Mostly Mozart: Less is More in Iván Fischer’s Production of Don Giovanni

Mostly Mozart Festival: Mozart, Don Giovanni: Soloists, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer (conductor), Rose Theater at Time Warner Center, New York, 6.8.2011 (BH)

Budapest Festival Orchestra
Iván Fischer, Conductor and Director

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

Actors (Dancers, Chorus) – Students of the University of Theatre and Film, Budapest

Viktor Dénes
Melinda Hekler
Anita Zsuzsanna Kosik
Victória Kulcsár
Mátyás Marofka
Blanka Mészáros
Kornél Mikecz
Gergó Mikola
Dániel Viktor Nagy
Zoltán Nagyhegyesi
Kristóf Ódor
Péter Sándor
Irén Szabó
Csenge Szilágyi
Franciska Töröcsik
József Wunderlich

As a concept for Mozart’s Don Giovanni, why not riff on the Commendatore statue at the end – and work backward? That appears to be at least one facet of conductor/director Iván Fischer’s minimal, brilliantly effective production with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, which came to Lincoln Center’s RoseTheater as part of this year’s Mostly Mozart Festival. As the Commendatore (killed in Act I by the Don), the superb bass Kristinn Sigmundsson returns in Act II with his head seen in profile – covered with ashy gray make-up to resemble stone. Fischer’s conceit was to use the same effect to dress the chorus – sixteen students from the Budapest Theatre and Film Academy, who not only sang, but created props and sets with their bodies, similar to the images created by the dance troupe Pilobolus. Each was costumed in street clothes caked with gray (which now and then sloughed off in small dust clouds). Windows, tables, walls – even a horse and carriage – all magically appeared from this talented troupe, all of whom were able to sing, dance, act and even do complex pratfalls. As Fischer himself wrote, “…the world surrounding this legendary sex-addict is created by human bodies.”

But this production (Fischer used the Prague version) wouldn’t succeed without a cast able to handle Mozart’s demands, and here Fischer assembled one of impressive vocal agility. As the lascivious title character, Tassis Christoyannis slithered around the stage like some kind of noxious lizard able to walk upright. Yet he seduced, often quietly, such as in his Act II serenade, with a sweet star turn from the orchestra’s Peter Forgách on mandolin. And as his foil Leporello, José Fardilha combined a slight Dustin Hoffman-esque goofiness with Gene Wilder’s nervous invention; his well-enunciated, well-supported tone only made his comedy that much more successful.

Laura Aikin, as Donna Anna, might have the most impressive chops of the entire cast, nowhere more apparent than when she launched “Non mi dir,” one of the evening’s many high points. Some of her high pianissimos were breathtaking. Zoltán Megyesi made a soulful, sympathetic Don Ottavio, notably in “Dalla sua pace,” and as Donna Elvira, Myrtò Papatanasiu radiated sensuality combined with an appealingly ditzy overtone. A sparkling Zerlina, Sunhae Im combined pinpoint accuracy with touching ardor in “Vedrai carino,” where she comforted the battered Masetto, sympathetically portrayed by Riccardo Novaro. And throughout the evening, solos – mesmerizing as they were – almost seemed anticlimactic when placed next to some of the stunning quartets and sextets.

And finally, how to praise the superlative efforts of the Budapest musicians, their modern instrument array infused with tangy bassett horns? Fischer chose tempi that never seemed to exhaust or confuse the players: fast enough to convey sprightliness, but slow enough that Mozart’s lines were allowed to reach peak ripeness. Throughout the evening I kept marveling how successful this opera is when done smaller – when singers don’t have to strain to be heard, and the audience can see the plot’s impact on the cast’s faces. In creating the Don’s lurid world, sometimes less is more, and here, “much less” paradoxically became “much more.”

Bruce Hodges


Another review of this production by Stan Metzger is here.