15 November 2016

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | November 2016: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — DON GIOVANNI, K. 527 (D. Tiliakos, V. Priante, M. Papatanasiu, K. Gauvin, K. Tarver, G. Loconsolo, C. Gansch, M. Kares; Sony Classical 88985316032)

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | November 2016: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - DON GIOVANNI, K. 527 (Sony Classical 88985316032)WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Don Giovanni, K. 527Dimitris Tiliakos (Don Giovanni), Vito Priante (Leporello), Myrtò Papatanasiu (Donna Anna), Karina Gauvin (Donna Elvira), Kenneth Tarver (Don Ottavio), Guido Loconsolo (Masetto), Christina Gansch (Zerlina), Mika Kares (Il Commendatore); MusicAeterna (Orchestra and Chorus of the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre); Teodor Currentzis, conductor [Recorded in P. I. Tchaikovsky State Opera and Ballet Theatre, Perm, Russia, 23 November – 7 December 2015; Sony Classical 88985316032; 3 CDs, 170:10; Available from Amazaon (USA), iTunes (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

From ancient accounts of Potiphar’s wife’s adulterous but not unrequited infatuation with the virtuous Joseph to the literary exploits of Molière’s Tartuffe, de Laclos’s Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmomt, de Sade’s Justine, and Byron’s Don Juan, the adventures of amatory predators and prey have ignited artists’ and audiences’ imaginations. Libidinous appetites and the pursuit of their fulfillment are components of human nature commonly regarded as inappropriate topics for polite conversation, but the boundaries of propriety upon the operatic stage have, since Monteverdi’s Nerone first enacted his debaucheries in song, been an ever-changing, wide-ranging measure of societal attitudes towards sex and sexuality. Composed for Prague in response to the tremendous success that his Le nozze di Figaro had previously enjoyed in that city, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni reunited the composer with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, whose texts melded pointed social commentary with eloquent expressions of emotion. The class warfare that serves as the backdrop for the characters’ intimate drama in Le nozze di Figaro also wages just beyond the fringes of Don Giovanni’s plot, but here there are no obvious victors; none, that is, except for the listener, who is treated to three hours of the finest music in opera. In its way, Don Giovanni is as bold and seductive as the poetry of Walt Whitman and the paintings of Gustav Klimnt, but, of these, Mozart’s was the most timeless and universal genius. This recording confirms time after time that the opera’s capacity to provoke and surprise is undiminished more than two centuries after its first performance. Whether in Prague in 1787 or in Perm in 2015, Mozart’s and da Ponte’s magnificently complex but also engagingly simple tale of Don Giovanni and his conquests forces performers and observers to peer into the corners of our psyches that we endeavor to hide from others’ view. We may not like what we see, but a performance of Don Giovanni like the one on these discs makes it impossible to dislike what we hear.

In a sense, Don Giovanni poses questions not unlike those suggested by Leonardo da Vinci’s famed Gioconda, whose ambiguous visage leads the observer to ponder whether she is consciously smiling and, if so, why and at whom. In this recording, the final leg of his journey through Mozart’s three operas with libretti by da Ponte, Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis strips away layers of well-meaning but inauthentic performance traditions in the manner of an art historian restoring a weathered canvas. Recorded in full in 2014, scrapped because the results did not achieve the spirit of rediscovery that the conductor sought, and finally recorded anew in 2015, the performance on these discs, preserved by Sony Classical in clean acoustics that heighten dramatic propulsion by evoking a theatrical atmosphere, mines Mozart’s score for answers to difficult questions. Accompanied on this adventure by the voices and instruments of MusicAeterna, artists of the Perm State Opera and Ballet, Currentzis takes Don Giovanni at face value, approaching it as neither an academic treatise nor a post-Freudian psychological muddle. Perhaps, as his correspondence suggests, Mozart was not the most mature of men, but his music is reliably logical in construction. It is Mozart’s logic that Currentzis follows, and it leads him to musical details that many performances overlook.

