Budapest Festival Orchestra
News August 07, 2011

BFO's Don Giovanni Triumphs in New York

People still speak a lot of the Budapest performances of Mozart's Don Giovanni back in February 2010 in the Palace of Arts. The production was the last leg of a three-year-long project featuring the three Da Ponte operas of Mozart: Cosi fan tutte, The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni.

The production directed and conducted by Iván Fischer proved to be a huge success and has been invited, among others, to this year's Mostly Mozart Festival in New York City.

There have been two sold out performances on August 4th and 6th in Lincoln Center's Rose Theater. With two exceptions the cast was identical to that of the Budapest performances. The title role was taken by the Greek bariton Tassis Christoyannis. In the other roles the New York audiences could hear Laura Aikin (Donna Anna), Myrto Papatanasiu (Donna Elvira), José Fardilha (Leporello), Sunhae Im (Zerlina), Zoltán Megyesi (Don Ottavio), Riccardo Novaro (Masetto) and Kristinn Sigmundsson (Governor).

The BFO was accompanied to New York by some twenty members of the orchestra's Supporters' Club. The performances in the Big Apple will be followed later in November by another three performances in the opera house of Las Palmas on the Canary Islands.

In its issue of August 6th the New York Times covered the first performance in a review by Anthony Tommassini:

"It was first presented last year in Budapest as part of a cycle of the three operas written by Mozart to librettos by Lorenzo Da Ponte. No doubt, keeping costs in check was one reason for the simplicity of the staging. The singers wear modern-dress costumes; there are no sets, other than two black boxes, one big and one small, framed by dark curtains in the back.

But 16 young actors, students of the Budapest Acting Academy, dressed in dusty gray-white clothing with chalky faces and hair, group themselves into various formations that suggest walls, windows, benches and more. When needed, they become the chorus, singing and dancing at the wedding party for Zerlina and Masetto. The men join the search to track down the obsessed seducer, Don Giovanni.

The ghostly look of the actors is clearly associated with the statue of the Commendatore. In the opera’s first scene the honorable old Commendatore is killed in a duel defending his daughter Donna Anna from Don Giovanni, who is poised to ravish her. When the Commendatore reappears as a talking statue in the cemetery scene, he is in many productions covered with pasty facial makeup and wearing dusty garb. That image has become a little trite. But here, by presenting a whole roster of spectral-looking, mostly silent actors, who stand in physically awkward positions with uncanny stillness, the production reclaims that old image of the singing statue. The Commendatore here (Kristinn Sigmundsson) joins a brotherhood of the walking dead, who stalk through the opera eerily in this gripping production.

Mr. Fischer is a first-rate Mozart conductor. A co-founder of the Budapest Festival Orchestra in 1983, he has turned it into an active ensemble that plays around the world and has made award-winning recordings. He drew a bracing, fresh and urgent performance from his gifted, eager players on Thursday. Many conductors opt for fleet tempos in trying to enliven familiar works like “Don Giovanni.” Not Mr. Fischer. His tempos, while never sluggish or heavy, were reined in enough to elicit emphatic, clear and effectively paced playing. His ear was alert to startling harmonic shifts and inner textures. The performance, though not flawless, was rich with character and teeming with musical ideas.

If judged by vocal excellence alone, some of the singers were not exceptional. The standout was the soprano Laura Aikin, who brought her shimmering, warm voice and exquisite pianissimo high notes to a sensitive performance as the suffering Donna Anna. Also strong was the soprano Myrto Papatanasiu, the Donna Elvira, who sang with dark-hued colors and penetrating richness.

The Greek baritone Tassis Christoyannis had vocal limitations as Don Giovanni. He almost crooned in softer passages, and his forceful singing sometimes lacked body. Still, he was a riveting actor who threw himself into the dramatic concept of this unusual production. So did the entire cast: José Fadilha as an endearingly befuddled Leporello; Zoltan Megyesi, a light-voiced lyric tenor, as Don Ottavio; Sunhae Im and Riccardo Novaro as Zerlina and Masetto, an adorable country couple in love.

Since Mr. Fischer is the only credited director, he must have been largely responsible for devising the fluid, imaginative movements of the 16 actors. It was at once charming and ominous to see the window through which Don Giovanni serenades Elvira’s maid depicted with a series of linked arms by the grim figures. When Giovanni kills the Commendatore, no swords are used. Instead, at the fatal moment, Mr. Christoyannis pushes over an entangled group of stone-still actors, who tumble onto the Commendatore, crushing him.

And in the final scene, in which the statue comes to Don Giovanni’s house for dinner, the table is formed by a circle of male actors, on their hands and knees, with female actors lying face-up on the backs of the men.

Then, when Giovanni goes to damnation amid fire and brimstone, Mr. Christoyannis is sucked into a matrix of grasping arms from the whole roster of actors. Giovanni is about to join the legions of the dead. I have attended some elaborate “Don Giovanni” productions. But I have seldom seen this climactic moment staged to such haunting effect.