Fischer and supreme cast deliver essential Mozart with “Don Giovanni”

Fri Aug 18, 2017 at 1:53 pm
Christopher Maltman in the title role (center) and Kristinn Sigmundsson as the Commendatore (top) in "Don Giovanni at the Mostly Mozart Festival. File photo: Jane Hobson.

Christopher Maltman in the title role (center) and Kristinn Sigmundsson as the Commendatore (top) in “Don Giovanni” at the Mostly Mozart Festival. File photo: Jane Hobson.

Don Giovanni is a ubiquitous part of opera seasons worldwide, and it is precisely that which makes Ivan Fischer’s production, which returned to New York Thursday night as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival, so brilliant and rewarding.

The non-musical elements of budgets, management issues, and production values frequently can drown out what is most essential: the opera itself. Countering this is Ivan Fischer’s concept of Don Giovanni. As conductor and stage director, he is, ultimately, a conduit for Mozart’s score, Da Ponte’s libretto, and the music drama they created.

At the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center, there was no spectacle, no scenery to applaud, not a hint of the opera house experience. There was only the music, the characters, and the musicians who brought it to life.

In the lead was bass Christopher Maltman, whose characterization of the Don as a monumental egoist was creative, insightful, and commanding. This Don was constantly bemused with and entertained by himself, which gave him the charisma of a sociopath. And this was done primarily through his voice, which had a crisp edge and precise articulation. Maltman’s tone was full and with a combination of light and darkness, making a clear contrast with Leporello.

The Don is far less a comic role than Leporello, and Maltman’s take on the character—a profound insouciance—is uncommon. This disregard for anything other than his own pleasure was compelling on the surface and tied the knot between comedy, brutality, and the supernatural in a way that standard productions rarely approach.

Fischer’s choice of the more dramatically coherent and direct Prague version made this possible, but it still needed realization on stage. In this, all the performers shined.

One notable difference between the Prague version and the changes made for Vienna, is that for Prague Mozart had not yet written “Dalla sua pace.” This left Don Ottavio (tenor Zoltán Megyesi) mainly with “Il mio tesoro” and reinforced that Ottavio is the least important character in the opera. He is left to follow Donna Anna (soprano Laura Aikin) around as part affianced and part butler. Megyesi gave it his all with his voice, while staying inside the music.

That last was true for all the singers—the unseen but overwhelming presence throughout was Mozart himself. Every dramatic choice, musical emphasis, and character detail came straight from the score, through the performers. They revealed how masterful, logical, and powerful the score and libretto are, and gave them life.

All the singing was flawless, and beyond just their voices, the performers uniformly embodied their characters in a way that went beyond just acting. Donna Anna’s fire for vengeance was genuine, soprano Lucy Crowe’s Donna Elvira was real, her confusion superficially comical but tragic underneath.

Crowe’s substantial voice expressed a character who not only didn’t understand what was happening, but didn’t understand herself. Donna Elvira’s statement at the finale that she would join a convent always draws laughs these days, but Crowe made it the poignant conclusion for a woman who has realized she has done everything wrong. Crowe’s charisma and whipsawing performing intensity—she burst out of the gate with “Ah chi mi dice mai”—matched Maltman’s, which made their interaction that much more dramatically cutting.

Soprano Sylvia Schwartz and bass Matteo Perione initially seemed an odd pair: she was well-cast, especially vocally, as Zerlina, while he was a clearly middle-aged Masetto. But it worked, and they came off as a genuine mismatched pair out of a slapstick comedy with  Perione showing a clear talent for comic roles.

Leporello was sung by bass José Fardilha with a voice warmer and closer to the ground than Maltman’s Don. They made a subtle parallel with Maltman’s comic touch when they subtly switched roles, with Leporello coming out as straight man as often as clown. Maltman and Fardilha showed excellent mutual timing, with the back and forth having great pace.

There are no sets in this semi-staged concert production. Rather, there is a troupe of performers who dance, sing, pantomime, perform light gymnastics, and create a tableau. As an ensemble, they are at times a bench, a window, the guests in the party scene, and at the start and end, a statue the Don topples onto the Commendatore (bass Kristinn Sigmundsson) and the hands that pull the Don into hell. Their constant, flowing transformations enhanced the forward flow of the performance. Sigmundsson himself managed a dramatic transformation from frail old man to dominating spirit.

Fischer adroitly mixed both 20th century and period performance practices, sprinkling the reduced Budapest Festival Orchestra with natural horns and trumpets, maintaining a light-footed feeling with tempos that ensured every word could be articulated. The results were wonderful, with a constant forward motion that built to a powerful feeling of suspense at the end.

The orchestra, one of the world’s finest, played with vitality and lyrical tenderness. The early instruments added a nice, amber-colored grit to the sound, which was especially dramatic and powerful in the Overture. In contrast to the highly improvisatory recitative accompaniment heard on recent recordings led by René Jacobs and Teodor Currentzis, the singers were supported by the lone, spartan harpsichord of Benjamin Bayl.

Various audience members commented on how avant-garde the production was, but in truth that’s not the case. This Don Giovanni is entirely about the music, and what the production does is set aside needless things. The ensuing empty space was filled with musicians and singers who expressed Mozarts’s drama to the final degree. Nothing could be more operatic.

Don Giovanni will be repeated  7 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday.

One Response to “Fischer and supreme cast deliver essential Mozart with “Don Giovanni””

  1. Posted Aug 19, 2017 at 11:43 pm by Susan Morton

    Spot-on review, beautifully written and it seconded my own experience Thursday night. I do hope there is a video. This should not disappear. Probably in many ways the best Giovanni production I have seen. As pianist/harpsichordist I have done my share of performances and this one was way out of the ordinary! BravissimI tutti!

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