The continuo in this recording is a model of its kind, elaborate but never obtrusive. The notion that Mozart or any other self-respecting musician who was involved with performing Don Giovanni during the composer’s lifetime merely plonked out chords during secco recitatives is absurd, but so is much of the continuo playing heard today. Here, an ideal balance between imagination and integrity is achieved. Throughout the performance, instrumental obbligati are beautifully done, the instruments singing with the voices they support. Though true, it is misleading to state that Currentzis’s conducting is revolutionary. This implies that the conductor’s work is idiosyncratic, which denotes a departure from convention with a pejorative connotation. In fact, Currentzis’s conducting of this Don Giovanni is both revolutionary and idiosyncratic in the sense that he regards the opera as neither a dainty, Baroque-influenced period piece nor a Romanticized psychodrama but as a hybrid work with elements of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century innovations. The opera may have been written in and for a more genteel time, but it is anything but polite. Astonishingly, though, Currentzis never forces or pushes the singers or the orchestra. Tempi and instrumental balances sound precisely right for a score composed in 1787. Currentzis has acquired—and actively cultivated—a ‘bad boy of Classical Music’ persona, but he is the right ‘bad boy’ for the job of reintroducing Don Giovanni as Mozart and da Ponte conceived it.

Il Commendatore serves as the catalyst for the opera’s explosive dramatic reactions, first by dying at Don Giovanni’s hand in Act One and by returning in Act Two in petrified form to instigate his murderer’s final judgement. Projecting every note of the part with fiery focus, Finnish bass Mika Kares is a Commendatore who deserves the title. Moreover, Kares is a bona fide bass who plays the part after the manner of Ludwig Weber and Gottlob Frick. The Commendatore interrupting Don Giovanni’s attempted mischief with Donna Anna, Kares voices a frightening ‘Lasciala, indegno!’ Perhaps old in the ways of the world, this is no wheezing, decrepit Commendatore: Kares depicts a still-brawny father who is a potent threat to Giovanni. ‘Ah, soccorso! Son tradito!’ is neither shouted nor crooned, and the bass brings atypical dignity to the Commendatore’s death. In this performance, with a Commendatore who does not sound like a demented troll, it is possible to appreciate Donna Anna’s prolonged grieving, often a source of humor in performances of Don Giovanni. There is nothing comical about Kares’s singing in Act Two, when the Commendatore’s stone monument accosts Giovanni and Leporello in the cemetery and subsequently turns up as invited at Giovanni’s banquet. The gravity of ‘Don Giovanni, a cenar teco m’invitasti, e son venuto’ and the calls for Giovanni to repent resounds in Kares’s vocalism, and he is totally convincing as the no-longer-of-this-world statue without resorting to artificial vocal production or being distorted by misguided audio effects. Kares’s Commendatore is unique in sounding as though he actually wants Giovanni to avoid damnation by repenting. Few singers bother to do anything other than sing the notes that Mozart wrote for the Commendatore, and even fewer manage to sing them well. Kares both sings ably and legitimately interprets the rôle.

Italian baritone Guido Loconsolo is a confident, youthful Masetto, almost a plebeian Don Giovanni in training, whose singing of Mozart’s notes is as accomplished as his handling of da Ponte’s words. Not even when Masetto’s anger is uncontainable does the singer relinquish his firm control over the voice. Tossing off ‘Giovinetti leggieri di testa’ with the effervescent joy of an adoring fiancé on his wedding day, Loconsolo gives Masetto the charm and appeal that he possesses in the score but so often lacks on stage and on disc. His voice rings out handsomely in ‘Ho capito, signor sì!’ Whether with the intention of spotlighting the social divide that separates him from Don Giovanni or owing to unimaginative singers, Masetto is often portrayed as a grunting simpleton, a sort of Neanderthal with a hot temper and little trust in his betrothed’s capacity for fidelity. Loconsolo’s Masetto is no empty-headed brute. It would be no surprise to find him in a barroom brawl, but, unlike many rival portrayals, he would indubitably have a good reason for throwing punches and, most winningly, would sing splendidly whilst doing so.

