Iván Fischer has a reputation for liking to do things a little differently, always seeking to innovate and to surprise in his performances. First embarking on the experiment of taking up the stage director’s mantle in 2010 with Don Giovanni, his “staged concerts” of Mozart operas are now a regular part of the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s seasons, Don Giovanni having been followed up by Le nozze di Figaro and Die Zauberflöte. While the previous two productions never quite managed to convince me of Fischer's aptitude as a director, his staging of Don Giovanni won me over.

Christopher Maltman (Don Giovanni) © Jane Hobson
Christopher Maltman (Don Giovanni)
© Jane Hobson

The greatest achievement of this production lies in a very clear recognition of the limits of a concert stage that was never quite meant to be used for opera productions and making brilliant use of this limited space. Fischer’s Don Giovanni is minimalist almost to the extreme: the stage is stripped bare (except for two podiums erected in the middle) and covered in black, the black box setting providing a suitably dark background for the opera. Simplicity marks the production’s clear-cut storytelling and generally well-drawn characterizations, largely conventional but highly effective thanks to its dedicated cast.

At the core of the production is Don Giovanni’s monstrous fascination with bodies and fittingly, the stage is filled with half-naked, statue-like extras (played by students of the University of Theatre and Fine Arts in Budapest) who serve not only as set and props, but also dancers and chorus as needed. They are responsible for some of the most striking stage images of the production, most notably at the Commendatore’s arrival to Don Giovanni’s feast, forming a heap of bodies atop which the Commendatore rises, and then slowly grabbing and absorbing Don Giovanni as he’s condemned to hell – a scene that was truly chilling to the bone. Thanks to the meticulously planned and executed choreography by Jolán Foltin and Gergő Mikola and the relentless energy of the students in fulfilling their titanic task, their involvement in the production was unfailingly entertaining and never superfluous.

Lucy Crowe (Donna Elvira) © Jane Hobson
Lucy Crowe (Donna Elvira)
© Jane Hobson

Much like the staging, Fischer’s rendition of the score did not aim to showcase a radically new interpretation of the opera; rather, it was a well-paced, delicately phrased performance drawing sublime beauty, taking much care to strike a balance between the orchestra and the generally smaller-voiced cast. The Budapest Festival Orchestra played with a bright, mellifluous sound, the strings and woodwinds especially outstanding in their lush, animated performance.

Christopher Maltman was nothing short of perfect as the Don. Smooth and suave one minute, haughty and violent the next, he was a magnetic presence on the stage, playing a wonderfully repulsive rake. His silky baritone was a delight to listen to, especially when employed with such deep insight and sensitivity.

The perfect foil to his rakish master, José Fardilha was a fantastic Leporello, performing with crackling wit and a booming baritone that contrasted well with Maltman’s voice in its colour. His chemistry with Maltman was notable, their exchanges sizzling, truly bringing their relationship to life.

Lucy Crowe as Donna Elvira was another standout, her pearly soprano becoming fierce and cutting when needed, but showing aching beauty at her more tender moments, her portrayal of the role noble and poignant. It was a real shame that we didn’t get to hear Elvira's aria “Mi tradì” as Fischer is committed to the original Prague version of the score.

Christopher Maltman (Don Giovanni) and Kristinn Sigmundsson (The Commendatore) © Jane Hobson
Christopher Maltman (Don Giovanni) and Kristinn Sigmundsson (The Commendatore)
© Jane Hobson

Laura Aikin brought a dignified, strong Donna Anna to the stage, though her otherwise appealing singing was somewhat marred by her voice’s tendency to become unbridled at the top. Jeremy Ovenden was unfortunately a less memorable Don Ottavio, his reedy tenor never quite assertive and his portrayal of Ottavio lacking charm or charisma, though he coped commendably with the difficulties of “Il mio tesoro”. Matteo Peirone and Sylvia Schwartz made for a delightful pair of Masetto and Zerlina and Kristinn Sigmundsson was a suitably chilling Commendatore.

Fischer’s Don Giovanni might not be the definitive production of the opera or one for the ages but it was engaging, well-thought-out and well-delivered, and above all, a masterclass in what can be achieved within the limits of such “staged concerts”, and with the committed performances of its cast and orchestra, it definitely made for a memorable evening.

****1