After inaugurating the new season just weeks ago with an old production of Die Walküre, even for the second opera of the season, the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, plagued by cash problems and interior turbulences (just a few days ago the General Manager was replaced by an external commissioner), has wisely opted to resort to yet another revival. Fortunately, just as in the case of the Wagner opera, the choice fell on a production of Don Giovanni that received rave reviews when it was first presented (and never revived) in 1997 at the Festival di Ferrara on the occasion of Claudio Abbado’s first approach to the Mozart masterpiece. The story to which Mozart’s music gives flesh and blood is narrated, in this version, just as a mere res facti: naked and effective like never before. The objectivity of the music of Mozart, born from his capacity to contemplate from equal distance any aspect of the “human” as well as to represent it from within, is here exalted. There is a single set: a concave line at the centre, slightly convex at both sides (almost resembling the bottom of a violin), made with high white doors plastered with stucco, the work of set designer Maurizio Balò. The movements of the characters, their entries and exits, happen through them, with a rhythm at times convulsive but geometrical (the finale of Act I), at times laboured, particularly when it is associated with a music capable to give body and time to the sordid and the sublime (the immense Act II Sextet).
Lorenzo Mariani’s direction is characterized by an elegant simplicity, but it does not limit itself to draw and deduce gestures, movements and attitudes from the music: in Mozart the simplest modulation has a precise psychological meaning. It goes beyond: favoured by being able to work with actors/singers, it is pure theatre. In a few words, the conception of the show is strongly unitary. There are a few things that did not work, and unfortunately one of them is the core and essence of the opera, the death of Don Giovanni, who anticlimactically jumps off the stage and runs through the audience disappearing behind one of the doors of the stalls.
Zubin Mehta drew from the orchestra sounds of exceptional beauty and a performance of dazzling clearness and lucidity. Noteworthy were also the elegance and the rich inventiveness of the accompaniments. The sweetly soft and stealthy sound of the orchestra under “Là ci darem la mano”; the exceptional analysis of the instruments in “Batti, batti bel Masetto”, in which the ingenious scales and arpeggios of the cello obbligato stood out in a particular manner; the sharp sound and the rich dynamics of “Ah, pieta signori miei”; the splendid string in “Quali eccessi, o numi”; and the whirling Finale were other outstanding moments. At times some tempos of languid and pathetic moments may have sounded slow, and perhaps they were; for instance “Dalla sua pace” was taken at a euphemistically leisurely speed, but Mehta’s technique and rhythmic pulse prevented it from falling apart, as it certainly would have happened if a less experienced conductor had chosen the same tempo. In his hands this aria, sustained by a velvety and hushed sonority, became like a dreamy arrest of time, perfectly rendering the sense of a Don Ottavio lost in reverie, an effect in part spoiled by tenor Paolo Fanale’s too conspicuous fast vibrato, or, shall I say, bleat. It is unfortunate because this young Italian tenor, such an unappealing timbre excepted, possesses a fine technique allowing him to execute messe di voce, pianissimos, as well as accurate agility.
The whole cast was on a generally fine level, none of them truly standing out for better or for worse. One would have never thought that Alessandro Luongo, a fast rising Tuscan baritone, was making his role debut as Don Giovanni, such was his confidence, both vocal and interpretative. A natural born actor, with his almost feral manners he seemed to espouse the version of the protagonist as an animal rendered obsolete by civilization, rather than a tragic hero defending his genius against complacent practicality, and even less a faceless libertine whose real significance is in what other more concretely realized characters see in him. Vocally the role did not present particular hurdles for him, and he was thus able – with Mehta’s obvious complicity – to realize beautiful effects such as the second strophe of his Act II Serenade, all sung in a melting mezza-voce that had nothing to do with the falsetto. On the other hand, there was too much barking in “Fin ch’han dal vino”, a result of his attempt to put too much emphasis on almost every syllable. Roberto de Candia’s Leporello was noteworthy for comic charm and considerable sympathy. His voice is remarkable- forward, natural, and round. His “Madamina” was alternately grand, sly, overbearing, and insinuating, but always dexterous: a Leporello cantante, as it should be, and not a buffo abounding in histrionics, snickering, and other such tricks. I only wished he had eschewed the humming at the end of his aria, a tradition apparently originated by Luigi Lablache in the early nineteenth century. In an ideal world, Don Giovanni and Leporello should physically resemble each other, which was certainly not the case in this production, de Candia’s rotund figure clashing with Luongo’s athletic looks. In the relatively short role of Masetto, Nicolò Ayroldi (the third pure baritone in three roles that can be cast with anything ranging from a lyric baritone to a bass) displayed an appealing and smooth voice. Stephen Milling, last heard a couple of weeks ago on the same stage as Hunding, proved more comfortable in Wagner than in Mozart. His Commendatore, albeit aptly thundering and stentorian, suffered too many lapses of intonation.
Soprano Yolanda Auyanet was announced as indisposed, and thus, as in all such cases, the reviewer is not allowed a thorough analysis of her performance. However, as I had already heard her two years ago as Mimì, it is safe to say that she belongs to the category of the “lighter” Annas, who normally negotiate without particular problems “Non mi dir bell’idol mio”, but – who more, who less - lack the vehemence and thrust to do full just justice to the Act I revenge aria. Both Donna Elvira and Zerlina were entrusted to two mezzo-sopranos, a choice I fully approve. Australian Caitlin Hulcup, who was a first-class Octavian for the inauguration of last year’s Festival, returned as Elvira and was again in lovely voice, performing with tremendous rhythmic fervour. Perhaps even too much, because at times her emotional involvement endangered her ligne du chant and led her to occasional straying from the right pitch. She flung herself through the cadenzas with extraordinary purpose, signalling at once the vulnerability and tenacity of the character. In a few words, her vocal vibrancy and dramatic commitment suggested a passion that seemed indubitably Spanish and youthful, but not entirely aristocratic. It may be a legitimate choice, because Elvira, though belonging to the high society, is here caught in a particularly thorny moment, and as she herself says, she has “perduto la prudenza”. Zerlina, with its low tessitura, is much better suited to a lyric mezzo-soprano than the traditional light, if not soubrettish soprano. Marina Comparato, with her warm timbre, was cultivated in “Batti, batti” and in “Vedrai, carino” had a particular gleaming tone. Add a svelte figure and a playful, winsome personality and the result was an ideal Zerlina.
The chorus does not play a large role in this opera, but it marked the debut of the new chorus master, Lorenzo Fratini, who will have the chance to display his talent in the next scheduled work, Carmina Burana, an event long sold out and eagerly awaited especially for the mise-en-scène of La Fura dels Bauls. I will duly report.
Photographs © Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino