A charming Don Giovanni in Budapest

I’m mostly in Munich this year for the Bayerische Staatsoper. And I chose it intentionally, knowing that the Staatsoper meant household-name soloists and crazy Regietheater in addition to a stellar ensemble (not to mention the playing and conducting). But sometimes it’s nice to be reminded that there’s more to opera than fame and concepts. There’s singing and there’s acting, and beyond that, very little matters. All of this is by way of saying that the Don Giovanni I saw at the Erkel Theater in Budapest on March 26th was not flashy. The talent was mostly home-grown. The sets and costumes were simple and in time period. Nothing unexpected happened (well, except for the surprise inclusion of the Zerlina/Leporello duet). And it was all wonderfully charming.

This production seems to take much of its inspiration from Tirso de Molina’s original play El burlador de Sevilla. Don Juan is sleeping his way around the 14th century (um, give or take one hundred years? I get fuzzy on costume time period identification pre-1600s). We first see him appear masked, all in black, which is not specified in Tirso’s script, but is definitely a cliche of the genre. The constraints of “period costuming” are loosened enought to give Don Giovanni and Leporello swashbuckling tri-cornered hats—a liberty I definitely approve of! The set shows some carved stone doorways that remain onstage throughout. Various items in the background (differently colored flats, a balcony, a villa, or the statue of the Commendatore) mark the opera’s different locations and serve the action well. We’re not seeing millions of dollars onstage like we might at the Met or the Bayerische Staatsoper, and that’s actually rather refreshing.

All photos taken from the Hungarian State Opera website
All photos taken from the Hungarian State Opera website

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: nothing else matters much if the acting and singing are good. Here, they are. I want to start by saying something good about Cseh Antal’s dopey, well-sung Masetto, because further mentions of him are about to vanish in my rapt adoration of the utterly fabulous Szemere Zita. If I hadn’t seen it here, I wouldn’t believe it was possible to steal the show as Zerlina. But she does. She’s a competent actress, winsome with some sass and spine, but it’s her voice that really stuns. During “Batti, batti,” she took her top note higher (as a cadenza), floating it pianissimo, crescendoing to a ringing forte, and bringing it back down to the original volume and texture. All perfectly smoothly. It was a lesson in vocal control. I thought her flashier cadenza in “Vedrai, carino” was actually a tad tasteless, but my fellow operagoer disagreed. (“If you’ve got it, flaunt it,” was her sentiment, and Szemere certainly has it.) It was also really exciting to see Zerlina’s usually cut scene with Leporello. (She ties him up while threatening him; he tries to flatter his way out of the situation but fails.) Even though it does nothing to advance the plot, it’s good fun, especially with this cast!

The usually cut Zerlina-Masetto scene
The usually cut Zerlina-Masetto scene

Palerdi Andras made a good impression as Leporello right away, opening the show with a clear and funny “Notte e giorno faticar.” He has the expressive ability of a character baritone, combined with the resonance and legato of a more lyrical fach. There are no harsh edges here, unless he wants there to be. Leporello probably has the most fun acting role in the show, and Palerdi milked it, from his congenial (albeit ill-fated) attempts at moralizing to his employer to his utter panic in the statue scene. And Fried Peter made a statue worth fearing, with his booming bass voice and clunky armor.

Don Giovanni and his dinner guest
Don Giovanni and his dinner guest

Gianluca Margheri, playing the title role, was the cast’s only “imported” singer. Operbase insists that he doesn’t just travel the world singing Don Giovanni, but it’s hard to understand why not. He has it down pat: the dashing persona, the seductive hand-kissing, the swashbuckling fighting, the insane defiance—they’re all there. (Once, when he was menacing Masetto, he took a step forward and casually brushed his coat aside to reveal his sword. It was so smoothly executed and so full of wonderful bravado, I nearly swooned.) Oh, and the voice is there, too. It’s smooth and sexy—perhaps without as much variety as some baritones’ instruments, but certainly with plenty of energy and expression.

Donna Elvira's entrance
Donna Elvira’s entrance

As Don Giovanni’s abandoned not-quite-wife Donna Elvira, Fodor Beatrix took a while to warm up. Her big voice seemed unwieldy at first, which was problematic given the sheer quantity of fast-moving music Elvira has to sing. But by “Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata” she was navigating wide intervals and quick runs with aplomb. As that’s definitely my favorite of Elvira’s arias, I can forgive her slow start. She was also great at the supercilious-but-spurned persona. Bakonyi Aniko’s Donna Anna was more consistent, singing the role as though she was actually comfortable in its stratospheric tessitura. She was also a blessedly unambiguous character (shout-out to the director, Gianfranco de Bosio): Don Giovanni tried to rape her at the beginning. She was not happy about that. Her hesitation about throwing herself into Don Ottavio’s arms was the combined result of that trauma and her father’s sudden, violent death. Period. (I recognize that other interpretations of that bit can work, but they’ve been overdone. I’m tired of the “Donna Anna is a terrible person who invited Don Giovanni in and wants to hide it” trope, unless it’s in the service of some particularly interesting concept. It usually isn’t. End rant.) Bakonyi also gets bonus points for fainting both gracefully and realistically, a hard thing to do onstage. (Trust me; I’ve tried.)

Don Ottavio holding a fainting Donna Anna
Don Ottavio holding a fainting Donna Anna

We only have one cast member left to mention: everyone’s least favorite tenor hero, Don Ottavio. How is such a nice, upstanding guy supposed to compete with the bad-boy rake at the center of the show? Szappanos Tibor didn’t manage. His voice is nicely flexible despite its large size, and his displayed wonderful breath control during the long, tricky runs in “Il mio tesoro.” But he lacked the spark of charisma to raise his performance from “good” to “exciting.”

That’s kind of how I felt about the orchestra, too. Led by Kali Gabor, they played an okay overture where both tempi and dynamics were too mezzo-mezzo for long stretches. That said, they supported the cast very competently during the action of the opera. So while they didn’t stand out positively, they also didn’t get in the way of a good show.

And a good show it was! It wasn’t shocking, and it’s unlikely to make any lists of “most memorable productions.” But in my cherished world of German Regietheater, it’s nice be reminded that traditional productions can also be a lot of fun.

(A note on names: Hungarian convention puts family names first. I have followed that convention when introducing Hungarians, and I have used family names for later mentions of the same people. My apologies for any mistakes or confusion.)

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