If there’s a common theme to the Washington National Opera’s first two productions of the 2012–2013 season, it’s men behaving badly. Specifically, two notoriously piggish men, one real, one imaginary, whose legacies gave us the Church of England and a bad Johnny Depp movie, respectively: King Henry VIII and Don Juan.
The two operas are also morality tales spiced up with some old European “otherness.” Anna Bolena, Donizetti and Felice Romani’s scathing depiction of England’s House of Tudor, could be a warning as to what kind of decadence befalls those who leave the One True Church. With Don Giovanni, Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte similarly sneered at the perversions of nobility, albeit those of the Spanish, not any potential benefactors chasing skirts around Vienna or Venice.
In other words, the WNO’s season openers have everything you either love or hate about opera: moralism, exoticism, melodrama, pageantry, and outdated gender roles. And wonderful music. And both are quite good, but for different reasons. Whereas Don Giovanni excels in its staging and production with, incidentally, some decent singing, Anna Bolena is carried by the phenomenal vocal talents of its star, Sondra Radvanovsky, and little else.
Let’s start with Anna Bolena, better known by her Protestant name Anne Boleyn, one of Henry’s ill-fated wives. Donizetti’s 1830 opera is a showoff vehicle for its soprano role, most famously brought before modern audiences by Maria Callas in the 1950s. And Radvanovsky, as Bolena, shows off some impressive pipes. Her flexibility is evident as she slips between the tenderest sighs and gut-bustingest wails without strain. Rich and fluid throughout, she doesn’t seem outside her comfort zone at any point. (WNO audiences last saw her in Lucrezia Borgia, so perhaps she’s typecast in fucked-up 16th-century dynasties.) Bass Oren Gradus, as King Enrico/Henry, chews through his villainous role—literally, meaning he’s usually eating something, or picking his nails or scratching himself, to a humorous effect that almost makes you forget his character was a depraved autocrat who beheaded lots of people. As for his singing—not as memorable. He’s briefly overshadowed by a pair of hounds who trot out on stage, a high point of the show.
The staging itself is mostly forgettable. The set design consists of giant wood panels that obscure two-thirds of the stage for no apparent good reason. Perhaps they’re supposed to evoke feelings of dread, claustrophobia, and the impersonal authority of the Tudor Court, but they mostly reminded me of the big slabs of plyboard propped in front of broken escalators in the Metro—though, on second thought, maybe that was deliberate. In addition to Radvanovsky, contralto Claudia Huckle, as Smenton, is a quiet standout, as is tenor Shalva Mukeria as Percy. And the hounds, who are very good dogs.
Don Giovanni has a lot of what Anna Bolena doesn’t have: elaborate sets, plenty of stage action, and interaction among a well-balanced cast. What it doesn’t have is someone like Radvanovsky. But that’s not a serious drawback. The lothario better known as Don Juan gets proper treatment by Ildar Abdrazakov, whose lyric bass is appropriately tempered with sleaze. Like other operas, Don Giovanni requires a certain suspension of contemporary mores to appreciate a supposedly comic opera that begins with an attempted rape and murder, or Giovanni as an antihero described as a “scoundrel” rather than, well, a rapist. We do see him get his eventual—and supernatural—comeuppance, while guiltily watching his pickup-artist routine with valet/wingman Leporello (Andrew Foster-Williams), not to mention several scantily clad women.
This year’s Don Giovanni is a revival of director John Pascoe’s 2007 production, which also starred Abdrazakov. This production is thus more of the same, but the same works well without always making complete sense. The setting in Franco-era Spain is intriguing but ultimately doesn’t have anything to say about fascism. The costumes are imaginative, but not necessarily period-specific: No one explains why Elvira, Giovanni’s baby mama, is wearing a pantsuit, or why Giovanni is dressed like Ricardo Montalbán in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. But as an eye-popping production, it’s well suited to WNO’s “Opera in the Outfield” free jumbotron showing at Nationals Park on Sept. 29, all the more since it’s as long as 15-inning ball game.
One thing both productions share is terrific music, played crisply by the WNO Orchestra and conducted by music director Philippe Auguin (for Don Giovanni) and new guy Antonello Allemandi (for Anna Bolena). This season also marks Francesca Zambello’s first as WNO’s artistic director, no big surprise to anyone since she was brought on as “artistic advisor” in preparation for her production of Wagner’s Ring cycle, set for 2016. Until then, she’ll have more modest targets: Show Boat will be her first production, in the spring. Not exactly a classic on par with Giovanni or diva vehicle like Bolena. But for variety’s sake, that’s a good thing.