Librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte billed Don Giovanni a “dramma giocoso,” literally a “jocular drama,” and, unsurprisingly, finding the balance between comedy and drama is the key to any good production. As part of the Mostly Mozart Festival at the Rose Theater, Iván Fischer’s production held to the traditional precepts of the opera except for an ensemble of sixteen actors from the Budapest Acting Academy who served as both chorus and set. Rather than making any arbitrary cuts or additions, Fischer explains in his program note that he chose the Prague version of Don Giovanni, insisting on an “original concept” rather than performing all the arias and “mixing two different versions in a way Mozart never intended.” Indeed, the addition of the ensemble supports rather than distracts from the principals who adhere to timeless costume pieces and classic conventions.

Budapest, Palace of Arts © Zsuzsanna Peto
Budapest, Palace of Arts
© Zsuzsanna Peto

Soprano Laura Aikin stands out as an elegant and dignified Donna Anna whose quest for revenge after Don Giovanni kills her father, the Commendatore, is expressed beautifully in her two arias. Aikin’s “Or sai chi l’onore” remains tender while displaying dignity and strength, and “Non mi dir” is the highlight of the second act with Aikin’s polished phrasing and dramatic determination. In addition to the warmth and richness of her voice, Aikin’s interpretation of Donna Anna as a fierce woman wronged rather than just one of Giovanni’s girlish conquests with a grudge drives the story in a new way, posing a real threat from Donna Anna, rather than having her simply rely on Don Ottavio. After all, Donna Anna is in many ways a prototypical feminist, fighting for herself and anachronistically asking that Don Ottavio delay marriage while she settles the score.

Don Giovanni, a silver-haired Tassis Christoyannis, delivered the title role with the warmth of a lyric baritone. Though occasionally a bit soft vocally, his presence as Don embodied his propensity for cavalier pleasures simply and stylishly, as he zipped in and out of different women’s lives and beds. With Christoyannis, one gets the sense that it was never a choice, and that, as the Don explains, to choose only one woman is to offend the others. Jose Fardilha embraced the basso buffo elements of Leporello excellently, sneaking around to get the Don’s leftover food and women. Riccardo Novaro stood out as Masetto, navigating this smaller principal with his big voice and endearing insistence that his capricious fiance Zerlina (Sunhae Im) pay attention to him.

The ensemble of actors filled out the production: all sixteen were painted gray, generating a ghostly presence that foreshadowed the vengeance of the Commendatore, played by the impressive Kristinn Sigmundsson. Sigmundsson’s Commendatore was colossal and frightening, drowning out Don Giovanni’s flippancy and Leporello’s fear, as hell beckons to the protagonist in a human form. Giovanni’s punishment feels strangely and sadistically satisfying with the strength of Sigmundsson’s presence and voice demanding retribution. Right after the Don’s cry and death, true to Fischer’s intentions, the Mozart ending was included, and all the other principals stepped out and explained the moral--“the death of a sinner always reflects his life”--as well as their plans for the future. After all, it is a jocular drama, so it makes sense that Masetto and Zerlina let us know, literally, that they’ll be getting dinner now that Giovanni’s dead.