07 August 2012

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—DON GIOVANNI (I. D’Arcangelo, L. Pisaroni, D. Damrau, J. DiDonato, R. Villazón, M. Erdmann; DGG 477 9878]

Mozart: DON GIOVANNI (D'Arcangelo, Pisaroni, Damrau, DiDonato, Villazón, Erdmann; Nézet-Séguin - DGG)

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Don Giovanni, K. 527—I. D’Arcangelo (Don Giovanni), L. Pisaroni (Leporello), D. Damrau (Donna Anna), R. Villazón (Don Ottavio), J. DiDonato (Donna Elvira), M. Erdmann (Zerlina), K. Wolff (Masetto), V. Kowaljow (Commendatore); Vocalensemble Rastatt, Mahler Chamber Orchestra; Yannick Nézet-Séguin [recorded during concert performances in the Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden, in July 2011; Deutsche Grammophon 477 9878]

‘Deutsche Grammophon is now…recording all seven great Mozart operas from Idomeneo to La Clemenza di Tito with hand-picked singers, orchestras and conductors, just as the Yellow Label did in the 1960s and 1970s with the finest interpreters of their day under the direction of Mozart’s “representative on earth,” the Austrian conductor Karl Böhm.’  This statement in the present recording’s introductory essay by Manuel Brug creates a context for this new Don Giovanni but also dangerously raises expectations.  The Böhm-led Don Giovanni in the earlier DGG series is a powerful performance, not least in its preservation for the second time on a commercial recording of Birgit Nilsson’s Donna Anna, a woman of whom the Devil himself might justifiably be wary.  Under the best of circumstances, and in the best of times, recording Don Giovanni is a risky business, and Deutsche Grammophon are to be congratulated for offering what, on balance, is one of the strongest casts that could be assembled today for Mozart’s and da Ponte’s tale of seduction and retribution.  This is a strong beginning to a series of recordings that will hopefully prove, collectively, an effective and musically meritorious memorialization of international Mozart style in the Twenty-First Century.

A defining element of the recordings in Deutsche Grammophon’s new Mozart cycle is that each opera will be recorded in concert, with ‘patch’ sessions to correct any mistakes and record any stretches of secco recitative that are marred by ambient noises.  In this recording of Don Giovanni, in addition to the performance having benefited from the frisson of ‘live’ occasions, it is delightful to hear ripples of laughter during recitatives, though as in many performances there are occasional suspicions that the audience is not laughing at the moments at which da Ponte and Mozart might have intended.  In general, the sound in this recording is very good if not quite of the demonstration quality for which Deutsche Grammophon’s engineers are renowned.  Importantly, the continuo—pianoforte (played by Benjamin Bayl) and ‘cello (played by Konstantin Pfiz)—is placed in a natural acoustic, supporting the singers in secco recitative without seeming artificially enhanced.

The choral forces of the Vocalensemble Rastatt sing with gusto in their scenes, especially the penultimate scene of Don Giovanni’s demonic encounter and demise.  The players of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra are a virtuosic group, and if they lack the sort of authority brought to Mozart’s music by ensembles like the Staatskapelle Dresden and Wiener Philharmoniker they bring an engaging youthfulness to their playing, spurred by the conducting of Yannick Nézet-Séguin.  Maestro Nézet-Séguin is one of the promising young conductors who have taken the podiums of the world’s opera houses by storm in recent seasons, and in Don Giovanni he conducts with the energy and enthusiasm familiar from his appearances at the MET and elsewhere.  The music of Mozart is very different from the Romantic repertory over which Maestro Nézet-Séguin has most frequently presided, however, and a firmer stylistic hand would have been beneficial in this performance.  It can be argued that each character in Don Giovanni has his or her own musical style and that this contributes meaningfully to the drama, but having all of the singers in a performance of Don Giovanni on the same musical page produces an environment in which the listener can appreciate the composer’s genius for musical characterization without sorting through the various approaches brought to the music by the singers.  Maestro Nézet-Séguin does not yet bring the kind of authority to Don Giovanni that would justify comparison with Karl Böhm, but this is a recording that exhibits all the promise of a gifted young conductor, and he is to be congratulated for bringing a full-blooded, standard-repertory approach to the score rather than treating it as a ‘period’ piece that requires special handling.

