Thanks to the composer's profusion of beautifully dramatic second-act melodies -- for the most part, gorgeously sung one after another by Peter Mattei, Luca Pisaroni, Barbara Frittoli, Ramon Vargas, Marina Rebeka, and Mojca Erdmann under conductor Fabio Luisi's occasional tempo lapses -- there are still ample rewards to be gained, even if a concert production might be preferable to what's on stage.
With this meandering production, the usually confident Grandage appears to have lost sight of just about everything which Met general manager Peter Gelb has been trying to accomplish in his determination to bring opera up to current theatrical standards, and has turned to the crudest and most traditional, not to say retrograde, forms of presentation. Elements as important as characterization, at which he's proved a master, are scanted in favor of singers standing close to the edge of the stage and delivering their material straight into the auditorium.
Part of the problem is the hulking set that Grandage's longtime designer, Christopher Oram, has foisted off: a curved three-story, brown-grey building that occasionally parts into two or three sections revealing more of the same upstage. Too often, Don Giovanni (Mattei), Leporello (Pisaroni), Donna Anna (Rebeka), Donna Elvira (Frittoli), Zerlina (Erdmann), Ottavio (Vargas) and Masetto (Joshua Bloom) are forced to carry on from one of the balconies, or awkwardly emote on what must be the sidewalk or the street.
Why these animated but not totally undignified figures would engage each other in this fashion -- frequently from lying positions -- is something Grandage hasn't given much logical thought to.
Nor does he get right some very particular effects, such as the next-to-closing appearance of the damning Commendatore (Stefan Kocan) and the hero's subsequent ignominious descent into hell. Indeed, when the Commendatore's statue speaks from one of the balconies, surrounded by others hooded like him -- as if among a series of sculpted figures in a mausoleum -- it's a stunning surprise that would be a better surprise if sprung later.
Since Mattei had to quickly fill in for original star Mariusz Kwiecien - who seriously injured his back at the production's final dress rehearsal on Monday -- it's understandable that he is often ambling around as if trying to remember where he should be. As a result, he hardly seems a model of literature's most famous womanizer. Fortunately, his singing is just fine, and the fact that he looks so much like Pisaroni's Leporello is a plus.
Pisaroni's urgent, rightly agitated warbling is another of the production's assets. Rebeka gets Donna Anna's anger in grief, although she's sometimes just this side of shrill. Erdmann's Zerlina is piquant, while a bit small-voiced for the room. Vargas' control remains inspiring, although sometimes it's controlled to a fault, The best singing, however, comes from Frittoli, whose bruised warmth was most welcome.