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Don Giovanni 2017Edinburgh International Festival

Read more about the opera Don Giovanni

Fresh approach to an always challenging work

2017 being the 70th year of the Edinburgh Festival, the opera programme was a celebratory one with a distinctly expanded line-up of nine works. It included this strongly cast staging of Don Giovanni.

Iván Fischer began his traversal of the three Mozart-da Ponte masterworks at the 2015 Festival, with Le nozze di Figaro. This Figaro was given in a rather unusual format, acted out with a minimum of props, on the stage of the Usher Hall in immediate contact with the players. Perhaps it was intended to concentrate attention on the music, while working more effectively than a pure concert performance. If so, it rather missed the mark, and divided opinion.

This time round, the performances of Don Giovanni were transferred to the more obviously dramatic environment of the Festival Theatre. The conductor and director was again Iván Fischer, who continued to describe the performance as a 'staged concert'. The third performance, on Saturday 12 August, was as near to success as this infuriating masterpiece is likely to get, though many negative views had arisen from earlier evenings.

The pit band, his Budapest Festival Orchestra, are familiar Edinburgh visitors. They were now in a more conventional location, though the pit was at its highest setting, with the players at stalls level, as Mozart would have known them. Musicians appeared on stage, but only when expected - for the party scene and the final banquet.

Emphasis on humanity.

The overall look of this staging was remarkably fresh. The fixtures were simple - two platforms, one to the left, another higher one to the right, with a good sized space between for exits and entrances to the rear. There was a good-sized area to the front.  

Visual interest was supplied by a team of remarkable student actors from the University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest. Seventeen in number, they were costumed in off-white bodystockings and draperies, each slightly different. They moved, danced, lay in attitudes, formed props - they all had a remarkable ability to keep still in awkward poses for minutes at a time. At the outset, eight sat facing the audience through the overture, regrouping to witness the murder. The women were all posed on stage for Leporello's catalogue recital. When Elvira needed a bench to sit on, five men formed it - two as the seat, on all fours with a head at each end, while three knelt behind, their heads facing forward, on either side of Elvira's. In the second act her balcony and window were formed by four men linking arms and legs. Tombstones were in human form, as was Giovanni's dining table, and they all combined to drag him off at the end. Their only weakness was vocal - not fully operatic voices, perhaps bass-light - but in that final scene they were at least stage-centre rather than being off in the wings as usual.

Christopher Maltman is now one of the leading lyric baritones, both in opera and recital. Early in his career (2000-2004) he sang in six concert performances of rare operas at the Festival. More recently (2012) he appeared in concert as Don Alfonso with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. It seems astonishing that these performances of Don Giovanni marked his Scottish debut in a staged production. His career now takes him all over the world, and his Giovanni has been seen in many of the greatest opera houses. It is easy to see why, as his characterisation is mercurial, full of variety, combining humour and viciousness. He sang with a wonderfully sweet tone, when required - as in his serenade and in 'Là ci darem' - it was quite easy to understand how Zerlina was attracted right from the far side of the stage, almost reaching his arms just as Elvira entered to rescue her. Some of Fischer's tempi were unusually leisurely, so 'Fin ch'an dal vino' was not the mad scramble we usually hear nowadays.

The rest of the cast was strong on paper, if relatively unfamiliar. Laura Aikin's only previous Scottish appearance, a decade ago, was in Bernstein's Candide. Her coloratura technique is still secure, while she had plenty of power for 'Or sai chi l'onore'. Jeremy Ovenden made a strong impression with Scottish Opera some years back in both Mozart and Handel, but Fischer's use of the Prague score meant that Ottavio had only one aria. The staging offered an arresting image when the estrangement of Anna and Ottavio was shown by a wide shadow that split the stage, separating them when on stage together. Only near the end, as they agreed some kind of accommodation, did the black become white, as Anna launched into 'Non mi dir'.

Lucy Crowe's previous operatic roles in Scotland were also near the start of her career, though her appearances in Der Rosenkavalier and Falstaff left a strong impression. Elvira is a heavier role, now tried out for the first time, and in general she did well - just a brief loss of focus in the second act indicated possible fatigue from singing two nights running. The use of the original score meant she also lost 'Mi tradì'.

Matteo Peirone, a widely travelled baritone, has an interesting challenge at this Festival. Here in Don Giovanni he sings the youthful character of Masetto before returning as a member of the Turin Teatro Regio, doubling in the two character roles in La bohème, as the grasping landlord Benoit and sugar-daddy Alcindoro. As Masetto the character was actually played effectively as quite a mature soul, scarcely able to believe his luck in catching Zerlina, and wildly exaggerating the extent of the injuries inflicted by Giovanni.

José Fardilha had a great success as Leporello, grizzled and long-suffering. Sylvia Schwartz was a winning Zerlina, giving beautiful accounts of her two arias. The physical domination of the final scene by Kristinn Sigmundsson's Commendatore was also impressive.

Mixed reactions

It appears that, as with the Figaro two years ago, Iván Fischer's Don Giovanni has divided critical opinion. The audience at the final performance clearly loved a staging that made all the twists of plot clear and displayed an unusual visual flair, even without period costumes and monumental sets.

One audience member, later in the Festival, reported enjoying it, but finding it difficult to adapt after the shattering experience of Die Walküre a few nights earlier. Clearly 'One man's meat......'

Performance Cast

Leporello Giovanni's servant

José Fardilha

Donna Anna the Commendatore's daughter

Laura Aikin

Don Giovanni a young nobleman

Christopher Maltman

Commendatore an elderly aristocrat

Kristinn Sigmundsson

Don Ottavio engaged to Anna

Jeremy Ovenden

Donna Elvira a lady from Burgos

Lucy Crowe

Zerlina a peasant girl

Sylvia Schwartz

Masetto a peasant, engaged to Zerlina

Matteo Peirone

Performance DatesDon Giovanni 2017

Map List

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh | Edinburgh

9 Aug, 19.00 11 Aug, 19.00 12 Aug, 19.00

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