The talent Iván Fischer has for eking out the full spectrum of emotions and sonic colors in a work is something the conductor has been known for over the last few decades, particularly with his Budapest Festival Orchestra.
And while stopovers at Lincoln Center have been frequent and frequently galvanizing—from a core-shaking Bluebeard’s Castle at Avery Fisher Hall towards the end of the last decade to last year’s complete cycle of the Beethoven symphonies to this past winter’s visit balancing out works by Haydn and Stravinsky—it is only with yesterday that the maestro has made his Mostly Mozart Festival debut. It was, to put it mildly, long overdue.
Yet for such a momentous occasion, Fischer (who also conducts the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra August 9 and 10) did not merely make his first appearance with the festival conducting; he also took on the onus of directing Mozart’s Don Giovanni, a work that suffers no shortage of productions. Fischer’s vision, originally seen in Budapest last year, takes on a minimalist approach, indeed at times almost overly stark with a total of zero props in what can be a props-heavy work. Accompanying the eight principal singers of the work is a collective of actors caked in white powder, harkening to Japanese butoh theatrical tradition.
This ensemble, also trained to commendably sing the opera’s few brief chorus parts by Fischer, form at various turns windows, tables, chairs and a larger statue responsible for killing the Commendatore in the opening scene. They also portray extras, including a carousel of Giovanni’s conquests in Leporello’s “Catalogue Aria” and a cavalcade of carousing partiers in the finale to Act I.
Very little else exists on the black-box of a stage, which allows Mozart’s music and Da Ponte’s characters to brilliantly shine. Fischer’s exploration of the piece adheres strictly to the Prague version of the work (meaning that Don Ottavio’s introspective “Dalla Sua Pace,” and Elvira’s tortured “Mi tradi,” are not included) and focuses on the addictive neuroses of the Don. A set comprised entirely of bodies represents the world as Giovanni sees it. “We can, of course, judge a womanizer from a moral point of view, but we can also reverse this view and look at the world through his eyes,” writes Fischer in his introductory program notes. “Don Juan…sees body parts everywhere. He is an addict surrounded by irresistible women and lifeless statues.”
In all good ways, the understated simplicity of the extras is startling, revealing how possessed by sex Giovanni is, and how unsound his inner workings are. We see, via the Don, Donna Elvira in a Firebird-like short red frock—but is that what she, a woman who ultimately retires to convent life, actually wears? Or is it merely the Don’s addiction-addled mind imposing an ideal on this firecracker of a conquest? Likewise, Donna Anna’s mourning gear includes a black blazer with leather sleeves paired with a choker. Is she simply chic even in the wake of patricide, or does a woman bent on seeing her father’s murderer suffer equate with a dominatrix vibe in Giovanni’s world?
Zerlina’s short and bubbly wedding dress, meanwhile, leaves her the epitome of Giovanni’s predominant passion for young novices (a potent moment of staging in her two arias to Masetto reveal a young woman on the brink of her own sexual awakening, indicating that these young newlyweds will get along just fine even after a somewhat disastrous wedding).
Most arresting, however, is the use of the ensemble as Giovanni’s ultimate death. As he continues to defy the specter of the Commendatore, he is literally consumed by his addiction, overpowered by the ensemble until he disappears underneath a series of white limbs—both male and female.
Orchestrally, Fischer backs up this probing staging with a revelatory read of Mozart’s score. He coaxes every possible syllable out of the first opening notes of the overture without running the risk of overly milking them. It’s possible, even for someone who has heard this opera more often than Giovanni has bedded a Spanish woman, to hear new things in the score from Fischer’s read, which at once unifies the instruments and still allows each cog of the machine its due recognition. Incorporation of onstage orchestras for both the Act I and Act II finales gives added credence to Fischer’s insistence at playing the score as Mozart intended it.
As Don Giovanni, Tassis Christoyannis also revealed the high points and shortcomings of the role. He delivered the recitatives at times with rapid-fire precision, while also massaging musical moments like his suave duet with neophyte Zerlina with a sweet tentative sound, showing off the Don’s ability to morph to the tastes of the women he pursues with a peacock’s pride and flourish. However, with a patchy audibility and a handful of arias that are brief and provide no character insight, contrasted with a production so embroiled within the Don’s own psyche, Christoyannis’s Don was mainly reactive to those around him. Fortunately, he had some strong colleagues.
José Fardilha’s Leporello was the living, breathing definition of a stentorian voice. He balanced the booming tenor of his baritone with adroit comic timing and charm and was a clear audience favorite last night. Laura Aikin’s Donna Anna featured an assured yet deliberately unhinged coloratura in “Non mi dir,” a portrait of the character on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Myrtò Papatanasiu sang Donna Elvira with equal power and grace, making Maria Callas on her worst day look like Shirley Temple and Sunhae Im’s Zerlina was charmingly sung, hinting at the spitfire underpinnings of the peasant bride.
Yet for so many seductive voices, the chief charmer here is Mozart’s score. Through Fischer’s impassioned reading and judicious staging, the music seduces us. Yet, unlike Giovanni, it never abandons us.
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