The first point of vocal contact in Don Giovanni is Leporello, and in Luca Pisaroni this recording has an experienced practitioner of the role, his performances as Leporello in the Michael Grandage production at the Metropolitan Opera having garnered the plaudits of audiences and critics.  Mr. Pisaroni is a performer with charisma to spare, and it is possible when listening to this recording to wonder what he might have achieved in the title role.  As Leporello, Mr. Pisaroni plays capably to his Giovanni, even at the expense of his own vocal integrity.  ‘Notte e giorno faticar’ starts the performance winningly, but the comedy in ‘Madamina, il catalogo è questo’ is somewhat broad; a result of the ‘live’ recording, perhaps.  Mr. Pisaroni brings a genuine bass-baritone voice to the role, and if he ultimately lacks the point and pristine timing of a Salvatore Baccaloni—at this point in his career, at least—he has charm, excellent diction, and a well-schooled technique that should endear him to audiences for years to come.

The role of Don Giovanni was first sung by Luigi Bassi, who despite his surname and a relatively brief career was one of the greatest baritones of the last quarter of the Eighteenth Century, having also sung the Conte in the Prague premiere of Le Nozze di Figaro.  It is documented that Signor Bassi did not fancy ‘Fin ch’han dal vino,’ now considered one of the sharpest arrows in Giovanni’s quiver, and Mozart wrote—and re-wrote—‘Là ci darem la mano’ to humor his leading man.  As the decades passed, and perhaps as a result of opera houses growing larger and requiring singers with greater stamina and volume, Don Giovanni was increasingly appropriated by bass voices.  The MET’s first Giovanni in 1883 was Giuseppe Kaschmann, a ‘big sing’ baritone whose roles at the MET were as diverse as Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor and Telramund in Lohengrin.  In 1929, however, a new production of Don Giovanni ushered in an era of basso domination with the assumption of Giovanni’s wooing by Italian bass Ezio Pinza, still regarded as one of the best Giovannis heard in the Twentieth Century.  Then, in 1952, the inimitable Cesare Siepi made his role debut as Giovanni at the MET, creating a vocal and dramatic feast later documented in a classic DECCA recording.  [Two years before Siepi’s triumph as Don Giovanni, Italian baritone Paolo Silveri debuted at the MET in the same role, but his voice and performing temperament were better suited to later repertory.]  Until the efforts of baritones like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Sherill Milnes (one of whose sizzling Salzburg performances under Böhm’s baton was also recorded by Deutsche Grammophon) reclaimed the role, Giovanni was the property in many opera houses of basses.  With the Italian bass-baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo in the title role of this performance, there is at least a partial return from the recent, higher-voiced trends of singers like Milnes, Sir Thomas Allen, and Simon Keenlyside to the traditions of Pinza, Siepi, Ghiaurov, and Raimondi.  Mr. D’Arcangelo brings to his performance a welcome intimacy, but this occasionally leads to crooning of a sort that undermines Mozart’s vocal lines, not least in ‘Là ci darem la mano.’  Having sung Baroque repertory throughout his career, Mr. D’Arcangelo encounters no difficulties in Giovanni’s music that his technique cannot surmount.  His rhythmic accuracy is impressive, as is the energy that he brings to his performance.  The basic tone color is quite dark, however, and this makes Mr. D’Arcangelo’s Giovanni seem more dreary than dangerous.  Mr. D’Arcangelo is at his best when interacting with Mr. Pisaroni’s Leporello, relishing the many ironies inherent in the master’s dealings with his servant.  This Giovanni seems slightly befuddled by the ladies he encounters, almost too sure of his success in seducing Zerlina, coy but unconvincing in his defiance of Anna, and so imperious with Elvira as to make the listener question why she should be so taken with him.  Vocally and dramatically, Leporello would seem the better fit for Mr. D’Arcangelo, but his Giovanni is a well-sung performance that distracts but does not ultimately disappoint.

