Sunday, August 7, 2011

Mostly Mozart Festival - Don Giovanni - 08/04/11

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Budapest Festival Orchestra
Conductor & Director: Ivan Fischer
Don Giovanni: Tassis Christoyannis
Leporello: José Fardilha
Donna Anna: Laura Aikin
Donna Elvira: Myrto Papatanasiu
Zerlina: Sunhae Im
Commendatore: Kristinn Sigmundsson
Don Ottavio: Zoltán Megyesi
Masetto: Riccardo Novaro

After the delightful amuse-bouche that was the preview concert of the Mostly Mozart Festival last weekend came what would be for me the main course (and what main course!) of this year’s celebration with a staged concert of what many, including myself, consider Mozart’s finest opera: Don Giovanni. And of course, the fact that it would be performed by the superb Budapest Festival Orchestra conducted by its no less superb co-founder and dedicated nurturer, Ivan Fischer, in the most welcoming Rose Theater made it an offer that simply could not be missed.
Don Giovanni has always had a very special connection with the city of Prague because it is where it was premiered, became a huge success right away and has been part of the permanent répertoire ever since. On the other hand, the complex music and dark overtone of this new endeavor of Mozart’s did not sit well with the Viennese public still enthralled by the scintillating Nozze di Figaro, and they did not give it more than a lukewarm reception, never mind the extra arias that the composer had written just for them. For the concert on Thursday night, Ivan Fischer had picked the Prague version, giving us the precious opportunity to enjoy the original concept in all its glory. It even started early so that my friend Nicole and I could get our beauty sleep. What else could we have asked for?

The world’s most prolific seducer (1,003 in Spain only! And we all know that Leporello is not talking about a tapas-eating contest here.) was already a major character in popular culture when Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte set out to tackle him as well. The result would eventually be an impeccably balanced blend of opera buffa and opera seria, in which the story and the music indiscriminately and beautifully combine drama, farce, wit and tragedy.
The Greek baritone Tassis Christoyannis had the daunting privilege to impersonate the infamous lover, but apparently did not let the pressure overly get to him. His unwavering commitment, assured presence and reptile moves nicely made up for the intermittently less than stellar vocal performance. As the Don’s obedient if often exasperated servant, José Fardilha's singing was not flawless either, but his infectious natural charm wasted no time winning the audience over. The ladies fared slightly better with Laura Aikin as a riveting Donna Anna, Myrto Papatanasiu a solid Donna Elvira and Sunhae Im an adorable Zerlina.
The production being a staged opera there were no elaborate sets or fancy costumes, but there was still a lot going on thanks to the mostly silent, sometimes perplexing but often exciting work of 16 specter-like students from the Budapest Acting Academy. As they went on using their eerie figures to emphasize key moments, stand in for extra characters or form pieces of furniture, not everything worked out perfectly, but it soon became clear that Ivan Fischer’s direction should for sure get him extra points for its daring theatricality. I found the grand finale, in which an ever-defiant Don Giovanni finally meets his ghastly end by slowly disappearing into a menacing mass of greedy hands, particularly powerful in its stark simplicity.
Hearing the Budapest Festival Orchestra conducted by Ivan Fischer is always an unadulterated joy and this Don Giovanni was no exception. Bringing out the multi-faced richness of Mozart’s magnificent score obviously qualified as a labor of love for these uniformly brilliant, enthusiastic musicians and they fully succeeded. The task is not the easiest with the constant switching of musical moods according to, for example, the wooing schemes of the main character: formal and serious for high-class Donna Elvira, folk-like and light-hearted for peasant Zerlina. The mix of three different musical genres in the ballroom scene – elegant minuet for Don Ottavio and Donna Anna, country dance for Giovanni and Zerlina and folk dance for Masetto and Leporello – was another tour de force that went off without a hitch. What can I say? They apparently can do no wrong.

This was the only performance of Mozart’s work that I had on my festival calendar this year, but I suspect that it would be hard to top it off anyway. And there is always Beethoven next week…

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