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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Opera Review: Back From the Dead and Ready for Dinner

Spartan Don Giovanni from Budapest doesn't spare the hellfire.
A hellish vengeance: The statue of the Commendatore (Kristinn Sigmundson, top of pyramid)
appears to take Don Giovanni (Tassis Christoyannis) to hell in Act II of Don Giovanni.
Photo by Richard Termine © 2011 Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
On Saturday night, Iván Fischer's new production of Mozart's Don Giovanni, featuring the Budapest Festival Orchestra with Mr. Fischer leading from the pit, offered New Yorkers a new approach to Mozart's unique blend of sex farce and morality play.

Mr. Fischer, who conducted and directed the performance, mounted the Don as a black box opera on a minimal set. This intimate approach, in the confines of the Rose Theater, proved to help the drama, as did the precise playing of the Budapest forces. The orchestra combined modern strings and wind with period horns and trombones, producing an eerie, effective sound in the climax of Act II. It was also amusing to watch the horn players have to manually change brass crooks onstage during the banquet scene in order to play in different keys.

No props were used, and the singers wore street clothes. The only scenery was a limber troupe of singers, who served as window ledges, banquet tables and whatever other scenery was required. These choristers were a uniform gray: hair, skin and eyes, illustrating the central idea of the opera: a statue come to life. Smart directorial touches (the Don disposes of Masetto's thugs with an invisible, hand-rolled marijuana cigarette; the old man's death is accidental and clearly not the Dons fault) abounded.

Tassis Christoyannis and José Fardilha made an engaging pair as the Don and his hapless servant Leporello. Throughout, this unequal partnership drove the opera forward. Mr. Christoyannis played the lecherous nobleman with macho swagger and good humor, bringing out the lighter side of the Don's personality. (The fact that he didn't murder the Commendatore helped.) He sang with pleasing tone, tripping nimbly through the Champagne Aria and breaking out an unexpected, sweet head voice for his canzonetta in Act II. His death scene was well played: defiance turned to curiosity but never to fear as he met his fate.

Mr. Fardilha was the comic heart of the opera, making Leporello into a complicated man trapped by events and forces that are clearly beyond his capabilities. He did the "Catalogue" song with warmth and humor, unencumbered by that particular, awkward prop. In Act II, Mr. Fardilha had fun with the part, as he "seduced" Donna Elvira (Myrtò Papatanasiu) and addressed the statue of the Commendatore in quivering, quaking tones.

Of the three ladies in the cast, Sunhae Im made the strongest impression as Zerlina. Coquettish and sparkling in tone, she struck sparks with Mr. Christoyannis and Riccardo Novaro, the sturdy baritone playing her fiancée Masetto. ("Batti, batti, O bel Masetto" was a highlight.) Myrto Papatenasiu was a  Donna Elvira. Although her instrument disappeared briefly in the second act, she acted on her obsession with the Don as the woman who is jealous of the rake's conquests.

It is not the fault of soprano Laura Aikin or tenor Zoltán Megyesi that Donna Anna and Don Ottavio are the least attractive characters in Don Giovanni. Ms. Aikin took the powerful, dramatic approach to Donna Anna's part, hell-bent on vengeance to the point of ugly obsession. Mr. Megyesi made I mio tesoro the key moment when the long-suffering Ottavio finds his strength, even though his brilliant plan (to turn the libertine over to the authorities) is foiled by the statue of the Commendatore.

Kristinn Sigmundsson is a veteran bass with a towering stage presence, although the voice does not spread and roll like a true black bass. He was an imposing presence as the stone spirit of the Commendatore, singing the single "Si" with stentorian power in the graveyard scene.  For the damnation scene, the old gent entered at the head of a massive sculpture, surrounded by praying penitents. These came to life, and literally dragged Mr. Christoyannis into their midst until he was not seen anymore. It was an effective device and one in keeping with this smart, spare staging.

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