There is a saying in Hungarian that “anyone who loves opera can not be a bad person”. For a small opera loving country of obviously good people, Hungary has produced a number of celebrated singers such as Friedrich Schorr, Zoltán Kelemen, Julia Varady, the momentarily stellar Sylvia Sass and the legendary Éva Marton. In this performance of Don Giovanni, the younger singers from the Hungarian State Opera showed that the country’s fine vocal traditions are in good hands.

Géza Gábor (The Commendatore), Erwin Schrott (Don Giovanni) and Miklós Sebestyén (Leporello) © Péter Rákossy
Géza Gábor (The Commendatore), Erwin Schrott (Don Giovanni) and Miklós Sebestyén (Leporello)
© Péter Rákossy
The production by veteran Italian film director Gianfranco de Bosio (perhaps best known for his in-situ film version of Tosca in 1976) was first seen at the superb Hungarian State Opera house four years ago and then transferred to Budapest’s second, somewhat cavernous Erkel Theatre. There is nothing contentious in de Bosio’s direction, whch included some nice touches such as Donna Anna lusting after Giovanni during “Non sperar, se non m'uccidi”, and Giovanni grasping the dying Commendatore’s hand at “sento, l’anima partir” foreshadowing the fatal handshake at the opera’s conclusion. While Nanà Cecchi’s functional set designs inspired by Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico were also uncontroversial, the dramatic and vocal qualities of the performance were more variable.

The Leporello of Miklós Sebestyén (Masetto in the original production) was closer to Molière’s Sganarelle, but lacked sufficient vocal strength, especially in the ensembles. Looking like Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati, Beatrix Fodor as Donna Elvira had a number of vocal difficulties, both in the lower register and evenness of fioratura. The top B flats in “Ah chi mi dice mai” were more shrill than secure and there was a major problem at the conclusion of “Mi tradì”.

Many singers have viewed the role of Don Ottavio as an unrewarding milksop, but his two arias in Don Giovanni contain some of the finest music Mozart ever wrote for tenor. Unfortunately Istvan Horvath’s stage personality was rather wooden, which was regrettable as his vocal skills were more than satisfactory. There was some beautiful phrasing in “Dalla sua pace” and “Il mio tesoro” displayed excellent breath control with commendable legato. Klara Kolonits sang the manic Donna Anna accurately enough but somehow failed to convince. The coloratura passages and phrasing in “Non mi dir” were more successful than “Or sai chi l'onore” but there was a tendency to force the voice and sing slightly sharp.

Erwin Schrott (Don Giovanni), Zita Szemere (Zerlina) and Csaba Sándor (Masetto) © Péter Rákossy
Erwin Schrott (Don Giovanni), Zita Szemere (Zerlina) and Csaba Sándor (Masetto)
© Péter Rákossy

The ‘bel’ Masetto of Csaba Sándor was visually and dramatically very credible and his warm, rounded baritone augurs well for more important roles in the future. He was ideally matched by the Suzanna-ish Zerlina of Zita Szemere. She has a light, impressively accurate soprano voice in the style of Hilda Güden plus the charm of Graziella Sciutti. “Batti batti” was the most pleasing aria of the evening not only for some excellent lower sting playing but also an unexpected interpolated high C. The inclusion of the normally cut duet between Zerlina and Leporello (“Per queste tue manine”) afforded more opportunity to hear Miss Szemere but its usual omission is understandable.

The only non-Hungarian in the cast was Erwin Schrott in the title role, substituting for an indisposed Ildebrando D'Arcangelo. Schrott’s Giovanni has impressed audiences and critics in many major opera houses, and vocally there is much to admire. A rich, warm Fischer-Dieskau-like timbre, excellent upper register with elegant phrasing, his is certainly an interpretation to savour. There was some nuance-full word painting eg. “le camere”, a mellifluous silky colour to “Là ci darem la mano” and even an interpolated ringing top A on the final “No” to add to the vocal palette. Only “Deh vieni alla finestra” was disappointing – far too harsh in tone and much, much too slow. The problem is that the serially smiling Mr Schrott was far too likeable to deserve the desserts of ‘il dissoluto punito’. There was some kitsch waving at women in the audience and a slapstick feigned seizure at the suggestion of “lasciare le donne” which made his characterisation more like a brazen local lad with a libido problem.

Erwin Schrott (Don Giovanni) © Péter Rákossy
Erwin Schrott (Don Giovanni)
© Péter Rákossy

Following in the illustrious footsteps of earlier Hungarian conductors such as Ferenc Fricsay and George Szell, Gergely Kesselyák kept the orchestral side of the performance more or less under control although there were several synchronization problems, especially in the faster ensembles, such as “Giovinette, che fate all'amore”. There was also a tendency to overpower the singers in the accompanied recitatives and although most tempi were standard, the “Protegga il giusto cielo” trio was so fast it almost sounded like a Rossini finale.

While Gounod considered Don Giovanni “a work without blemish, of uninterrupted perfection”, the same can not be said for this performance. On the other hand, there was much to commend and clearly Hungary continues to produce outstanding singers and instrumentalists.

***11