David McVicar’s production of Don Giovanni at San Francisco Opera is very dark – I mean physically dark, not emotionally, as in Why doesn’t someone turn on a torch or something? The action starts at dawn, but it looks like midnight the whole time, until it gets a little brighter at the very end, which is supposed to be around 2:00 a.m. Sometimes the singers were invisible also; the set has some large mobile walls and arches that move around and if the action is on the right of one of these those of us on the left couldn’t see. In a nice touch the mostly bare stage lies on top of a layer of bones and skulls, all painted black so that you had to be close to notice what they were. I enjoyed the performance but oddly enough this somber blackness would have been more suitable to the world-weary melancholy of our last Don Giovanni, Dimitri Hvorostovsky, rather than to the sinuous feline seductiveness of Mariusz Kwiecien. He entered from the darkness wearing his black pants and a loose white shirt that was soon torn away, so his muscular pale torso stood out Carravagioesque in the chiaroscuro. There’s a weird optical illusion by which the torso of a guy wearing pants but no shirt looks much larger than the same torso when covered even by a tight shirt, and this effect helped establish a physical command for Kwiecien in the very opening. It was useful to get that out of the way in the very beginning because fully clothed he is, though handsome, not a physically commanding figure, which was used to both comic and dramatic effect in his dealings with Leporello (Oren Gradus) and especially Masetto (Luca Pisaroni). For once Don Ottavio wasn’t washed out next to Giovanni; I was glad to hear by the audience’s reception that the fine-grained singing of Charles Castronovo (who should definitely continue rocking the van Dyke after this run) wasn’t being swamped by Elza van den Heever’s Donna Anna; she has the sort of large, bright voice that can make everything surrounding it sound recessive. I thought all of the singers came off well, though I did think that Claudia Mahnke lacked a bit of the country naiveté that Zerlina should have.
One other oddity of the production which I haven't seen commented on, in addition to the dim lighting, which I definitely have seen commented on: they changed the ending. When the Commendatore appears, he is not a statue, but a half-rotted corpse; Giovanni is not seized by devils, but struck down by the huge Angel of Death who looms over the stage waving his sword; and Giovanni is not physically dragged to Hell, but lies lifeless on the front edge of the stage, looking dashingly like The Death of Chatterton. In other words, Giovanni’s life is not cut off prematurely through supernatural intervention; instead, the inevitable – Death – just catches up with him suddenly and sooner than might be expected. It’s a subtle change, but a definite one.