Fighting Fate: Don Giovanni at the Teatro Massimo, Palermo

Mozart – Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni – Alessio Arduini
Donna Anna – Sarah Jane Brandon
Donna Elvira – Aga Mikolaj
Don Ottavio – Benjamin Hulett
Leporello – Riccardo Fassi
Masetto – Evan Hughes
Zerlina – Laura Giordano
Commendatore – Adam Palka

Coro del Teatro Massimo, Orchestra del Teatro Massimo / Omer Meir Wellber.
Stage director – Marco Gandini

Teatro Massimo, Palermo, Italy.  Saturday, September 26th, 2020.

This Don Giovanni marked my first visit to Sicily and to Palermo’s magnificent Teatro Massimo.  It’s a handsome venue, full of that inimitable sense of history unique to Italian venues.  Of course, this Don Giovanni was not quite as planned.  It was to have been part of the Da Ponte trilogy imported from Brussels, but given the current sanitary situation, we were given a mise-en-espace directed by Marco Gandini.  The audience was seated in the boxes, while the orchestra played from the floor of the theatre, and the action mainly took place on the stage, with characters occasionally singing from next to the conductor.  In the final scene, the gentlemen of the Massimo chorus sang from high up in the top level of the theatre.  One of the three performances, of which this was the last, was broadcast on the house’s website.  I’m not sure what the theatre’s accountants thought of this arrangement, but it points to both a fundamental need to perform and the value culture has for this country.

Photo: © Rosellina Garbo

There was another reason why this Don Giovanni was not as planned and that was the indisposition of Sarah Jane Brandon’s Anna.   Brandon sang in the ensembles and recitatives but was replaced in her arias by Aga Mikolaj’s Elvira who, consequently, had quite the assignment tonight.

Again, given the current situation, there were some differences in how characters engaged with each other, from what we might be used to, always with the need to keep one metre away from each other.  The substantial Massimo chorus entered wearing masks before removing them to sing, and Don Giovanni did his seducing from a distance.  And yet, even given these exceptional arrangements, we still got to see vital, lived-in performances from the entire cast.  Video, designed by Virginio Levrio, added visual interest, with images of Venice, Italy, and languid surveys of the furry torso of Alessio Arduini’s Giovanni.  The final scene saw lasers, designed by Filippo Scortichini, projected across the orchestra, bathing them and the room in a hellish red glow.  Given the limitations imposed by the current measures, this made for an engaging and vital framework for the action – much more than the sum of its parts.

Photo: © Rosellina Garbo

Musically, there was much to enjoy.  The house Music Director, Omer Meir Wellber is clearly much appreciated by the Massimo audience, who awarded him with a generous ovation.  He led the performance from the fortepiano, while a rather underused harpsichordist added occasional commentary, apparently seeming to coincide with characters seducing each other.  I’d never considered the harpsichord the most seductive of instruments but clearly someone does.  Meir Wellber accompanied the recitatives imaginatively – although there were times where it became both distracting and strayed into atonality.  All credit to the singers for their ability to maintain pitch while this was going on.  Similarly, while I enjoyed hearing the fortepiano scintillating within the orchestral textures, I can’t say I was convinced by the accuracy of Meir Wellber’s pianism, particularly when playing in unison with the violins.  It was undeniably interesting, if perhaps likely to be tiring on repeated hearings.  Tempi were generally sensible, apart from some rather gratuitous gear changes in the Act 1 finale, and the band acquitted themselves well.  I had a seat in a box overlooking the centre of the orchestra and it did feel that coordination between stage and pit wasn’t always optimal – though how much of that might have been due to the unique acoustical properties of this arrangement remains to be seen.  Unfortunately, Meir Wellber elected to cut the epilogue.  This brutal cut always sends us out into the night with the sense of a cadence in desperate search of resolution.  As so often ornamentation, essential in this repertoire, was largely missing.

Arduini was a very fine Giovanni.  His baritone is firm and handsome, and he truly savours the text.  He has undeniable and energetic stage presence.  He pulled the tone right back in the serenade, singing with honeyed seductiveness – even if, as of yet, there’s a tendency to lose the core of the tone at lower dynamics.  He also sang the champagne aria with bravura, turning the corners with ease, yet never hectoring.  His Don Giovanni is perhaps a work in progress, but it’s already a very satisfying one.  Riccardo Fossi gave us a witty Leporello, sung in a resonant bass-baritone and also savoured the text.  He did have a tendency to run ahead of the beat at times, but his verbal acuity and stage energy gave much pleasure.  Benjamin Hulett gave us a very classy piece of singing in his ‘dalla sua pace’, his bright, well-placed tenor absolutely even in emission, with an impeccable legato.  Adam Palka boomed efficiently as the Commendatore, even if there was a tendency to distort the vowels in order to create a fuller sound.  Evan Hughes brought an attractive baritone to the role of Masetto, even if the tone sounds somewhat hollow as yet, he’s young and this will surely fill out in due course.

Photo: © Rosellina Garbo

I won’t dwell on Brandon’s Anna due to her indisposition, although she did contribute efficiently to the ensembles and recitatives.  Laura Giordano gave us a delectable Zerlina, her orange-toned soprano delightfully plangent and she phrased her arias lovingly.  Mikolaj dispatched Elvira’s numbers with confidence, though the lack of ornamentation, of taking risks with the line, meant that her Elivra lacked the ultimate degree of individuality.  She did, however, give us an exciting ‘non mi dir’, singing with authority and confidence, dispatching the florid writing with ease, and phrasing Anna’s celebrated aria with commanding presence.  She may not have planned to sing this number, but she knocked it out of the park.

This Don Giovanni made for a highly enjoyable evening in the theatre- despite a few small reservations along the way.  The singing was very good and, in Arduini’s Giovanni, revealed a very major talent.  In the final scene, with the gentlemen’s chorus booming from above, Arduini’s Giovanni fighting against his inevitable fate on the stage, with the orchestra playing as if their lives depended on it on the floor below, there was a magnificent sense of being immersed in Mozart’s sound world that felt completely overwhelming.  Congratulations and gratitude are due to the Teatro Massimo for having the vision to mount this evening.

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