Budapest Festival Orchestra
Uncategorized September 26, 2017

Notes from an ordinary observer

“The performance was fresh and animated. The story came to life before my eyes; all of it playing out in the present, with no suggestion of predetermined, inevitable fate.” József Bodor, a member of the Festival Orchestra’s Supporters’ Club, rarely writes about his concert experiences with such depth and sincere candour. He did after seeing Don Giovanni, however, and we are grateful for being able to share this special piece of writing with you.

True masterpieces are timeless. They are timeless because the viewer or listener will recognise the characters regardless of space or time. Watching the events unfold excites them: they draw conclusions, derive insights and make associations. They internalise all this as reflections upon their own lives and experiences – for those are the only things the audience can go by. And that is the case today, just as it will be the case 500 years from now, and centuries later as well.

It is customary to take opera performances apart and analyse every one of their elements: to hail or snub the performance of the singers; to slam or admire the orchestra; to nod approvingly or shake one’s head in bewilderment over the set design; to praise the director’s approach to the heavens or trample it into the ground. All these observations may be justified, sure. But this is the “professional” part of it – critique intended for the various participants. It is aimed at their professional knowledge, their ego and ultimately their artistic quality. If I were an artist, that is what I would be interested in, naturally. I would be looking to see what they thought of how I blew my instrument; how my voice rang out; if they noticed that chair was crooked in Scene 3 of Act 2 and if they understood the significance of that as far as the fate of the characters was concerned through Scene 1 of Act 3; if they understood my vision for the universe and the history of mankind; if they comprehended my visions about the sufferings of the world, its passing, salvation and perdition. I imagine that it is the reflections of the audience and critics on questions like these which matters most to the artists who create a performance.

But for me, a member of the audience, these are not what I care about. Certainly, I pay attention, I assess and, as a necessity, I discuss these in conversation with friends. But it is not the performance of the individual artists that I am looking for. I am in search of another quality: the sensations that point beyond these direct features. The experience of finding out who these figures are, so distant in space and time; what they are undergoing and why they are undergoing that. I want to be there with them, and I want to understand what I have to do with all of this. Song, orchestral music, visuals and how they come together are tools to lead me to the experience of all of this. Beyond the music, beyond the visuals and beyond all else, in an amalgamation of these, lies that quality of another dimension that I seek.

That I am on this quest is something I only realised last Sunday, after seeing Don Giovanni with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, performed by extraordinary singers and conducted and directed by Iván Fischer. As I said above, the greatest masterpieces are timeless – including Don Giovanni. There is no need to interpret, allude to or use all manner of trickery to show the esteemed audience the obvious: a series of victories and the ultimate downfall of a fanatical skirt chaser, life artist, marauder and free human being, whose passing leaves the world with a void and the ignorant joy of simplistic conformity. The performance does nothing more (and nothing less) than present Mozart’s opera in a purist fashion, using the tools of the 21st century, to audiences of the 21st century. The singers, the orchestra, the set fashioned out of people, the crowds and the choir – just what the piece demands – together offer contemporary audiences the experience of timelessness and boundlessness, and the freedom from physical existence, space and time. It was an unforgettable scene (and I hope I have the placement right) when, at the end of Act 1, the crowds confront Don Giovanni with his acts of evil. As they come out all the way to the edge of the stage, and everyone is singing and the orchestra is playing fortissimo, Don Giovanni turns around and sees the crowd towering in front of him like a solid wall – and then all of a sudden, all becomes quiet and the scene is over. That was when I realised that for the previous few minutes, I neither heard the music nor saw the characters; I saw nothing, and I saw everything. Together. Because I was there among them, somewhere. And this is the sensation I am talking about.

In a way, I found the story thrilling. It was as though I had never seen it before, or as if I knew nothing about it. Because the performance was fresh and animated, it came to life before my eyes; all of it playing out in the present, with no suggestion of predetermined, inevitable fate. Anything could happen here, I thought. Will he get Zerlina or not; will Donna Anna, this ripe apple, give up her trembling timidity and fall into Don Giovanni’s lap – perhaps together with Donna Elvira? And, oh my, what else is still to come? What about Don Ottavio, the loser, who just talks and talks and threatens revenge in that slight tenor of his? Would anyone believe a word of what he’s saying? He couldn’t even cut the head off a chicken without crying! And the Stone Guest! I’ve seen you, old bastard; a mayor, and yet you could not stop yourself two years ago from chasing young girls around during harvest!

Many have offered praise – rightfully! – for the idea to forgo having a set on the stage, choosing instead to rely on acting students in the roles of the chairs, tables, windows, cemetery or anything else. And, of course, performing the roles of the crowd, the choir, the inebriated citizens and so much more. A terrific (genius?) idea, yes – but what I would highlight is something that may not occur to everyone. These constant metamorphoses create a virtual world – one we see on the computer in our daily lives. And that truly is more than just a terrific idea, it is indeed genius: creating a virtual world out of human beings, in our time, in our physical world, then and there. Certainly, I do not mean that the director was somehow trying to channel a computerised virtual world; that’s nonsense. What I mean is that this performance of the piece, modern but also deeply authentic and unassuming at the same time, evokes such natural associations in the modern-day viewer. It’s remarkable how this 21st century solution agrees so naturally with such a timeless opera. And perhaps it was not even this interpretation that the director intended, and maybe he will even reject it. But this is what occurred to me. What is certain is that the opera on stage was modern to the core, yet pure, unassuming, obvious and humbly following the score and the libretto to a T.

Have I made progress? Have I become a better-versed, more understanding, more sensitive and more refined spectator (and human being) by watching this performance of Don Giovanni? I don’t know. But I do know that I will not forget it. And one more thing I know: that Mr. Fischer has taught me how to watch opera. Thank you for that.

József Bodor