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Lyric delivers a stellar ‘Don Giovanni’

Amanda Majeski and Lucas Meachem in the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of “Don Giovanni” (Photo by Kyle Flubacker)

The second collaboration with the librettist Da Ponte, “Don Giovanni” is rightfully considered one of Mozart’s highest accomplishments and is one of the gold standards of the operatic repertory. Based on the figure of Don Juan, Don Giovanni is a serial seducer, causing mayhem indiscriminately until he reaps his just rewards. The Lyric Opera of Chicago opened their run of “Don Giovanni” on November 14 to a packed and appreciative house. Running through December 8, it’s a production well worth seeing. Transported to 1920s Spain, the sets and costumes are a feast for the eyes. A true ensemble piece, the opera is spectacularly cast, with a host of well-deserved Lyric debuts that will be a treat for Chicago audiences.

Lucas Meachem is all one could want from a Don Giovanni: warm, flexible, smooth and cutting with a physicality to match. He sets a high bar for Italian baritone Davide Luciano, who takes over the title role in December. Rachel Willis-Sørensen is a stand out in her Lyric debut, with a sound that fills the Civic Opera House without sacrificing an ounce of artistry. Amanda Majeski as Donna Elvira is a little more wild and variable, but fitting of the fiery personality of her character. Ben Bliss is perhaps the finest Mozart tenor that has graced the Lyric stage in the past years. While the lighter nature of his instrument led to a few moments where the orchestra outweighs him, he positively glimmers in Don Ottavio’s two arias, both wickedly difficult. There is a saying in opera that there is no award for not breathing, but if there were one, Bliss would win it, making exceedingly long phrases seem effortless. Ying Fang is a spritely Zerlina, her voice both youthful and rich in tone.

As for the staging, the Lyric explores the opera in the context of the recent national attention surrounding sexual harassment and #MeToo at length, both in the program guide and online. As director Robert Falls notes, “I have not changed anything in the production to fit recent news cycles. I didn’t need to because Mozart was ahead of his time – an enlightened genius who created three incredibly complex women.” And indeed, the three women in particular shine with nuance in their direction. Fang’s Zerlina is equally innocent and coy, without the manipulative streak so often present in her portrayal. While Donna Anna’s line at the end of the opera for Don Ottavio to “give her a year” until they marry still got a laugh, Willis-Sørensen’s portrayal of her rage and grief are utterly believable. Majeski’s Donna Elvira is an engrossing figure, her slighted snarl as affecting as her rueful longing.

Meachem’s Don Giovanni was the perfect balance of virility, gentile grace and calculated savagery. However when it came to the portrayal of actual sexual contact, the staging left something to be desired. Though the Lyric deserves credit for pushing the envelope with the implication of various lascivious acts on stage, those moments often ended up looking wooden and at times silly. The production would have benefited from the services of an intimacy director, who helps portray sexuality and sexual violence in a way that is safe for the performers and engaging for the audience.

Awkward moments aside, the production is a strong one with superb singing, an emotional range, and a look befitting of one of the finest opera houses in the world. Click here for information about the production and tickets.

About Arielle Basile

Arielle Basile began working for Fra Noi in 2004, stuffing envelopes and assembling luminaria for Casa Italia’s Festa di Natale. Over the years, she has served as columnist, office manager, proofreader and assistant editor for the magazine. A classically trained opera singer, Arielle received degrees in music from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Boston University, performing professionally with the Chicago Grant Park Chorus, Knoxville Opera, Madison Opera Chorus, and Opera for the Young. A dedicated and passionate supporter of the arts and artists, Arielle's previous work as an arts administrator include the Knoxville Opera Company in Tennessee and the Janiec Opera Company at the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina. She is currently Operations Manager for Ravinia's Steans Music Institute in Highland Park, Ravinia Festival's summer conservatory for young professional musicians.