Bass Vitalij Kowaljow is an effective Commendatore who misses the imposing standards set by basses of previous generations, not least the oily-voiced Ludwig Weber.  Konstantin Wolff and Mojca Erdmann are competent as Masetto and Zerlina, but they are more convincing individually than as a couple.  Ms. Erdmann’s Zerlina sounds like the sort of girl whose ambition trumps fidelity.  Having made her MET debut in the same role, she knows her way round the part, but she is more involved in her concerted surrender to Giovanni than in her comforting of her abused fiancé, and this lessens Zerlina’s—and, by association, Masetto’s—appeal to the listener.

One does not expect to encounter Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón in Mozart repertory, but since his forays into Baroque repertory with recordings of Händel arias and Vivaldi’s Ercole, Mr. Villazón has shown increasing interest in the music of Mozart.  In addition to his performance of Don Ottavio in this recording, Mr. Villazón will also sing Ferrando in Deutsche Grammophon’s forthcoming recording of Così fan tutte (as well as leading roles in the other Mozart opera recordings planned for the new DGG series) and recently sang Alessandro in Salzburg concert performances of Mozart’s early Il rè pastore.  Mr. Villazón’s vocal problems have been well publicized, and in Don Giovanni he faces in ‘Dalla sua pace’ and ‘Il mio tesoro intanto’ two of the most challenging arias ever composed for the tenor voice; challenging not so much in terms of tessitura but in the demands imposed upon breath control, bravura technique, and the ability to sustain melodic lines that look forward to the bel canto of Bellini.  Mr. Villazón confronts these challenges head on, and it is a testament to the integrity of his artistry that he offers such a compelling, ably-vocalized performance.  This is not the aristocratic Ottavio of a Dermota or Valletti but a fire-breathing, passionately Latin Ottavio bent on revenge, and in a performance that tends to drag occasionally Mr. Villazón’s every appearance is welcomed with enthusiasm.  Not unlike Mr. D’Arcangelo in the title role, Mr. Villazón’s basic tone is dark and slightly nasal, but the success with which he adapts his voice to the refined elegance of Ottavio’s arias is considerable.  There are no worries over either the coloratura passages or the exquisitely long phrases meant to be sung with a single breath.  It is an unconventional performance but in many ways all the more impressive for that.  Fine as the singers who specialize in period-appropriate Mozart performance are, it is an undeniable joy to hear one of the major tenor voices of recent years in a Mozart role on a commercial recording, and to hear Mr. Villazón singing so well and with such audible appreciation for the style is wonderful.

The principal glories of this Don Giovanni are its leading ladies, however, and in Diana Damrau’s Anna and Joyce DiDonato’s Elvira this recording boasts two of the finest pieces of Mozart singing recorded in the past half-century.  Ms. Damrau’s voice might be thought to be somewhat high and light for Anna, a role ideally interpreted by a singer like Elisabeth Grümmer—that is, a singer for whom both Mozart and Wagner are natural territory.  Ms. Damrau possesses an upper extension that is surely the envy of virtually every soprano in the world, and since her return to singing after her pregnancy she has displayed an increased warmth and power in the lower and middle registers.  The only advice that can be given to any naysayers who question her suitability for Donna Anna is very simple: listen.  Being so impeccably schooled in bel canto, Ms. Damrau takes greater liberties with embellishing her music than her colleagues attempt in theirs, but this is defensible to a degree by remembering that Anna is a figure siphoned from the grandiose opera seria of Baroque models, a style that was old-fashioned even in Mozart’s youth and arguably used in Anna’s music to set her apart from the other characters as a woman molded by centuries-old traditions.  Ms. Damrau’s command of the fiorature in ‘Non mi dir, bell’idol mio,’ one of those magnificent arias that seem to suspend time, is hardly surprising, but the fury and expansiveness of voice that she brings to her description of Giovanni’s assault on her honor and the following ‘Or sai chi l’onore’ are very exciting.  The explosiveness of Anna’s rage and righteous indignation never obscure the beauty of Ms. Damrau’s voice, though, and she sings with melting lyricism in ensembles.  Dramatically, Ms. Damrau’s Anna manages to be haughty without being a shrew: when, in the opera’s final moments, she entreats Ottavio to grant her one more year of freedom before claiming her hand in marriage, it is possible to believe that this is actually because she is mourning her slain father.  Ms. Damrau’s dulcet duetting with Mr. Villazón justifies the inclusion of the vaudeville finale, so frequently cut in years past.  From an historical perspective, Ms. Damrau likely offers a Donna Anna closer to the vocal dimensions that Mozart would have expected (the role was first sung by Italian soprano Teresa Saporiti-Codecasa, whose voice was almost certainly far less robust than those of powerhouse Annas like Birgit Nilsson and Dame Joan Sutherland).  In comparison with the historical Don Giovanni discography, Ms. Damrau offers a Donna Anna worthy of comparison with the very best and superior to many fine performances.

