Opera is a genre replete with tragic deaths. There’s Mimi in La Bohème. Consumption. Cio-Cio-san aka Madama Butterfly. Suicide. Violetta in La Traviata. Tuberculosis. Floria Tosca in Tosca. Again, suicide. The history of opera is the history of a lot of dead women. Not so in Don Giovanni. In Don Giovanni, after a life of sin and sex finally catches up with him, the great Don does not pass Go, does not collect $200, but goes straight to Hell. And although, yes, he probably deserves to go there, his death nevertheless feels a little bit tragic.
Mozart’s Don Giovanni is the original ‘OG’. Before DMX, Petey Pablo and their lists of b*tches, there was Don Giovanni and his catalogue of women. 1,003 of them, to be precise. Short, tall, fat, skinny, blonde, brunette, poor, rich, willing and, of course, unwilling. There may also have been the occasional murder. No wonder the ultimate comeuppance awaits him.
After a well-received 2015 EIF production of The Marriage of Figaro, Hungarian conductor and composer, Iván Fischer, accompanied by the Budapest Festival Orchestra, has returned with Don Giovanni for a three-night run. His production features a stripped-back set for a ‘staged concert’, essentially a glorified concert production. Fischer’s grand idea is to use the bodies of 17 young actors – white-painted neoclassical statues come to life – to configure and reconfigure any necessary staging or props. The bodies form windows for singing through; gravestones for toppling over; a horse and cart for conveyance to a wedding; and, most effectively, a pyramid of hellish figures who swallow the Don into hell. Watching such transformations take place, bodies contorting and collapsing, is immensely aesthetically pleasing. Of course, there’s also an obvious connection to be made between Don Giovanni’s treatment of women and the rather utilitarian attitude with respect to the use of these bodies as staging devices. Too obvious? Perhaps.
Unfortunately, when the bodies aren’t being used for clever visual expression, the stage is bare apart from two black raised platforms. These lengthy periods of emptiness are the moments when Fischer’s distinction between semi-staged and concert performances fall apart. In any event, such distinctions would be of little matter were the production flawless in all other respects. But the tempo, particularly in the first act, is preposterously slow. Our pulse should race as we fly towards the lothario’s downfall. Here, we plod along as if Don Giovanni was an old man, ineffectually attempting to seduce nurses in a retirement home.
A deadbeat pace may not have mattered as much with a cast of staggering vocal talent. But of the leads, only Christopher Maltman’s Don Giovanni, Lucy Crowe’s spurned Donna Elvira, and Don Giovanni’s beleaguered sidekick Leporello delivered quality singing. The Edinburgh International Festival is a world-famous arts festival. Surely it is capable of attracting equally-renowned vocalists? By contrast, Fischer’s orchestra is superb. A more equal pairing between cast and orchestra may have made for a truly sublime production.
Don Giovanni was on until 12 August 2017 at the Festival Theatre, as part of the Edinburgh International Festival 2017. Click here for more details.