Austrian soprano Christina Gansch provides Loconsolo’s Masetto with a Zerlina of feminine wile and flirtatious sweetness whose sensibilities complement his own. Gansch voices ‘Giovinette che fate all’amore’ brightly but without the hard edge that many sopranos bring to the music. When this Zerlina sings ‘Vorrei e non vorrei’ in response to Giovanni’s wooing ‘Là ci darem la mano,’ she sounds credibly bewildered, both flattered and frightened by the philanderer’s attention. The aria ‘Batti, batti, o bel Masetto’ is virtually unbearable in many performances, sopranos smothering the music with cuteness and self-indulgent cooing. Here, however, the singer’s vocalism is certainly pretty but never coy or caricatured. Following her colleagues’ examples, Gansch embellishes her music liberally but tastefully, adding an easy top C to the cadenza in her beautifully-sung ‘Vedrai, carino, se sei buonino’ in Act Two. This recording delights unexpectedly by including the scene in which Zerlina abducts Leporello and threatens to slice him to shreds with a razor, composed for the opera’s first production in Vienna and now almost always omitted. The soprano’s silvery tones acquire a glinting edge as she hurls ‘Non v’è pietà, briccone’ at Leporello, believing him to have beaten Masetto, but she is no murderess. This fit of vengeful rage out of her system and Giovanni dispatched to incendiary retribution, Zerlina is the cheerful, clever bride once more, and she is heard with pleasure in the opera’s finale. Gansch’s Zerlina is not a chirping schoolgirl but an independent young woman who sings stylishly and refuses to be any man’s plaything—unless she wants to be.

Vocally and dramatically, Don Ottavio is often a pronounced weakness in otherwise enjoyable performances and recordings of Don Giovanni. In recent years, a true Mozart tenor—a singer like Anton Dermota, whose repertory was built upon the foundation of Mozart singing and whose stylishness and technical acumen as a Mozartean remained reliable throughout a long career—has been as rare as a genuine Heldentenor. There are tenors who manage Don Ottavio’s music effectively, but almost none of his contemporaries rivals American tenor Kenneth Tarver’s level of comfort in the rôle. Ottavio’s music offers the singer nowhere to hide. A singer who requires no vocal hiding places, Tarver contributed an exemplary portrayal of Ottavio to René Jacobs’s harmonia mundi recording of Don Giovanni, as well as having sung Ferrando in Currentzis’s account of Così fan tutte for Sony Classical, but he surpasses both of those performances with his Ottavio in this Don Giovanni. Vowing to aid his fiancée Donna Anna in identifying and having revenge on her attacker—assuming, that is, that she was as unwilling a recipient of Giovanni’s love-making as she later indicates to Ottavio—and her father’s murderer, Tarver possesses the vocal power needed for the oath-swearing duet, singing ‘Senti, cor mio, deh senti’ with gripping bravado. Learning from Anna what transpired in the moment’s before the Commendatore’s death, this Ottavio comforts his beloved with the soothing timbre of his voice in the intense accompagnato that precedes Anna’s ‘Or sai chi l’onore.’ Tarver’s performance of ‘Dalla sua pace la mia dipende’ is magical: on recordings, only Cesare Valletti rivals him for tonal beauty, but Tarver’s technique enables even more exquisite breath control than Valletti had at his command. Furthermore, Tarver is a rare Ottavio who is not upstaged by his female cohorts in the sublime trio in the Act One finale, ‘Protegga il giusto cielo il zelo del mio cor!’ In the Act Two sextet, Tarver sings ‘Tergi il ciglio, o vita mia’ lovingly, but it is his account of ‘Il mio tesoro intanto andate a consolar’ that most ravishes the ears and enthralls the heart. The long runs are sung with single breaths as Mozart surely intended, and the evenness of tone from bottom to top is exceptional. This Ottavio seems to thoroughly understand and accept his Anna, and his lines in the opera’s final scene are affectionately articulated. Tarver is a wonderful singer and great artist, but this Ottavio is an extraordinary performance even by his own standards.