The same might be said of Joyce DiDonato’s Elvira, another creation by a singer for whom it seems that almost anything is possible.  Even as she expands her repertory to include roles like Richard Strauss’s Octavian and Komponist, Ms. DiDonato brings to her performance as Elvira style and vocal technique, derived from her mastery of Baroque repertory, that are precisely right for Mozart.  Each of Elvira’s arias presents its own unique set of hurdles, all of which Ms. DiDonato clears comfortably.  Perhaps more perilous than her vocal stunts are Elvira’s dramatic twists.  It is evident from Mozart’s and da Ponte’s depiction of her that she is a few ingredients short of a paella, but she is not completely parted from her faculties.  Ms. DiDonato avoids the easy temptation of applying post-Freudian psychology to Elvira’s actions and simply sings the music without manic implications.  Being in love makes anyone a bit crazy, she seems to suggest, and her Elvira is only slightly more extreme in expressing this than any other Spanish lady who might find herself in love with a cad.  Were the cad of this performance somewhat more audibly worthy of her unbending devotion, the performance as a whole should have been decidedly more engaging.  The tessitura of Elvira’s arias has defeated many singers, being ungainly for most sopranos and high for most mezzo-sopranos who have attempted the role.  It is a role that Ms. DiDonato seems to have been born to sing, however, and the gleam of her tone as she confidently moves from bottom to top of the voice is arresting.  As mentioned before, the stylishness with which she sings Mozart is splendid: this is period-appropriate singing that manages to convince the listener that it is not because the music itself, brought to the fore by Ms. DiDonato’s tangy execution of it, sizzles with Spanish heat.  This is an Elvira to be taken seriously and one who will surely give her Sisters at the convent much trouble.  As with Ms. Damrau’s Anna, one is tempted each time that Ms. DiDonato’s Elvira enters a scene to shout, ¡Olé!

For an opera that is so perennially popular, Don Giovanni is a difficult piece to bring off.  The music is magnificent, some of its composer’s finest, but the dramaturgy is problematic.  Are these lusty Spaniards to be taken at face value, interpreted as a lot of inescapably human figures trapped in a cycle of betrayed values and hormonal excess, or are they archetypes, symbolic representations of facets of society that are manipulated almost like marionettes by the hands of an unseen destiny?  The great genius of Mozart is that, unlike almost any other composer, he was capable—solely through music—of breathing life into characters as beyond reality as a king contemplating the sacrifice of his own son at the command of an oracle and a strange fellow in bird costume who collects specimens for the amusement of a deranged queen.  An audience pities Idomeneo because Mozart causes them to feel the pangs of his guilt and sorrow.  Papageno wins hearts in every performance because, even if he does not sing well, his aspirations and disappointments are so like those of the people watching him.  The characterizations in Don Giovanni are undeniably darker, but approaching the music on its own terms yields the same results: an audience recognizes in Mozart’s characters elements of themselves.  Deutsche Grammophon’s new recording provides a faithful rendering of Don Giovanni that documents the beginning of a new era in Mozart performance and, in the work of Diana Damrau and Joyce DiDonato, the singing of Mozarteans equal to the standards of the greatest Mozart interpreters of generations past.  ¡Olé!

DGG's DON GIOVANNI Cast [Photo by Harald Hoffmann]