Don Giovanni [Dramma Giocoso in Two Acts to a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte]
Don Giovanni – Tamás Busa/Levente Molnar
Leporello – Tóth János
Donna Anna – Klára Kolonits
Il Commendatore – Kolos Kováts
Don Ottavio – István Kovácsházi
Donna Elvira – Gertrúd Wittinger
Zerlina – Anna Herczenik
Masetto – Viktor Massányi
Chorus and Orchestra of the Hungarian State Opera, Budapest
Gábor Valcz – Set designs
Edit Zeke – Costumes
László Rogács – Choreography
Máté Szabó Sipos – Choirmaster
CD No: Hungarian State Opera, Budapest Duration: Reviewed: April 2008
Hungarian State Opera – Don Giovanni
Reviewed by Alexander Campbell
A visit to the extraordinarily beautiful theatre that is the Hungarian State Opera is an experience in itself. Designed by the architect Miklós Ybl, the theatre sits on Andrássy Street, with statues of Liszt and Ferenc Erkel (composer of many Hungarian nationalist operas of a sort similar to those of Smetana and Moniusko in neighbouring countries) flanking the main entrance. Ornately decorated and with a fine acoustic, it is a jewel in the city’s cultural crown.
It would be good to report an artistic triumph from within but this was a rather uneven performance of “Don Giovanni”, although it was enjoyable on some levels. Matters were not helped by the evident indisposition of Tamás Busa as Don Giovanni in Act 1. One could not help noticing the rather dry timbre and lack of engagement of the singer. The ‘Champagne’ aria was blustery in the extreme and generally the baritone seemed rather breathless. So it came as no surprise that there was a change of singer after the interval in the person of Levente Molnar, who some may recall was one of the competitors in the last Cardiff Singer of the World competition. This occurrence may have affected all the performers to a degree. However, the production could on no counts really be described as coherent either.
After a rather full-blooded and exciting account of the overture the curtain rose to reveal a stage cluttered with a sloping disc platform on which was perched a sort of art-deco frame – rather like an apple in shape. This “magic apple” later turned out to be the “retreat” of Don Giovanni and Leporello, to which they repaired after each of their various escapades. The remainder of the platform, over which were some walkway constructions which seemed just as awkward for the singers to move on as the platform itself, was also pitted with various holes. As the evening progressed sections of it disappeared, although the stage remained cluttered with other “junk” discarded by the characters. Generally it seemed an encumbrance that cannot have put the singers at ease.
There were various directorial tics as well. Preceding every scene in which Don Giovanni appeared, a chime of church bells rang out charting the time of the day over which the action takes place – presumably a metaphor for the eponymous hero’s remaining time on earth.
There were some good ideas that were not entirely satisfactorily realised. The on-stage orchestral players at the ball in Act 1 and at Don Giovanni’s dinner in Act 2 were placed on stage to allow their counterpoint to fully register. Aurally this worked very well, but their entrances and exits can only be described as chaotic. At Don Giovanni’s Act 1 ball there was also a frame over which a movement troupe hung and moved as if representing a huge chandelier which one initially hoped that Don Giovanni would make his escape by leaping onto – but no. It was visually potentially very interesting – but the idea was wasted.
Costuming was also rather odd and not really set in any defined period. In Act 1 Don Giovanni’s apparel seemed more appropriate to Captain Hook in a production of Peter Pan, and elsewhere Leporello, Don Giovanni and the Commendatore all seemed to be wearing almost identical dress. The peasantry had the most consistent costuming.
Much was therefore expected of the performers. Best of all was the Donna Anna of Klára Kolonits, who has all the vocal allure, technique and temperament required for this fiendish role. She was focus of the eye and ear every time she was on stage (and knew it!), and she delivered her two big arias with considerable aplomb, particularly ‘Non mi dir’. She also blended well with the unusually positive Don Ottavio of István Kovácsházi. Kovácsházi has a pleasant and rather forthright tenor, and his ‘Dalla sua pace’ was very attractively sung. ‘Il mio tesoro’ was less successful, probably because of the rather driven tempo set by the conductor, but also because the tenor’s singing was drowned out by the clatter of typewriter keys which he was operating as he sang.
Poor Gertrúd Wittinger was required to play Donna Elvira as a somnambulist zombie, which was a shame as she has an attractive voice, certainly up to the demands of the part. In ‘Mi tradi’ she had to start singing on her side, perched in front of the apple, and yet managed a bravura display of the aria.
Zerlina and Masetto were vocally adequate, but generally rather charmless, and the same charge could really be levelled at the Leporello of Tóth János, whose interpretation was very much from the buffo school, and rather roughly sung. Sadly he directed his ‘Catalogue’ aria at the audience rather than at Donna Elvira (even though she was still meandering impassively around the stage). Kolos Kováts was a resonant Commendatore, whose qualities certainly were evident in his Act 2 reappearance – although he and Tamás Busa’s initial encounter was rather undermined by their perfunctory and embarrassing swordplay.
It is probably not terribly fair to pronounce judgement on either Tamás Busa or Levente Molnar in the circumstances. However, even making allowances for his vocal indisposition, Busa did not seem to have much of the necessary charisma Don Giovanni requires. The younger Molnar certainly has some of that, although he was prone to over-emphatic singing, almost shouting many of his lines at times, though his serenade was softly sung and introspective. He saved the performance, and obviously knew the production well enough.
The standard of orchestral playing was very high, the swirling accompaniment to Elvira’s ‘Mi tradi’ in particular showing off woodwind and strings to telling effect. Mozart’s musical depiction of the trudge and arrival of the Commendatore in Act 2 and his banging on the door was tremendously exciting and atmospheric. The conductor, Gergely Kesselyák, kept the pace up throughout – with mixed results in some cases, as mentioned earlier. He’s obviously a musical talent to be reckoned with, but as a director I think his talents are less obvious – at least on this showing.
The end of the performance deserves a mention as it was so odd. As the Trio before Don Giovanni’s descent into hell was being sung, the entire orchestra platform with conductor’s podium rose upwards until they more or less obscured the singers. At the same time, a rear stage platform bearing the chorus, now in evening dress as for a concert performance, rose in the background. The curtain then fell, and the conductor invited applause. Then all the other characters reappeared in front of the curtain – also in concert dress – to sing the final pages and ensemble. Bizarre!