Bodies that Sing: An Imaginative Re-creation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni

United StatesUnited States Mostly Mozart Festival (2):Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer (Conductor and Director), RoseTheater, Lincoln Center, New York, 4.8.2011 (SSM)

Laura Aikin, Donna Anna
Myrtò Papatanasiu, Donna Elvira
Sunhae Im, Zerlina
Zoltán Megyesi, Don Ottavio
Tassis Christoyannis, Don Giovanni
Riccardo Novaro, Masetto
José Fardilha, Leporello
Kristinn Sigmundsson, Commendatore

Jose Fardilha, Tassis Christoyannis, Sunhae Im, Riccardo Novaro Myrto Papatanasiu, Laura Aikin - Photo by Richard Termine

There are not many three-and-a-half hour performances so intense that one feels freed from the usual gravity of time, so tightly wound that the intermission seems more like an interruption, and with an audience so totally in tune with the performers that applause for individual numbers actually seems necessary to clear the charged air and ready it for the next jolt. The conductor, standing on the podium, his back to the audience as they enter, patiently waits for the right time to lift his baton and dives straight into the overture, taking us with him, not coming up for air until the end of Act I.

All this was part of the experience of attending last night’s Mostly Mozart Festival performance of his masterpiece, Don Giovanni. Referring to the production as a “staged concert version” does not do justice to the large-scale concept here. The staging was minimal with no props at all, although thinking back on the performance, I could swear there were rapiers and pistols! Fischer would have used the same stage elements even if this work were to be performed at the Met. The focus of the production is on the base physicality of Don Giovanni’s Weltanschauung. Don Giovanni, always the existential anti-hero, here conflates sexuality with a perverse rejection of the sentient human body. He kicks, beats, throws down, steps on and murders with no sense of the body’s threshold of pain. Windows, tables, walls, furniture, a wedding carriage: all are made from human flesh. Don Giovanni’s Christ-like assumption not to Heaven but to Hell appropriately ends with his body being torn to shreds.

How was all this accomplished? How was all this perfected with only two previous performances in Budapest? Credit has to be given to Mr. Fischer as both musical and theatrical director with his intuitive sense of who would best sing and act each part. I don’t remember seeing or hearing a finer cast, both as singers and actor/actresses.

Laura Aiken’s dress must have been fireproof. As Donna Anna, she was molten fury, eschewing her fiancé’s selfish platitudes. Her voice effortlessly covered all ranges with no sense of the difficulty inherent in an aria such as “Crudele?…Non mi dir, bell’idol mio.” Tassis Christoyannis’s smarmy Don Giovanni acted and sang every line with a sneering sense of grandiosity. His descent into Hell was horrific. José Fardilha outdid himself as Leporello, his bass voice capable of switching timbre as quickly as he switched his loyalties. Myrtò Papatanasiu as Donna Elvira sang touchingly of her abandonment, sensitively revealing her all-to-human capacity to be enthralled by Leporello disguised as Don Giovanni. Sunhae Im’s meltingly sweet voice was the very essence of the ingénue, and her Zerlina convincingly ran the gamut from coy to seductive. The Commendatore, Kristinn Sigmundsson, epitomized the role: robust, statuesque, with an ideal basso profundo that at its deepest, darkest range could set the theater floor vibrating.

Don Giovanni Accepting Commendatore's Invitation - Photo Credit: Zsuzsanna Peto

The most imaginative staging decision, one that added a whole other level of visual pleasure to this performance, was the addition of fifteen actors from the University of Theatre and Film in Budapest. Each student in this group is required to be competent in singing, dancing, acrobatics and acting. Mr. Fischer saw them perform in Budapest, and on a whim he hired them for this production. Their role here can best be described as a cross between the dance/acrobatics of Pilobolus and the miming street actors who periodically pop up in urban areas. Their creative ability to form themselves into objects strikingly enhanced the psychological  and philosophical  framework that Mr. Fischer sought to present.

Aside from one minor anachronistic moment when Don Giovanni plies the posse with marijuana as a way to spur them on to hunt for Leporello, the production was flawless.  Where equivalent attempts have been made to modernize Mozart’s operas or make them relevant, none that I am aware of have done so without failed gimmicks and tricks or sophomoric incidents. This production will stand as a hallmark against which all others will be judged.

Stan Metzger 

This series continues at Lincoln Center through August 27. See Mostly Mozart Festival