Tassis Christoyannis, center, in “Don Giovanni” at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival in 2011. Credit Ruby Washington/The New York Times
To be an opera lover is to live a life of constant transit between two poles, ecstasy and despair, with most of the year spent in the latter location.
It’s not like we ask for much: only perfection. We want a conductor whose reading of “Parsifal” is never for an instant less than gripping; a Norma who can both sing “Casta Diva” and make the character’s final-act reversal genuinely sublime; and a really well-staged “Don Giovanni.”
This last dream is perhaps the most elusive of all, at least in New York. For more than a generation, the Metropolitan Opera has presented a series of genuinely dreadful “Don Giovanni” stagings: overproduced, silly, illogical and unmusical. The current Met production, credited to Michael Grandage, is all these things and, worse, is performed on sets that look like Catfish Row.
It’s refreshing to note, then, that the Hungarian conductor (and occasional stage director) Ivan Fischer avoids most, if not all, of these pitfalls in his pared-down take on “Don Giovanni,” which returns to Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival for three performances, Thursday through Aug. 20, following a sold-out run in 2011. Joined by his Budapest Festival Orchestra and a cast led by Christopher Maltman, his approach might be described as an application of the Hippocratic oath to opera; that is, he first does no harm.
Iván Fischer on Don Giovanni Video by Lincoln Center
What Mr. Fischer includes in his staging are only the essentials, those moments of action necessary to make sense of the text. At the very start of the opera, Don Giovanni and Donna Anna make their first entrance struggling, though it is unclear (because it is immaterial) who is trying to detain whom. The death of Anna’s father, the Commendatore, omits any preliminary swordplay, reducing the violence to a single dagger blow from Giovanni, presumably because the old man never had a chance in the first place.
Mr. Fischer’s method pays off most handsomely in formal, extended ensemble scenes like the trio that introduces Donna Elvira. The joke here is that Giovanni and Elvira know each other well — they’re married, in fact! — yet they don’t recognize each other on a city street. Other productions of “Don Giovanni,” including Mr. Grandage’s at the Met, contrive gimmicky reasons that the two don’t get a good look at each other: big hats, umbrellas, hooded capes and sudden, fortuitous glances in the wrong direction. But Mr. Fischer keeps it simple: The two characters simply remain in different areas of the stage until the necessary reveal.
Myrto Papatanasiu as Donna Elvira and Tassis Christoyannis in the title role in “Don Giovanni” in 2011. Credit Ruby Washington/The New York Times
Complementing the cleanness of the stage action is the style of costumes: unfussy modern dress. This choice, I think, is a nod to the 18th-century operatic convention that comic opera should be played “today” (as opposed to the more sober form of opera seria, which was traditionally set in classical antiquity or during the Crusades). Freed from the hassle of manipulating doublets and farthingales, the performers can move naturally and easily.
But the show is not entirely devoid of frills. A troupe of dancer/actors styled as statues (chalky makeup and white garb) whimsically stand in for both set and supernumeraries. They start the show seated, facing the audience, and then during the overture break off, one by one, to form a garden for the first scene, complete with statuary, fountain and benches. Later they show up as the rowdy guests at Don Giovanni’s party, dancing so wildly that the first act’s prescribed imbroglio finale makes perfect sense.
More charming, though, are a couple of tangential touches. For example, the dancers form a prancing coach to carry Zerlina for her first entrance. Of course, a peasant girl could hardly afford such a conveyance, but the device carries a sense of wedding-day fantasy: The girl feels like a princess, so why shouldn’t she imagine herself Cinderella en route to the ball?
The payoff of the all this activity with statue-people turns out, a bit predictably, to be the arrival at Don Giovanni’s supper of the Commentatore, now himself a statue. But the celebrated moment of Giovanni’s descent into hell, accomplished here without pyrotechnic effects or even so much as a trap door, provokes a genuine gasp of terror, followed by a grin of appreciation at the audacity of the effect.
It is fair, I think, to award Mr. Fischer’s staging the Wagnerian laurel of “Gesamtkunstwerk,” or unified artwork, particularly since his conducting so closely harmonizes with his visual presentation. His leadership of the Budapest orchestra emphasizes transparent textures and brisk forward movement, with a strong sense of presenting precisely what is on the page.
Mr. Fischer wrote in the program in 2011 that he was interested in the work’s connection to addiction, its preoccupation with repetition (those interchangeable gray figures) and the inability to stop. This makes for a strongly human performance, perhaps a little too human. Flaubert observed of this opera that “God’s three most beautiful creations are the sea, ‘Hamlet’ and Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni.’” Here is where I think Mr. Fischer’s take on the work falls shortest: It makes not even a gesture toward mystery, transcendence, grandeur.
As a work of man, Mr. Fischer’s production is very fine, indeed, and absolutely worth seeing. But it lacks that one element without which this opera is not quite “Don Giovanni”: an indefinable spark of the divine.