The first thing you see as the curtain rises on Don Giovanni is a motorcycle, shiny and lit up in bright colors like a painted woman. This is the point when alert viewers should realize that they're in trouble; that this show is presenting a clichéd idea of coolness and rebellion, and offering it up as a symbol for Don Juan.
So this production doesn't understand its main character—we'll return to that. Initially, the set seems like a mistake, too. Resembling a hideous 1970s bank façade, it's a series of stony rectangles that slide open to reveal elevators and palm trees and other fancy set pieces. It's not until late in the opera—when the whole thing transforms into a beautiful, moonlit mausoleum—that it all makes sense; the characters have been dancing in the graveyard the whole time. It's this kind of wit that Seattle Opera's Don Giovanni—for the most part—lacks.
Don Giovanni is one of the greats, one of the handful of classic operas that a layman could name, thanks in part to Mozart's music (here conducted skillfully and stylishly by Andreas Mitisek)—although the majority of its appeal is due to the character of Don Juan. Mariusz Kwiecien looks the part of the man who has bedded 1,800 willing (and not-so-willing) women, but his character is flat—someone who simply cannot avoid listening to his crotch. There's much more to the role than being a huge fan of fucking—this is a man who joins his own lynch mob because he can't help himself, a man addicted to drama in all its forms, who can't leave the world unmolested for one moment, and here the director sees fit to dress him in a clownish, white, disco leisure suit for half of the opera. It's downright disrespectful.
There are elements of this production that should be applauded. Marie Plette, as Donna Elvira, sings two brilliant, moving arias almost in a row. The Don's weary sidekick, Leporello, is sculpted with humor and horror by Eduardo Chama, whose voice is, if anything, too strong and velvety for a servant's role. There's a nice little montage of nude women in classic paintings by Matisse, Goya, Manet, Klimt, and others that speeds up and turns into a classic-art titty show. The ending of the first act is beautifully done; it's a potential orgy that plummets into chaos, and the set is alive with an appropriate sense of excitement before things devolve into lightning and gunfire.
Clunkiness is the order of the day, though, and that includes Jonathan Dean's translation, which is displayed in subtitles over the action. These lines—among them, "This playboy is going to get me in trouble" and "There is some mystery about this unhappy woman"—evoke cheaply produced anime dialogue, and left me wishing that the libretto were allowed to stand, untranslated, on its own.
There's much more to complain about (the way that supporting characters just stand around as though they were in line at the bank, the horrible leather duster that Leporello wears for much of the play) but nothing could be more awful than the way the opera's opening night ended. As the Don descended into hell, a billowing white curtain descended from the rafters. It was lit by moving red and orange lights, and it looked like a wall of falling flame; people in the audience gasped at the beauty of it. But just before the flames of eternal damnation descended all the way, they got hooked up on a misplaced chair and didn't quite reach the stage. The bare set behind hell was plainly visible as Don Giovanni writhed and moaned in front of it. It was shameful and embarrassing, like the whole opera's fly was unzipped. In a venue where seats cost as much as a $140, this was a bad, elementary-school-musical mistake.
And to top off the accidental blunder, there's an on-purpose one: As the surviving cast sings about wicked acts leading to eternal damnation, the house lights come on, leaving the audience staring bleary-eyed at one another. There's no better way to end a night at the opera, I guess, than telling everyone in attendance that they're going to burn in hell.