Don Giovanni is about the power of seduction, of course, and perhaps the inevitability of consequences. The opera is at once comedy and tragedy; if the eroticism, often teasing or taunting, courses through both action and music like hot blood through veins, the ghostly elements also chill the spine. These dualities of Mozart’s deathless creation have been interpreted and staged in countless ways since its 1787 Prague premiere. But when Don Giovanni finally receives its first presentation ever at the Mostly Mozart Festival on August 4 and 6 in Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, what will likely strike the audience most is the sheer corporeality of the opera’s play of desire and death. In this staging, the body is literally everything.
Along with a virtual United Nations cast of singers, this “staged concert” features a group of 16 Hungarian actors who, costumed in white against a black stage, embody the sets, the props, the furniture. The guiding force behind this vision of Don Giovanni is Iván Fischer, serving as both conductor and stage director in his belated Mostly Mozart debut. “Everything is created by human bodies—it’s an erotic and dangerous world that surrounds Don Giovanni, the legendary womanizer,” says Fischer, whose staging is part of a cycle of the three Mozart– Da Ponte operas he has produced in his native Hungary.
Fischer will lead the ensemble he co-founded in 1983, the Budapest Festival Orchestra, which is also performing for the first time at Mostly Mozart. The Orchestra and its conductor are no strangers to Lincoln Center, though, having thrilled audiences here via the Great Performers series with everything from Haydn and Beethoven to Bartók and Stravinsky over the years. Except for American soprano Laura Aikin, returning to the Festival as Donna Anna, Don Giovanni will star singers making their Mostly Mozart debuts, including Myrtò Papatanasiu (Donna Elvira), Sunhae Im (Zerlina), Riccardo Novaro (Masetto), José Fardilha (Leporello), Kristinn Sigmundsson (Il Commendatore), and Tassis Christoyannis (Don Giovanni).
On August 9 and 10, Fischer will also take to the podium to lead the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra in an all-Mozart program of the ever-wondrous “Jupiter” Symphony, the often ecstatic, rarely heard Vesperae solennes de confessore and the serenely moving motet Ave verum corpus, which breathes the same air as the composer’s Requiem. The choir is the Concert Chorale of New York, with English soprano Lucy Crowe making her Mostly Mozart debut as soloist in the Vespers.
Jane Moss, Ehrenkranz Artistic Director of Lincoln Center and the Mostly Mozart Festival, says that she has been “trying to have Iván Fischer in the Festival for years and years now, but his summers have been so busy. Mozart’s music is deceptive, its combination of subtle charm and extraordinary depth a real challenge. Iván is a wonderful Mozart conductor, one of my favorites, because he responds to that with a theatrical sensibility. I went to see his Don Giovanni in Budapest, and it made such an impression on me, both my eyes and my ears. The staging is remarkable for the way you really hear the music. The orchestra feels like a part of the drama, and everything that happens visually reflects the music in a special way.”
The staging of this Don Giovanni will be highly unusual, but even the flow of the score will be slightly different. Fischer will be using the original Prague version. He explains: “When Mozart was asked to prepare a version later for Vienna, he made some changes. This was his habit when he worked with new singers. He omitted a few arias and composed new arias and scenes—and all the arias are wonderful, so very often, a combination of both versions is performed nowadays. However, I believe in the beauty of the Prague version. It is a perfect structure.”
Watching Fischer rehearse a Bartók score a few years ago with the New York Philharmonic in one of his several guest appearances leading that orchestra, it was apparent that the spirit of a score just as much as its letter animates the music for him. With a few calm, good-humored but authoritative suggestions—“don’t be so careful to make things technically precise; atmosphere and passion, they are most important”—the conductor had the orchestra on the right path.
Fischer established the Budapest Festival Orchestra as a “reform orchestra,” seeking to replace big-ensemble routine and group-think with imagination, intimacy and that key ingredient, “passion.” The Orchestra took its name from a festival planned by Budapest authorities that never came to pass. The conductor kept the “festival” sobriquet because he “liked the idea that a concert should always be a festive occasion.”
Nearly three decades on the same page means that Fischer and his players communicate with the smallest gestures, a flick of the fingers or a passing glance. “The messages are sent both ways,” he insists. “By knowing their faces, I can see which players are nervous or whose concentration is flagging. This give and take gives us a special freedom and confidence. We can allow the music to breathe.”
Fischer and his Budapest Orchestra are known far and wide thanks to their series of prizewinning recordings first for the Philips label and now Channel Classics, ranging from definitive Bartók and Liszt to beautifully played and produced Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Dvorˇák, Strauss, Mahler, and Rachmaninoff. Beyond his Hungarian band, Fischer finished a two-year tenure as principal conductor of Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra last summer. In August 2012, he takes up posts as music director of the Konzerthaus in Berlin and principal conductor of its Konzerthausorchester.
As for taking on the dual role of conductor and stage director, Fischer runs down a little history in making his case: “Both professions are relatively new,” he says. “Before the 19th century, there were no conductors, and before the 20th century, there were no directors. Wagner directed his operas himself. Mahler worked as a dual conductor-director. Recent generations are used to a stage director who creates an ‘interpretation’ and a conductor who performs the music as written. But this dual leadership can have problems. Often, we witness opera productions that are visually modern but musically conservative, with singers pulled in two very different directions. I am interested in an organic unity of performance, especially in the case of operas where the music is theatrical and the story is deeply integrated with the music. Don Giovanni is such a piece.”
Fischer’s aim to make every performance a fresh, theatrical experience has extended even into Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, as Moss recalls: “Iván was conducting the Ninth with the Budapest Festival Orchestra as part of his Beethoven cycle in the Great Performers series last year. He decided at rehearsal that the chorus shouldn’t be behind the orchestra but in front, in the first three rows of seats. That really had us scrambling at the last minute to manage, let me tell you. But he is a very engaging man and a very creative musician.”