Monday, August 8, 2011

Don Giovanni: A torto di viltate tacciato mai sarò

The man, the myth, the opera: approaching Don Giovanni is no easy task.  But "approach" is too timid a verb for what the Budapest Festival Orchestra did with Mozart's monumental, genre-challenging score, here performed in the Prague version. Under the baton of Iván Fischer, the BFO's interpretation was characterized by brisk tempi and forceful dynamics. The score's humorous touches were handled deftly, but this reading emphasized the passionate seriousness of Mozart's work. Especially noticeable to me in the strings was a fearless romanticism, unexpected but very welcome. From my balcony seat, there was a balance issue from time to time, but with an orchestral performance this full-blooded and thrilling, I minded hardly at all (and less, perhaps, than I should have.)

Budapest, Palace of Arts/Zsuzsanna Peto
Jessica Waldoff, in Recognition in Mozart's Operas, has called Don Giovanni the most "discussed, deliberated, and disputed" of Mozart's operas. Elsewhere, Andrew Steptoe observes that Giovanni "ranges from transcendent demonic hero to trivial philanderer, and critical opinion has been equally divided." The staging of the festival performances, designed by Iván Fischer, acknowledges the ambiguities of the work: actors, clad and painted in white, shaped their bodies to define the set and to become props, as well as serving as dancers and chorus. According to Fischer, this choice was made to represent the realm of the opera from the central character's perspective: Don Giovanni's world is defined by bodies; I thought this minimalist approach worked very well. The lack of scene-changes kept the pace of the drama relentless, its episodes clearly related in logical, inexorable succession. The action of the piece is quite literally set in motion when the seducer, clad as an adventurer in a black cape, tips a statue reminiscent of Bernini's Apollo and Daphne onto the Commendatore, fatally wounding him. Another advantage of the staging was that it diffused the potential for skepticism at the Commendatore's appearance ("It's only a white costume/makeup...") Quite obviously, that is not the point. When the Commendatore does at last appear, the impossible apparition is composed of all the actors, who had previously formed Don Giovanni's chair and dinner table; his entire society, his entire environment, is arrayed against him.

Im and Novaro. Photo (c) Richard Termine/Associated Press

Not being familiar with the acoustic of the Rose Theater, I'm not sure how that may have affected my perception of some of last night's performances; some of the singers seemed to have their sound curiously dampened. However, they each gave committed dramatic performances, and interaction between the performers was well-handled and emotionally convincing. (For several of the set pieces, the prevailing naturalism of the Personenregie would give way to stylization, but more on that anon.) Riccardo Novaro, as Masetto, sounded perhaps a little gravelly at times, but I thought he had a very nice basic timbre. Furthermore, this Masetto was no fool; Novaro's wounded intensity lent weight and urgenncy to this strand of the plot. His Zerlina, Sunhae Im, was charming without being saccharine, although notes at the lower end of her range were sometimes swallowed. Myrtò Papatanasiu also suffered from this, although she made a vivid Donna Elvira, sung with bite and fine expression. Jose Fardilha's Leporello was comic without indulging in too much buffoonery. Perhaps more vocal nuance is not something I should be looking for in a Leporello; Fardilha did make a strong character, clearly out of sympathy with Don Giovanni's habits from the outset, whose economic dependence the other man exploits.

Zoltán Megyesi was a more vocally muscular Don Ottavio than I am used to hearing, and he sang with fine diction and expression. His role is still ineffectual, but he was not bland; a split between him and the single-minded Donna Anna was more than hinted in their final scene. The fierce Donna Anna of Laura Aikin was, for me, the vocal standout of the evening. She created, in "Or sai chi l'onore," the impression of spitting with rage, and she sang with precision and unremitting intensity throughout. "Non mi dir" was, interestingly, focused on her own quest for vengeance rather than Ottavio. In Aikin's hands, I found Donna Anna unusually compelling. The Commendatore was vividly portrayed by Kristinn Sigmundsson as a frail old man still insisting on his authority, and utterly convinced of the rightness of that authority. Sigmundsson sang with noble resonance and, yes, authority; while I have sometimes thought him gravelly, I heard no trace of this on Saturday. The graveyard scene was well-managed and satisfactorily chilling. The Commendatore's materialization from the massed chorus in the finale was impressive, and the orchestra contributed a magnificent account of the music which G.B. Shaw called "a sound of dreadful joy to all musicians."

The Cambridge Opera Handbook has described the character of Don Giovanni as reflecting the principle of desire, unreflexive, unruly, not bound to the social order. In this central, protean role, I must confess that Tassis Christoyannis did not fully convince me. He was suave, but not compelling. "Fin c'han dal vino" was dispatched with fine diction, but I felt it lacked urgency. This seducer never seemed intoxicated by his own seduction. Part of this may be due to the concept, which has Don Giovanni as sex-addict rather than antihero. But I would have hoped for greater magnetism of voice or presence. Still, the orchestra grabbed us all and plunged us into consideration of life and death, love, lust, and hellfire; the "antichissima canzon" seemed a much-needed moment of collective processing, rather than an anticlimax.

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