A Conductor-Director Reframes Mozart's Villain

Conductor Ivan Fischer rehearses his own production of Mozart's 'Don Giovanni,' first staged in Budapest and then at New York's Mostly Mozart Festival. i i

Conductor Ivan Fischer rehearses his own production of Mozart's 'Don Giovanni,' first staged in Budapest and then at New York's Mostly Mozart Festival. Zsuzsanna Peto/Budapest, Palace of Arts hide caption

itoggle caption Zsuzsanna Peto/Budapest, Palace of Arts
Conductor Ivan Fischer rehearses his own production of Mozart's 'Don Giovanni,' first staged in Budapest and then at New York's Mostly Mozart Festival.

Conductor Ivan Fischer rehearses his own production of Mozart's 'Don Giovanni,' first staged in Budapest and then at New York's Mostly Mozart Festival.

Zsuzsanna Peto/Budapest, Palace of Arts

In a summer whose heat began stirring with the Dominique Strauss-Kahn arrest, continued to climb with revolts around the world, and is hurtling toward its end with more and more of the UK engulfed in flames, a new staging of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni, bursting with questions about individual behavior and societal consequences, could not have been more weirdly prescient.

No simple morality tale, the enigmatic Don Giovanni — which French author Gustave Flaubert once listed, along with Shakespeare's Hamlet and the sea, as "the three finest things God ever made" — is what Mozart called a "drama giocoso," a "playful comedy," the story of an aristocrat whose crimes ultimately send him to hell.

Don Giovanni was presented at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival. This was the first time in Mostly Mozart's 45-year history that Don Giovanni was presented at the festival — and adding to the intrigue was the fact that this production was both conducted and directed by the immensely gifted Hungarian conductor Ivan Fischer. He led his Budapest Festival Orchestra players in an astoundingly engaged and brilliant reading, with excellent performances from singers like American soprano Laura Aikin, who brought both warmth and anguish to the role of Donna Anna, and the vibrant, rich-voiced Portuguese baritone José Fadilha as the hapless Leporello.

In his role as stage director, Fischer created a compelling and innovative production in which 16 youthful actors from Budapest, dressed and made up in the grey-white of marble dust, were not just the chorus, but served as the stage props as well, forming themselves into walls, benches and windows. In other scenes, they were bleak bodies strewn about, suggesting the destruction that Don Giovanni has left in his wake.

To have one person serve as both director and conductor seems like quite a break with tradition. It is — and it isn't. A century ago, Wagner and Mahler regularly directed the operas they conducted; it's only in ensuing decades that the two functions were so definitively split. But Fischer, who in his youth was an actor and has worked extensively in the theater, says that the more modern division of labor is unfortunate.

"What I find disturbing," Fischer says, "is that idea that the director is the creative artist, and the conductor is the high priest of conservative convention. The result is that the singers are pulled in two entirely different directions simultaneously. I'm after a much more unified experience."

In Fischer's hands, Don Giovanni thankfully isn't a lovable, womanizing lug who gets into more than his fair share of scrapes. "He's a rapist and a murderer," Fischer points out. "I've been joking that if he were around today we'd send him to a shrink, but the truth is that he does do absolutely awful, evil things. And in the end, he gets lynched — and it's a tragedy."

It's within that truth that Fischer sees the real spark of Mozart and his collaborator Lorenzo Da Ponte's genius. "Mozart is a seer," Fischer explains. "He is ahead of his time, in that he explains the character to us. We understand who he is and why he is the way he is."

"Mozart never takes sides," Fischer continues. "There are no good guys, no bad guys. He is like Shakespeare in that respect. He creates believable characters. Don Giovanni is outside society, but we understand how it happened. His addiction is stronger than his self-control."

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