Thursday 10 August 2017

EIF 2017 - Don Giovanni at the Festival Theatre, or, A Welcome Return

When the 2017 Festival Programme was announced this stood out amongst the opera offerings after  the Budapest's glorious Nozze di Figaro in 2015. This Don Giovanni isn't quite as outstanding but it is still very good.

In my past experience this is a really difficult opera to stage – I've sat through poor attempts from Tim Albery at Scottish Opera, Rufus Norris at English National Opera and Kaspar Holten at the Royal Opera. This felt rather less of a staging than the Figaro. There are a couple of raised platforms of different heights with stairs at the two back corners of the reduced playing area. Other than that set is provided by a troupe of young actors, dressed to look (it seemed to me) like classical statuary. This provides some lovely moments – for example the carriage they form to carry in Zerlina on her first entrance, and the descent into hell where they form a writhing body of grasping hands like something out of an Old Master painting dragging down Don Giovanni works better than any other staging I've seen (though the blackout should come before they leave the stage it being otherwise too obvious (at least from the Upper Circle) that Giovanni is walking off unharmed. But at other times Ivan Fischer (who directs as well as conducts) seems less sure what to do with them, and particularly when acting as walls and balconies, impressively dexterous though they are, I didn't think it was as effective as the similar device in the recent Opera North Billy Budd. Fischer is also uneven in his direction of the principals. Overall I felt they came across as more convincing and moving characters than in any of those fully staged productions I mentioned, but there are still missed psychological depths here. In particular, I didn't think anyone had quite decided what has happened to Donna Anna in that opening attack, which is rather crucial. There are also a few clumsily managed escapes (most notably Leporello sneaking off at one point in Act Two), and Giovanni failing to recognise Elvira in their first scene in Act One was also not convincing.

What sustains what seemed to me more of a stand and deliver version than the Figaro are the musical standards, which are overall high. The finest single moment for me was Laura Aikin's (Donna Anna) great Act One aria – a demonstration of controlled power, dynamic range, and emotional singing of the highest order. Christopher Maltman's Don Giovanni is also strongly and characterfully sung with a nice insouciance of manner. His uneasy partnership with Leporello (sung with authority and character by Jose Fardilha) was also well brought out. Some of the others took, I thought, a little time to settle. Lucy Crowe's Donna Elvira didn't quite have the same precision and beauty commanded by Aikin but strengthened as the evening progressed. Jeremy Ovenden's Ottavio was a little thin voiced to my ear, and I wasn't quite as impressed by him as many of the rest of the audience.

The singers were supported by generally marvellous playing from the Budapest Festival Orchestra conducted by Ivan Fischer. They brought a sense of forward momentum, of sweep while still finding what I think of as the Mozartian melancholy ache, and knowing when to linger and make more of a particular moment of beauty or feeling. Just occasionally in Act One pit and stage were not wholly in harmony, and I sometimes thought Fischer wanted to go faster than his singers were altogether comfortable with.

Taken altogether this is another very fine evening, and certainly far more satisfying dramatically than many other fully staged versions. Two performances remain. Well worth catching.

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