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1.09.2007

"Don Giovanni"

Jonathan Wikeley 
Opera Now Magazine September/October 2007

The thousands of Holiday ymakers who make their way every summer to the Bulgarian equivalent of the Costa del Sol, the coastline fronting the Black Sea, could perhaps be forgiven for not having heard of the Chateau Evxinograd. The gatehouse is an unprepossessing exit off the main coast road, and you would drive past it without a second glance. Were you get past the security, you would findyourself in 80 acres or so of botanical gardens, vineyards, and more than a mile of pristine beach. Barely any of the audience, many of whom had come locally from around Varna or travelled from the capital, Sofia, had ever had the chance to see this palace, so there was more than a touch of inquisitiveness about them as they arrived. This was where Bulgaria’s rulers had all once stayed or lived, after all; communist leaders had strolled round the formal gardens with Russian Presidents, kings had entertained the high and mighty, and it is where the current president goes to get away from it all.

Into this beautiful oasis of nature and architecture dropped Katherine Hataaja, originally from Finland, and a singer at the Bulgarian National Opera. An invitation to a reception at the palace got her thinking (“Iwanted to do something really different, shake audiences up”) and saw the beginnings of a project that she hopes will turn into an annual festival. The phrase “starting small” is not something one normally ascribes to opera, and although this year’s run of performances has been short, the production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni has required the organisational skills of a magician, something that Hataaja has managed – more or less – by herself.

À la Glyndebourne, this production by Hataaja’s new company Operosa had a long interval where the audience were provided with picnics eaten at tables in the formal gardens of the chateau (that we were able to do this at all was testament to the remarkable organisational skills on show as a torrential hailstorm three hours before curtain up shattered most of the 600 wine glasses that had already been laid out!). The covered auditorium that had been specially constructed, seated approximately 300 and provided a bright and fresh setting for the opera.

One got the impression that director John La Bouchardière had a fair amount of fun in devising this production. The back wall of the stage wasclear, offering a spectacular view of the park containing, appropriately enough, a Commendatore-like statue on his horse. The set was modernwith a couple of fun twists along the way: Donna Elvira was all Italian chic with her oversized sunglasses, frosty stare and headscarf; Masetto and Zerlina were suitably unstylish in vile purple suit and 1980s wedding dress; Leporello was the long-suffering chauffeur; Don Giovanni was inleathers, and Bryn Terfelesque in appearance; and one of the chorus was rather oddly dressed as what I presume was a traditional Bulgarian peasant. As with the wide range of costumes, so with the voices. The festival aims to help younger singers, and the cream of Bulgaria’s youngtalent was on show. Petar Naydenov’s Don Giovanni was assured and rich of tone, and Petar Buchkov’s Leporello was equally fine. Antonia Radneva was an excellent Zerlina but was not quite matched by Masetto (Delian Slavov). Likewise Karina Skrzeszewska (Donna Anna) had a much better voice and presence than Darius Pietrzykowski (Don Ottavio). Vera Girginova (Donna Elvira) sang beautifully, if rather quietly, and Angel Hristov’s Commendatore was splendidly terrifying. It is, of course, the Commendatore’s scenes that offer the director the most dramatic opportunities in Don Giovanni, and which provided a genuinely heart-stopping moment when the horse-and-rider statue in the grounds appeared to move. Sure enough, when Don Giovanni opens the door to the Commendatore, the spotlight on the statue reveals it is now riderless. Simple but most effective.As a first night of a first festival there are perhaps inevitably going to be some mishaps. A hailstorm in otherwise 40-degree centigrade heat is, after all, a trifle unexpected; and a malicious breeze provided some unintentionally comic moments, as Leporello bravely wrestled with curtains that billowed extravagantly in the first few scenes. The Sofia State Philharmonic Orchestra was directed rather breathlessly by Eraldo Salmieri – I wished for a little more time between phrases, and indeed arias; and whoever suggested that a clavinova would substitute adequately for a harpsichord should be given a good talking to. Overall, though, this was a vibrant and vastly enjoyable performance that made excellent use of its surroundings through simple yet imaginative lighting and staging effects. There was a high standard of singing, and, despite the darkly comic nature of the opera, a vibrant sense of excitement pervaded the whole occasion from audience, performers and organisers. Roll on next year.