade and the cast lip-syncing (quite well, but not flawlessly) to their prerecorded soundtrack conducted by Lidiya Yankovskaya. Ken Christensen’s black-and-white cinematography is both luscious and crisp, down to the glinting shine on the Don’s shoes, and filming enables a few neat tricks not possible in a stage production — for example, a close-up of the Don’s scrapbook of amorous conquests, full of sketches and keepsakes.
This production, though, also cuts one full hour from “Don Giovanni’s” usual two-and-a-half-hour running time. Most of the recitatives — the half-spoken, half-sung dialogues that link one musical number to the next — are omitted, but plot points lost thereby are explained by captions, a canny solution. Also gone are large chunks of Mozart’s overture and both act finales, plus another half-dozen arias and ensembles altogether.
Some of these cuts are pandemic-driven (the absence of a chorus), some are customary (Mozart wrote two solos for Anna’s fiancé, Don Ottavio, but tenors taking on the role rarely sing both) and some are startling. For example, Vanessa Goikoetxea, as Anna, couldn’t have been happy to lose her showpiece “Non mi dir” (or was she? It’s hellaciously difficult), and no “Don Giovanni” fan wants to do without the Don’s bravura party-scene aria “Fin ch’han dal vino.” Dropping it left Jared Bybee, in the title role, with one lone solo number.
As unavoidable as these cuts may have been, they do nothing to help solve the opera’s central problem, which has hampered local productions of the piece for years. The zeitgeist leaves no option but to portray the Don as a villain — any hint of likability is unthinkable if it seems to rationalize his sexual predation — yet doing so makes the women drawn to him look masochistic. What are we supposed to think of Elvira (Laura Wilde) pursuing the Don so obsessively or Zerlina (Jasmine Habersham) tempted by him if we can’t see what they see in him? And Seattle Opera’s abridgment leaves the singers with even fewer opportunities to bring their characters complexity and nuance and clarify their motives.
It’s attractively sung, fluidly staged (by Brenna Corner) and handsomely produced, but just one sly sight gag (who is Andrew Stenson as Ottavio really singing his tender love song to?) pierces the bland earnestness that blankets the entire performance.
As a film, the show’s a success, making a virtue of necessity and opening boundless intriguing possibilities for future productions until we can all get back inside McCaw Hall again. But as a presentation of Mozart’s darkly twisted look at love and lust, it’s very, very cautious — muted both dramatically and comedically. Admittedly, Don Giovanni probably can’t be otherwise, given the gravity of the issues it addresses.