At her first appearance, the Donna Anna of Greek soprano Myrtò Papatanasiu sounds vocally undernourished, but that appearance thankfully proves to be deceiving. Anna’s terror as her father comes to her rescue and is slain by Don Giovanni invigorates the opera’s first scene, the soprano evincing the life-or-death tension of the situation without going off the rails vocally. In the accompagnato ‘Ma qual mai s’offre, oh dei!’ and the vengeance-pledging duet with Ottavio, Papatanasiu sings with growing power and nuance, securing her dramatic footing with a coldly determined exclamation of ‘Fuggi, crudele, fuggi!’ Anna’s lines in the quartet with Giovanni, Ottavio, and the raving Elvira are pointedly sung. The stirring accompagnato ‘Don Ottavio, son morta!’ is launched with laser-like tonal accuracy and histrionic kinesis. It was in the aria ‘Or sai chi l’onore rapire a me volse’ that powerhouse Annas like Birgit Nilsson, Leontyne Price, and Dame Gwyneth Jones excelled, but Papatanasiu’s more modestly-dimensioned voice scales the heights of the music excitingly, the fearsome top As projected without strain or scrambling. She partners Tarver radiantly in the masquers’ trio, matching his elegant shaping of ‘Protegga il giusto cielo il zelo del mio cor!’ and rising above the stave with encouraging ease. Joining in Act Two’s masterful sextet, Papatanasiu voices ‘Lascia, lascia alla mia pena questo picciolo ristoro’ endearingly but with an abiding sense of her prolonged agony over the loss of her father. Unlike many recorded Annas, Papatanasiu projects mental clarity in the accompagnato ‘Crudele? Ah no, mio bene’ and aria ‘Non mi dir, bell’idol mio.’ Why the aria is frequently cited as a bravura showpiece is perplexing. Its bravura writing is very difficult, to be sure, but the piece is not a perch upon which songbirds can pose and tweet roulades. Both Currentzis and Papatanasiu are alert to this and give the aria the dramatic immediacy for which it cries out. The soprano brings tremendous focus to her negotiations of the vocal line, always emphasizing melody rather than technical display. Her technique is fully equal to the coloratura, but Papatanasiu is above all a gratifyingly musical Donna Anna whose instincts direct her to the expressive core of every phrase. In the Act Two finale, her words to Ottavio are sung with conspicuous feeling, this Anna putting him off not out of capriciousness but because the grief in her heart does not yet allow room for him to inhabit it fully. Papatanasiu makes the rôle her own as few singers on disc have done, and solely in terms of raw vocalism she is an uncommonly successful Donna Anna.

