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.
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.
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.
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