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Ivan Fischer leads bracing 'Don Giovanni'
Ivan Fischer conducts and directs a fast, fresh 'Don Giovanni' at Mostly Mozart festival
By The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) ' It's high on everyone's short list of "world's greatest operas," but performances of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" can often feel ponderous and dramatically inert.

So the taut, fast-paced production that Ivan Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra brought to the Rose Theater on Thursday was like a bracing draft of crisp, cool air on a warm summer night.

Fischer not only led the orchestra and a talented cast of soloists in a fluid, quicksilver performance of the score, he also devised the minimalist yet highly effective staging.

For sets, there were only two large rectangular platforms, one reached by a short flight of steps. For props, just 16 young actors who contorted their acrobatic frames into such objects as a carriage, a balcony and the banquet table on which Don Giovanni eats his final meal. (In a program note Fischer explains that the Don is a sex addict who "sees body parts everywhere.")

These actors, who doubled as the chorus, were dressed in pleated, off-white fabrics that made them look, when stationary, like stone statues. In the opening scene, when the Don kills the Commendatore, father of Donna Anna, he does it not by running him through with his sword but by toppling over a cluster of these "statues," who crush the old man to death.

If the novelty of the human props soon wears off, what lingers is the well-choreographed interplay among the characters, whose psychological states are neatly laid bare on the darkened stage.

In a strong international lineup of singing actors, top prize goes to Portuguese baritone Jose Fardilha, whose expert clowning and sturdy singing as the Don's manservant Leporello anchored the performance. His account of the familiar "Catalogue" aria, in which he lists the Don's many conquests (here acted out by the female props) came across as fresh and spontaneous.

Next to him, the Don of Greek baritone Tassis Christoyannis seemed short on charisma, and he reined in his voice in the duet with Zerlina and in his Act 2 Serenade. But this may have been in keeping with Fischer's concept of not making the Don the focal point but rather having us view the other characters through his eyes. Christoyannis did let loose in the final scene, when the ghost of the Commendatore comes to claim his soul, refusing to repent with a ringing cry of "No!" sung on what sounded like A above middle C.

Among the women in his life, American soprano Laura Aikin sang with a combination of dramatic expressiveness and pinpoint coloratura accuracy as Donna Anna. Korean soprano Sunhae Im displayed silvery purity of tone as the peasant maid Zerlina. As Donna Elvira, who is perpetually humiliated and betrayed by the Don, Greek soprano Myrto Papatanasiu started off a bit shrill but settled into a fine account of the role.

Good support came from Hungarian tenor Zoltan Megyesi as Donna Anna's sweetheart Don Ottavio (in this production they never so much as hold hands, underscoring her ambivalent feelings); Italian baritone Riccardo Novaro as Zerlina's fiance, Masetto; and Icelandic bass Kristin Sigmundsson as the Commendatore.

But above all it was Fischer who made it such a memorable occasion, with tempos that were swift but never rushed and climaxes that were majestic without turning bombastic. He used the version of the opera as it was first performed in Prague in 1787. That meant that Don Ottavio and Donna Elvira each lost one aria, which helped keep the running time to just over three hours with intermission.

The performance, to be repeated Saturday night, is part of the annual Mostly Mozart Festival. It's only the opening week, but already this "Don Giovanni" seems certain to be among the year's highlights.

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