Provided that she sings her difficult music capably, a Donna Elvira can be forgiven for seeming somewhat ridiculous. After all, hers is the unfortunate lot of endeavoring to loathe and publicly denounce a man with whom she falls in love anew in every scene: she may be destined for a convent, but it will surely be an institution in which the face of every saint is transformed in this highly-strung lady’s mind into that of Giovanni. Singing accurately and exaggerating nothing, Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin proves a hearteningly musical and uncommonly moving Donna Elvira. Yes, the character’s actions and reactions are often illogical, but in Gauvin’s performance they never seem so: her Elvira is not a wounded animal caught in a snare but a deeply sensitive woman whose capacity for love greatly exceeds that for skepticism. At her first entrance, it is discernible in her electrifying but affecting account of the aria ‘Ah! chi mi dice mai quel barbaro dov’è’ that Gauvin is an Elvira who has pored over the emotional aspects of the rôle as closely as she studied the music. Her ‘Ah! fuggi il traditor’ both throbs with fury and exudes despondency and jealousy, and the music is authoritatively sung. Gauvin’s voice scintillates in the quartet, her singing of ‘Non ti fidar, o misera’ limning the ambiguity of her feelings. With both ‘Bisogna aver coraggio’ and ‘Vendichi il giusto cielo il mio tradito amor!’ in the trio with Anna and Ottavio, Gauvin markedly deepens her characterization of Elvira, fully exploring the complexities with which Mozart and da Ponte enriched the part. The Act Two trio also inspires the singer to musical emoting of the highest order, her ‘Ah! taci, ingiusto core, non palpitrarmi in seno’ projected with Callas-like sensitivity to the relationships between the vocal line and the meaning of the text. Fascinating, too, is the insightfulness with which she enunciates ‘Sola, sola, in buio loco’ in the sextet. Neither in performance nor on disc does Elvira’s accompagnato ‘In quali eccessi, o numi, in quai misfatti orribili, tremendi’ often wield the histrionic force that Gauvin builds in her singing of the music: in her hands, the passage is no less riveting than the accompagnato that precedes Anna’s ‘Or sai chi l’onore.’ This is followed by a performance of the aria ‘Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata’ that astounds. Her widely-lauded credentials in Baroque repertory contribute to what is clearly a sapient understanding not only of Mozart’s music but also of Currentzis’s concept of Don Giovanni. In the brief duration of this single aria, she wholly embodies the essence of this recording: nothing is overwrought, but no phrase wants for ardor. As Gauvin sings it, Elvira’s ‘L’ultima prova dell’amor mio ancor vogl’io fare con te’ fuels the conflagration that ultimately consumes Giovanni, the absolute sincerity of her appeal to Giovanni’s better nature all the more poignant for being so euphoniously sung. There is also palpable lyricism in Gauvin’s singing of Elvira’s resolve to enter a convent. From Luise Helletsgruber, Jarmila Novotná, and Eleanor Steber to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Sena Jurinac, and Leyla Gencer, Elvira has been portrayed in broadcast and studio recordings by some of opera’s most renowned singing actresses. With her performance on this recording, Gauvin asserts that she is the equal of the best of them.

A poor Leporello can undermine the best intentions of any Don Giovanni, and a good Leporello can lessen the impact of the deficiencies of a haphazard performance of the opera. In the performance on the present discs, the Leporello of Italian baritone Vito Priante is precisely what a skilled manservant should be: always at hand, anticipating his master’s needs, fulfilling his duties with alacrity, and standing aside when he is not meant to be the center of attention. Priante’s voice is lighter in both timbre and weight than those of many recorded Leporellos, but his interpretation of the rôle, unforcedly funny and sharp-witted, is among the most substantial on disc. He dispatches ‘Notte e giorno faticar’ with the elegance of a man who has learned much from his exposure to high society, and his interactions with Giovanni throughout the opera reflect a sardonic awareness that, though he is a nobleman, Giovanni is anything but noble. As Priante sings it, ‘Madamina, il catalogo è questo’ seems intended to mitigate Elvira’s embarrassment rather than to increase it by mocking her. As each of the opera’s characters emerges in the Act One finale, Leporello’s critical part in the drama becomes ever more evident, his responses to each participant’s competing agenda disclosing a mind far quicker than Giovanni appreciates—a major contributing factor in the Don’s eventual downfall. The Act Two duet with his abusive master draws stark irony from Priante, Leporello barely able to contain his contempt for Giovanni and his injustices in his firmly-sung ‘No, no, padrone, non vo’ restar.’ As when singing the Catalogue Aria in Act One, Priante emphasizes an element of sympathy for Elvira in his statement of ‘State a veder la pazza, che ancor gli crederà,’ and he pleads ‘Perdono, perdono, signori miei’ in the sextet with subtle desperation. The aria ‘Ah, pietà, signori miei’ goes for nothing in many performances, but the understated nuances of Priante’s traversal of the aria heighten its importance in the progression of the opera’s narrative. The restored scene with Zerlina proves to be this Leporello’s greatest vehicle for musical characterization, and he seizes every opportunity to use da Ponte’s words as a springboard for diving deeply into the character’s motivations. Priante’s ‘Per queste tue manine candide e tenerelle’ is as thoughtful as his ‘Amico, per pietà, un poco d’acqua fresca o ch’io mi moro!’ is amusing. He acutely conveys Leporello’s horror and fear in the duet ‘O statua gentilissima del gran Commendatore’ and in ‘Ah, Signor, per carità’ in the finale without placing one note or syllable beyond the boundaries of good taste. To his credit, Priante never attempts to emulate the Leporellos of larger voices, preferring to sing the part on his own terms. Those terms, negotiated by singer and conductor with Mozart’s music as the mediator, produce one of the liveliest and loveliest Leporellos on disc.

