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Don Giovanni

New York City, Rose Theater, Mostly Mozart Festival, 8/4/11

In staging Don Giovanni, conductor Iván Fischer showed how a musicianly approach may be the most effective theatrical tactic of all.

Mozart’s masterpiece is notoriously difficult to bring off; in fact, I have never before seen a production that managed to hold the work’s comedy, sentiment and horror in such happy balance. All of these elements are right there in the music; Fischer gave them theatrical form by devising action that seemed to arise inevitably from the score itself. The production, which used an ad hoc company of singers and actors along with Fischer’s own Budapest Festival Orchestra, originated in Budapest last year and played the first of two Mostly Mozart performances at the Rose Theater on August 4.

The physical production consisted merely of two bare black platforms, ringed by black curtains, but the most important scenic element was human — sixteen students from the Budapest Acting Academy, dressed in ashen gray, with body makeup to match. These talented young people served variously as chorus and corps de ballet, but most often as a kind of living statuary, grouped into various tableaux vivants. This was a singularly fast-moving Don Giovanni, partly because Fischer stuck to the opera’s original Prague version (no “Dalla sua pace” or “Mi tradì”), but significantly because the “sets” were so mutable, shifting in quicksilver synchrony with the musical and dramatic progress of the piece itself. The actors moved when they should move and stayed still when no movement was needed. Despite the monochrome starkness of the stage imagery, it was a lively, giocoso take on the opera.

It was also provocative, especially in its approach to the protagonist’s sexual nature. Here the fit young actors, projecting a distinctly modern sexuality, seemed like a physical embodiment of the Don’s eroticized worldview. Their presence defied us to moralize about him. The Don may be headed to hell, but the impulses that send him there are shared by all humanity.

The Don was Tassis Christoyannis, a lyric baritone who lists Pelléas in his repertory. His ability to project at low dynamics (abetted by the lively acoustics of the Rose Theater) allowed him not only to spin out a seductive “Là ci darem la mano” but to react in appropriately awestruck tones as the Commendatore’s soul left its earthly shell. Only in the serenade did his gift for soft singing desert him: he delivered it in a near whisper that sometimes lurched out of control.

While some modern productions present the Don and Leporello as figures cut from the same cloth, here the servant was as rough-hewn as his master was elegant. José Fardilha, stout and funny, took a buffo approach to the role. His vocalism had its raw moments, but he savored every word of da Ponte’s text, scoring comic points at every turn. Although Laura Aikin has a narrower voice than one usually encounters in Donna Anna, through incisive phrasing and forceful projection she expertly embodied the noble lady’s righteous determination.

The dewiness of Sunhae Im’s lyric soprano made it an aural manifestation of Zerlina’s desirability. Myrtò Papatanasiu displayed a fiery stage presence as Elvira, but her astringent timbre made her more of a treat to watch than to hear. Riccardo Novaro brought scrupulous musicality to Masetto — a role whose musical details can sometimes be lost in country-bumpkin coarseness. Zoltán Megyesi, as Don Ottavio, revealed flashes of a focused lyric tenor in Act I, but his voice seemed to stop responding properly in Act II — unfortunately well before “Il mio tesoro.” Kristinn Sigmundsson’s bass may lack the sepulchral timbre of an ideal Commendatore, but his stage manner suggested the implacable seeker of divine justice.

Their individual qualities aside, the singers performed as a cohesive unit, all in service to a unified vision of the work itself. This was clearly Fischer’s doing; it was borne out in his lithe, muscular leadership, which, like his staging, was alert throughout to the opera’s possibilities and its mercurial shifts of mood. In this, he was helped by the splendid orchestra, which distinguished itself with the bracing power of its brass and the dark, middle-European warmth of its string section.

Fred Cohn, Opera News