It was an exciting prospect when it was announced, the new season's opening concert featuring Robin Ticciati and a stellar cast in a concert performance of Mozart’s ever-black Don Giovanni. Since then, the death of Sir Charles Mackerras intervened, giving this performance a bittersweet flavour and lending the phrase 'in memory of' a peculiar twist.
It was the Magic Flute that brought Mackerras and the SCO together in the 1990s, and Mozart continued to figure centrally in their relationship. Indeed, Mackerras had been scheduled to direct the season's all-Mozart finale next May. His memory, tonight, then, was very much alive, but while there is an obvious temptation to read omens into Ticciati's choice of repertoire for his season opener, this relationship is going to have a dynamic of its own. It's an exciting prospect, and we can savour some clues from the sheer ambition of tonight's offering. Ticciati says that he wants to open every season in celebratory style, to welcome and enthuse his audience for the months ahead.
Make no mistake, a concert performance of Don Giovanni is an ambitious undertaking. It is easy to forget that Mozart was on the cutting edge in his own day, and his vocal writing makes tremendous demands. If instrumental techniques have evolved considerably in the intervening centuries, the human frame has not! Further, it is asking a great deal from everyone concerned, including the audience, to forego the visual dimension that a staged performance affords. It makes one realize how inane the old debate over the relative primacy of music and words is when you take away the mise-en-scène. Needless to say, in the Mozart/Da Ponte collaborations, that's a lot of missing mise.
Fortunately the stellar cast sparkled, with Florian Boesch's machismo in the title role constantly counterpointed by the scene-stealing Vito Priante's suave Leporello. Susan Gritton brought weight and authority to Donna Anna while Kate Royal gave Donna Elvira an elegant dignity, nicely complimented by Malin Christensson's sweet and sexy Zerlina. With Maximilian Schmitt's Don Ottavio — long on lyricism, short on clues — and David Soar's intense Masetto, Rafal Siwek was splendidly awesome as the Commendatore.
Ticciati himself was barely visible, his stickwork sometimes minimal to the point of stasis, and yet everything flowed in nicely judged balance, with energy and grace abundant in equal measure. It was interesting to see natural trumpets and horns in the ensemble, lending their softer, mellower timbre. A bit strange, then, that the trombones in the climactic scene were (as far as I could tell) modern instruments.
Going back to the point about words versus music versus mise-en-scène, it is worth pondering the relative persuasive powers of the three aspects, especially in view of Don Giovanni's subject matter, which is all to do with persuasion, deception, accommodation and error. The thirst for retribution and closure, one might say, is on the dark side of the classical sonata form. While formality of that kind is somewhat beside the point here, the darkness isn't. The absence of staging draws attention to the subtleties of Mozart's sound-world where, counterpointing the ebullient, lively and joyous surface is a darkness articulated both by the predominantly lower-register male voices, and the protean swell of energy driven from the orchestral crypt.
But with the spirit of Mackerras presiding as a wholesome antidote to the vengeful Commendatore, tonight's performance emphatically put darkness in its place. It is not just that life goes on, but that another rewarding — and, one hopes, long term - relationship is taking shape nicely.
Photo: Florian Boesch by Stefan von der Deken
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