Mozart Don Giovanni
Barbican 27 June 2006
Mozart Quartet No 15 The Duke Quartet
This report of an evening at the Barbican/Classic FM's Mostly Mozart summer festival is more a note about receiving and responding to a surfeit of Mozart during his special year, rather than a regular review.
On arrival at The Barbican, the comforting sound of strings playing Mozart pervaded the foyer. I listened from up above, and later went down close to the musicians, who told me that they were playing "Quartet No 15" (no mention of Kochel - No 421 - or key - D minor - on the little notice which identified them as the Duke Quartet (Paola Caballero, Lorna Geller, Arthur Rozmyslowicz and Tae-Mi Song - or maybe a different Duke Quartet?). The playing was excellent, fully professional.
A few people walked past towards the bar, meeting their friends... There was no seating within eyeshot, not even cushions, so one stood around for a time and then drifted away. Some half a dozen applauded half-heartedly when they stopped. Presumably they were paid a little...
The main hall filled for the concert performance of Don Giovanni, its eponymous anti-hero replaced after Dietrich Henschel (whom cognoscenti amongst the critical fraternity had come to hear) had withdrawn for reasons unexplained.
(Ascanio had likewise suffered loss of its star singer.)
Don Giovanni is an imperishable masterpiece which Ascanio in Alba wasn't, so it should have been fail-safe evening. One looked forward in prospect to a Bieito-free Don, a clean sheet to concentrate on Mozart undistracted by directorial ego-trips. But a concert performance only served to emphasise how this opera, the hardest of Mozart's mature ones to bring off, nonetheless depends upon the stage.
Apart from being told when to come on the platform or go off, the singers were apparently left to their own devices. All knew their roles well, sung in Italian from memory; we were reminded of the text with English surtitles. (One of the broadsheet critics described it as semi-staged; so perfunctorily that I had not assumed so.)
That doesn't work in the concert hall; eyes it becomes distracting to watch the conductor centre stage, one feels for the large chorus patiently waiting to make their small contributions, and one becomes distractingly preoccupied with the soloists' idiosyncracies. All were good or very good singers active on the European scene, and they had no problems projecting over the on stage orchestra. The Commendatore went through his death-throes standing erect in penguin suit; the rustics, peasant girl Zerlina and gauche Mazetto indisinguishable from their class superiors; all illusion goes by the board. Leporello towering over his master physically and vocally;
Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, (Henschel's replacement) seemed a nice young man, rather sex-obsessed, but lacking the driven menace and aristocratic authority to achieve the centrality of the Don's place in the scheme of things.
The large period orchestra (which tempted me to go to this event) was fine under Evelino Pidò's firm control, with the winds especially characterful. It was odd to see that the strings were based upon a single double-bass (two others came on stage to play for the party scene, but afterwards remained standing still and silent to left and right during the rest of the first act finale, a strange oddity).
I left feeling that concert performances of operas needed special reasons and justifications. The chief one is rare repertoire, operas on the fringe needing to be heard before opera companies can be persuaded to stage them. Semi-staging without scenery can work well, but does require a director's input (maybe Peter Sellars' Zaide will exemplify that on July 6).
1. A correspondent comments: The Barbican does merit censure for un-advertised substitutions. Their web site still lists Dietrich Henschel as the Don. If they have time to print the details in the programme they surely have time to put changes of soloists,on their website, and (as in the case of Powder her Face advertised as “semi staged” then converted to just a concert version. (Other venues keep their websites up to date and some even phone around to warn ticket-holders of important changes!)
2. The Guardian re Thomas Adès's Powder Her Face: - - hasn't been staged in the UK for some years. And nor was it here. Originally advertised as a semi-staging, by the time of performance this had been downgraded, frustratingly, into concert format.
© Peter Grahame Woolf