My mother asked me once, whilst staring aghast at my CD collection, why I needed so many copies of Don Giovanni. My response was,”Why do you watch the Super Bowl every year? It’s the same game; sometimes they play it better than other times.”
Is twelve is all that many? If you count the DVDs, that is. No, I don’t think so.
The interpretation of Don Giovanni can vary so much from baton to baton considering who’s holding it over which set of gentlefolk in black: from the pointillism of Arnold Östman with his original instruments and wee voices to the Salzburg Cinerama of Herbert von Karajan and singers more tuned to Verdi than the Viennese. I think they are all valid in context.
This release is the start of a new Mozart cycle by Deutsche Grammophon which will encompass the composer’s seven greatest operas. A project of this scope, the liner notes tell us, has not been attempted by this label hasn’t done since the 1970’s with Karl Bohm—who is referred to in said liner notes as Mozart’s “representative on earth”. Funny, I thought that was Charles Mackerras?
I’m going to say flat out that I think this is the best performance of this opera I’ve ever heard and I’ll tell you why; everyone is listening to each other so intently in every possible combination it becomes an extraordinarily intense experience just by virtue of the ensemble interaction. So often with recordings we get the sense that the singers aren’t even in the same space with each other. Sometimes it turns out they’re not even there on the same day. Not so here since this was culled from live concerts in Baden-Baden and you get a real flavor of a theatrical performance. Happily, it’s no mere grand parade of disparate voices and vocal styles that we’ve become accustomed to with the big label entries in this field.
Yannick Nézet-Séquin’s conducting is so attentive to every tempo change and rest and yet keeps everything flowing so easily that he never reveals the great complext of choices he’s making every moment. He is beautifully supported by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra which cut its teeth playing this score around the world starting in 1998 in the Peter Brook production under its founder Claudio Abbado and later Daniel Harding.
I’m guessing they’re playing modern instruments in period style and it’s just about right for me. It’s a fleet reading and my only caveat is that there isn’t enough differentiation during the Act I finale with the three orchestras. I’m going to lay blame on the engineers for that one. A wonderful account of the overture is equal parts playful and serious in just the right balance that Mozart needs, though perhaps a tad heavy on the kettle drum.
Tempos are agile and energetic and there are some surprising choices. The coup de grace delivered to the Commendatore is a slow fade that perfectly fades into the trio. The first appearance of the maskers in the party before the Act I finale was a tempo and not as slow as I normally appreciate. But, for their second entry, Nézet-Séquin double clutches everyone down to a truly luxuriant meter that gave me gooseflesh.
I should also single out for very high praise the cocktail continuo stylings of Benjamin Bayl on the fortepiano. He does some stunning work, that I could understand might seem fussy to some, but beautifully dovetails the recitatives into the arias so that there isn’t that pregnant,”we will now sing” pause before the start of every number. His lead in to Leporello’s Catalogue aria is just one moment that brought a smile to my face. His contribution is especially crucial to why this performance enjoys such a considerable level of forward momentum.
With nary a weak link in this cas, I’ll begin with the Masetto of Konstantin Wolff, who is certainly over qualified for this assignment due to his extensive background in the baroque. He brings a warm attractive bass-baritone to the part and always keeps himself from sounding too hectoring which is the trap in this role.
Vitalij Kowaljow makes a fine showing as the Commendatore and is especially good in the opening scene and trio. His reappearance in the final scene is very strong and, I’m happy to report, no studio sound effects to disrupt the music.
Eyebrows raised when I saw the name “Rolando Villazon” on the box cover and, true to form, he offers the most individual Don Ottavio I can recall. Sopranos say that Mozart keeps the voice in line but I’ve never heard a tenor say anything remotely similar. With most of the writing staying directly in the passagio and lower Mozart’s music becomes the vocal equivalent of the constant threading of a needle. I’m very happy to report that Villazon seems completely back on form here, with endless breath control, firm legato and lively recitatives. His Latin timbre is most welcome and far from the customary anemic portrait. I’m hoping there wasn’t any knob twiddling in the control room because I’d like to give him full credit for this beautiful and touching performance.
Mojca Erdmann is more than the average “pert” Zerlina with a voice that is still mostly in the soubrette category. She’s a charming singer and her language is crisp. She gives lovely accounts of both her arias but, my only caveat, adds a little upward flourish to the end of ‘Vedrai, carino” that came as too much of a surprise to both her technique and this listener.
Our two Donnas bring fire and vivacity to a level I cannot recall in a major studio release in quite some time. Joyce DiDonato is a spitfire Donna Elvira and I enjoyed her performance immensely. Her voice is pungent and true and the coloratura poses no challenges with her platinum technique. She brings a wonderful sense of humor to her recits. and is so playful with her words she give the impression of improvisation. She’s the anchor in all of the ensembles she participates in.
Even more fun is Diana Damrau and here, I admit, I was clutching my pearls in trepidation. At her entrance she seemed to be pushing the top and the voice revealed a slight beat. I’m going to chalk that up to nerves because the duet that followed with Don Ottavio was smooth as silk.
The real moment of glory came in her quicksilver reading of the recitative leading up to “Or sai chi l’onore”, where she hit some notes with such abandon and ferocity it completely changed my assessment of what her voice was capable of. Her storytelling skills are unparalleled here and, aided by her conductor, she gives an outstanding and very individual interpretation of this grand scena. I was honestly enraptured by it and have returned to it more than once since the first hearing.
The rest of the role is child’s play (for her) and she lavishes all of her considerable skills on it for our benefit. Her tone may be slim compared to many of her predecessors but she makes an indelible mark on this role for me.
As to our partners in crime, it’s a true pleasure to listen to the interaction of Ildebrando D’Arcangelo and Luca Pisaroni as the Don and his valet. Pisaroni is charm itself and they are perfect foils for one another. Both gentlemen call themselves bass-baritones and although they may share a range Pisaroni has the lighter timbre of the two which makes for easy differentiation in the ensembles.
D’Arcangelo’s voice is like so much chocolate velvet rippling off the bolt in a fabric store, most especially when he leans in for the kill by going triple pianissimo. Baby, it’s like magic. He’s the operatic equivalent of Antonio Banderas in one of those Zorro movies. During the exchange with Zerlina that leads up to “Là ci darem la mano” I actually felt a tingle in my lady parts and I don’t have any lady parts!
Sadly, the Vocalensemble Ratstatt sounds small-ish in their few choral contributions, precise but small.
Recorded sound is on the level of excellence you’d expect from our friends at DG and the nice little cardboard case includes a full libretto. Whatever happened to the charming custom of singer biographies?
So, as far as I’m concerned, pride of place goes to this set because of it’s vivid interaction on all levels and the sheer imagination of its gifted cast. Viva la libertà, indeed!