It is easy to view Don Giovanni, Conte d’Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro, and Guglielmo in Così fan tutte as Mozart’s equivalents of Verdi’s Rigoletto, Giorgio Germont in La traviata, and Conte di Luna in Il trovatore. The vocal Fächen that are so frequently cited today were considerably less codified during and for another generation after Mozart’s career, and his rôles in baritone range are only marginally less difficult to cast with complete success than Verdi’s great baritone parts. Acclaimed for his work in Verdi repertory, particularly the title rôle in Macbeth and Giorgio Germont, Greek baritone Dimitris Tiliakos is the ideal protagonist for Currentzis’s pragmatic Don Giovanni. Suave, sensual, and sonorously masculine, Tiliakos’s Giovanni dominates this performance despite the very strong work by his colleagues. Tussling with the Commendatore after being discovered in the act of assailing Donna Anna’s honor, Tiliakos sings like a man possessed, his voice flashing in the dark soundscape like lightning. The contrast with ‘Là ci darem la mano’ could not be greater. Here, the baritone’s vocalism is like the whisper of a summer breeze: Zerlina can hardly be blamed for following where it leads. Tiliakos voices ‘La povera ragazza è pazza, amici miei’ in the quartet with deceptive concern, and he follows this with a volatile reading of ‘Fin ch’han dal vino calda la testa,’ one which combines musical virtuosity with dramatic acuity. The pace of the Act One finale is set by Tiliakos’s animated singing of ‘Su, svegliatevi, da bravi!’ and ‘Ecco il birbo che t’ha offesa.’ Opening Act Two with the duet with Leporello, this Giovanni brandishes ‘Eh via, buffone, non mi seccar’ like a slap to Leporello’s face. Then, in the trio with Elvira and Leporello, he intones ‘Discendi, o gioia bella’ alluringly. Tiliakos sings one of the most beautiful and erotic accounts of the canzonetta ‘Deh, vieni alla finestra, o mio tesoro’ on disc, his hypnotic mezza voce and idiomatic diction captivating. The aria ‘Metà di voi qua vadano’ benefits from Tiliakos’s assertive swagger, and his insistent manner infuses ‘Finiscila, o nel petto ti metto questo acciar’ in the duet with Leporello with excitement. Defiant to the end, Tiliakos’s Giovanni mercilessly teases and torments Leporello at the banquet in the opera’s penultimate scene, and the baritone sings ‘Già la mensa è preparata’ with insouciance. The interpolated top A with which Tiliakos expresses his ultimate truculence aptly summarizes his interpretation of the rôle: his Giovanni is his own man, answering only to himself and recognizing no moral authority of this or any other world. There are more smoothly-sung Giovannis on disc, but Tiliakos blends Pinza’s vivacity, Siepi’s joviality, Gobbi’s urbanity, and Taddei’s panache in a brilliantly-executed, compellingly-vocalized depiction of one of opera’s most chameleonic characters.

Mozart’s and da Ponte’s Don Giovanni is an operatic moving target with no definitive edition or interpretation. In the eight decades since the first complete recording of the opera was issued, recorded performances have appeared with relative regularity, populating a discography with renditions ranging in their prevailing sentiments from bawdy comedy to proto-Wagnerian tragedy. The de jure atman of this prismatic dramma giocoso dwells somewhere between these extremes. It is an opera that every listener hears differently. 229 years after its première, it is impossible to know precisely how Mozart and da Ponte ‘heard’ Don Giovanni, but with this recording Teodor Currentzis, MusicAeterna, and an uniformly superlative cast purvey as cogent a ‘hearing’ of this glorious, exacting masterpiece as has been committed to disc.