DON GIOVANNI: A Lyric Opera Triumph

Don GiovanniChicago’s great writer Saul Bellow loved the Lyric Opera. In 1979 he wrote a preface to a celebration of the opera company in which he quoted long-time Chicago drama critic, and opera enthusiast, Claudia Cassidy:

“Without the Lyric,” she tells us, “Chicago would be underprivileged. A city, she continues, “is more than tall buildings, crowded streets and, in our case, a magnificent lakefront.” The plug for the lakefront we could not reasonably expect, in self-adulating Chicago, to be spared. But she is dead right about the Lyric.

How right she and Bellow were was impressively underscored by the recent production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, also the Lyric’s first presentation sixty years ago. Those who attended one of the merely eight performances were privileged indeed.

The poet Ezra Pound once remarked that literature is news that stays news. But the newsworthiness of a classic like Don Giovanni, depends upon a master interpreter to make the news breaking for our time. The Lyric had such a master for their Don Giovanni: Robert Falls.

In 1952, the London drama critic Kenneth Tynan noted the peculiar traits of a wonderful  young director named Peter Brook: “”He cooks with cream, blood and spices: bread-and-water addicts must look elsewhere.” The same should be said of Mr. Falls.

One can’t be taught to direct like Robert Falls. His art must be accumulated through years of experience, built upon a great and restless intelligence, bold imagination, sincere respect for texts and collaborators (from actor-singers through designers), a keen sense of theater, and an obligation to engage his audience in something meaningful and beautiful about their lives.

For this production of Don Giovanni the setting is Spain during the 1920s, a time which, we discover (thanks to Falls and his team of collaborators – Walt Spangler, Ana Zuzmanic, and Duane Schuler) – has an aura and sensibility remarkably like our own. Falls’ vision of our world needs sexy, attractive, singer-actors, great of voice, and fearless of new things. And Mr. Falls has them in Mariusz Kwiecien, Marina Rebeka, Kyle Ketelson, Ana Maria Martinez, and Andriana Chuchman. We have world class singers embarking on a world class production, playing young people doing what young people do – pushing the boundaries. And these young singers push wonderfully  while making some of the most glorious music ever heard. The counterpoint between the music and the character actions theatricalizes the universal struggle Mozart knew between light and dark, “against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

Falls’ production is aided immeasurably by Colin Ure’s very contemporary, hip translation, letting us know immediately that this is not your grandfather’s Lorenzo Da Ponte.

Recalling her first Don Giovanni at the Lyric Opera,  critic Claudia Cassidy said:

I sat there that first night remembering Flaubert’s, “The three finest things in creation are the sea, Hamlet, and Mozart’s Don Giovanni.” For we can look at the lake through a salt spray, if necessary. We can read Hamlet, though not many of us will get from it what a great actor can. But if we want Don Giovanni, make believe won’t do the trick. Don Giovanni takes talent, cartloads of flesh and blood talent, and a touch of genius helps. And there it was, a wonderful Don Giovanni, when the Lyric made its astounding successful debut.”

Sixty years later we can still say:

There it was, a wonderful Don Giovanni, when the Lyric made its astounding sixtieth anniversary production.

God grant you many years, Lyric Opera of Chicago.

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