The Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century continues their exploration of Mozart’s operas started in 2012 under their late founder, Frans Brüggen. This season, it is with Don Giovanni and under the baton of Kenneth Montgomery that they are touring concert halls in the Netherlands and Flanders. On their stop at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, they proved the main asset of a musically rewarding evening.

Paula Murrihy © Barbara Aumüller
Paula Murrihy
© Barbara Aumüller

The challenge of choreographing a semi-scenic performance that works for several venues that all differ in size and design was only half-met by director Jeroen Lopes Cardozo’s mise en espace. Like the costumes that were mere suggestions of a basket dress or a cape, the rest of the direction had an unfinished feel. There was a lot of entering and exiting through doors and a lot of pacing on the stage but it all looked somewhat uncoordinated and I am not sure that much would have been lost by simply going for the conventional concert form. Actors’ direction felt slack. Perhaps the idea was to leave room for improvisation to adapt to a different space at each performance. Unfortunately, all do not have the agility of Henk Neven’s Leporello on stage and, left without much guidance, some of the performers had to resort to a limited range of generalised expressions. Things were luckily much more rewarding musically.

“Toxic masculinity” is probably the 21st-century expression that would best qualify André Morsch’s finely-sung Don Giovanni. One is warned about his character’s unashamed villainy from the start when he kills the Commendatore by stabbing him with a knife, rather than in a noble sword duel. With a timbre which is handsome and virile but not particularly multicoloured and aristocratic, this is a Don Juan who goes confidently for the conquest and doesn’t have time for suave niceties. Even his serenade “Deh vieni alla finestra” exudes the cocky assurance of a man who knows that he is going to get the girl no matter what.

His first (attempted) conquest in order of appearance was the young-sounding Donna Anna of Katharine Dain. The Dutch-American singer ornamented both her arias with much elegance and her brightly coloured soprano sounded unstrained in the high-flying coloratura of “Non mi dir”. Her medium, however, tended to sound a trifle underpowered in some of the ensembles. The fact that her youthful sound was paired with Thomas Cooley’s well-projected, darkish tenor as Don Ottavio had an interesting effect. Usually, there is no doubt that in the Anna–Ottavio relationship it is Donna Anna who wears the trousers. Here, with this less-wimpish Ottavio than most, one felt the balance might be inverted.

Rosanne van Sandwijk and Berend Eijkhout were an endearing couple of newlyweds as Zerlina and Masetto. David Wilson-Johnson’s baritone lacked the dark colours of a true bass and had to rely on the orchestra’s brass to compose a truly menacing Commendatore in his final scene. Undoubtedly, the evening’s strongest vocal performance came from the Irish mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy who conveyed Donna Elvira’s quasi hysteria with fiery diction and honey-coloured tone. It is such a shame that “Mi tradi qu’ell alma ingrata”, Elvira’s great aria added by Mozart for the Vienna premiere, is cut in these performances!

The other starry performance of the evening came from the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century itself which, conducted with an unflinching resolve by maestro Kenneth Montgomery, produced an extremely satisfying kaleidoscope of sounds from the shiniest gold of the period strings to the dark anthracite of the intrepid brass.

***11