Tonight sees the premiere of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni in the Metropolitan Hall on Taipei's Bade Road. It's likely to be an invigorating show, with a young cast and reportedly spectacular sets. More unusual, however, is the fact that not all the music will be Mozart's.
“Mozart wrote his opera after seeing his predecessor Gluck's opera on the same subject,” said the production's director Tseng Dau-hsiong (曾道雄). “So Andras Ligeti, the Taipei Symphony Orchestra's maestro and conductor of these performances, suggested we incorporate some of the music from that opera into our production. It's a ballet scene that lasts about seven minutes, and it shows Don Giovanni watching his doppelganger undergoing a similar fate to the one he himself is about to confront. We've placed it just before Mozart's Graveyard Scene — it should add an interesting new perspective to the story! It's something completely new. It's never been done before.”
The Taipei Symphony Orchestra (TSO) has in recent years tended to be overshadowed in the operatic sphere by the spectacular successes of the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO). But Ligeti led the TSO in a fine La Traviata last year, and it has the advantage of performing in the medium-sized and acoustically excellent Metropolitan Hall, more suitable for Mozart's operas than the over-large National Concert Hall where the NSO usually performs.
Ligeti is also an important Mozartean. His wonderful recording of three Mozart piano concertos with pianist Jeno Jando, for instance, can be heard on the bargain Naxos label (Naxos 8.550202).
At a rehearsal last week the extensive demands of the long score were in evidence. Only two-thirds of it could be run through in the time available, but even so the strong voices of several of the principals were readily apparent. Jessica Chen (陳興安), one of Taiwan's most notable sopranos, sang Donna Elvira with enormous conviction, Grace Lin (林慈音) was in great form as Donna Anna, and Liau Chong-boon (廖聰文) made a very strong Leporello. Chen, incidentally, will sing Brunnhilde in Wagner's Die Walkure in Bangkok next year, while Liau will double as Hunding and the giant Fafner in the NSO's Ring in Taipei next month.
The peasant Masetto, who has his fiancee seduced under his nose and by the devious aristocrat Giovanni, will be sung by the very strong bass Lo Chun-ying (羅俊穎). “I enjoy singing Mozart roles best,” he said. “He suits my voice. I've sung Leporello before, and last year I sang Sarastro in Die Zauberflote in Tokyo.” Rehearsals for this production of Don Giovanni began in June, he told me, resuming after a break at the end of July.
Don Giovanni is Mozart's most paradoxical and argued-over mature opera. It tells the story of the Casanova-like serial seducer, an aristocrat who's happy to use his social position to entrap every attractive woman he sets eyes on. He's pursued by past victims who are still desperately in love with him, notably Elvira, as well as their enraged boyfriends, notably Don Ottavio, who try to overcome their inferior social position to demand reparation.
The main issue that divides critics is Mozart's attitude toward his protagonist. Some, such as Performance Workshop's Stan Lai (賴聲川) who directed the NSO production in 2004, see him as a liberating force who leaves the women he's had contact with changed forever. Others, more credibly in my view, point to the fact that Giovanni kills the father of one of his conquests in the first moments of the opera, and that from then on his moral status can't be in serious doubt. His antics may be comic, but his eventual demise is assured.