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Thursday, September 29, 2016

Superconductor Audio Guide: Don Giovanni

Comedy and terror walk side by side in Mozart's dramma giocoso.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The statue of the Commendatore makes his entrance in Don Giovanni as staged
by Twyla Tharp in the film Amadeus. Image © 1984 The Saul Zaentz Company.
For many writers, musicians and composers of the 19th century, Mozart's opera Don Giovanni stood at the very top of the operatic pyramid. It is amusing, terrifying, sexy, and deeply human. And it is unique among operas for its approach: rollicking comedy that is interrupted by the interference of a higher power, set to the scariest music that Mozart ever wrote.

It was Lorenzo Da Ponte who hit on the idea of setting the old Spanish legend of Don Juan as a followup to Le Nozze di Figaro. Like that opera, it was billed as a dramma giocoso, packing a vast sweep of characters into a story that was totally new for its time: a rollicking comedy with a grand, tragic ending, a love story with multiple partners (where love is never requited or consummated) and a wellspring of inspiration for other composers, from Liszt and Wagner in the 19th century to Stravinsky and Richard Strauss in the 20th.

From the thunderous chords that open the overture to the amazing parade of arias, duets and ensembles that constitute the bulk of the score, Don Giovanni remains one of Mozart's most familiar and most performed scores. Listeners get satisfaction from the familiar numbers, sung with melting seduction in the very best performances. There are two "versions" of the opera: the Vienna staging removed "Io mio tesoro", adding three new numbers. Also excised: the anti-climactic final ensemble. Today, most directors opt for both tenor arias and make their own decision regarding the final scene. 

A good Don must be able to run the gamut from sensual ardor to outright defiance. A great Don must be the bad guy who audiences are willing to root against, yet want to visit backstage afterward. Leporello is also complex, a comic foil who must shift from humor to terror when the Commendatore comes to dinner. As for the Commendatore himself, he is ideally sung by a black-voiced bass who can inject the wrath of God into his singing.

Donna Anna is a tragic heroine of Greek proportions. Her scenes with Don Ottavio provide contrast and the soprano must be involved to bring them off. Also, poor, faithful Don Ottavio, who had his best aria removed from the opera at the premiere, must try hard not to be a nebbish although his character certainly is. Donna Elvira is the jilted ex- of the Don's who has passionate music to sing. The hapless, newly wedded couple Masetto and Zerlina who get caught up in the Don's schemes, are usually sung by young artists who graduate to the other roles later in their career. 

The Recordings: 
Don Giovanni requires a conductor who knows how to balance Mozart's classical structures with the budding seeds of early Romanticism that are buried in the rich soil of the score. It doesn't matter if this opera is fast (Gardiner) or slow (Klemperer). In competent hands, the score of Don Giovanni always makes an impact.

Philharmonia Orchestra cond. Carlo Maria Giulini (EMI/WBC 1959)
This cast features a veritable all-star team of singers, with Joan Sutherland and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf as Donna Anna and Donna Elvira, respectively. Eberhard Wächter is a stylish and memorable Don accopanied by the oily Leporello of Giuseppe Taddei. A safe first recommendation. 

New Philharmonia Orchestra cond. Otto Klemperer (EMI/WBC 1968)
This heavy-footed, symphonic rendition of the score is worth hearing for Otto Klemperer's interpretation: Mozart with Beethovenian weight. Nicolai Ghiaurov's full bass captures the idea of the Don as romantic hero. The "La ci darem la mano" duet is particularly touching here as his wife Mirella Freni is Zerlina. The only let-down is Franz Crass, who sounds more dead than otherworldly as the Statue.

English Baroque Soloists cond. John Eliot Gardiner (DG Archiv 1994)
Not the first "period" recording of the Don but probably the most important this compelling, pedal-to-the-metal rendition features clear instrumental textures, a thrilling Don in Rodney Gilfry and a cast singing for all they're worth. A live recording that captures the excitement that this opera can deliver in the theater. Alternate arias and numbers are available by cueing the third disc, or for modern listeners, changing the playlist to suit one's needs.

Royal Scottish Orchestra cond. Sir Charles Mackerras (Telarc, 1995)
An exciting performance of the score by Charles Mackerras, whose cycle of four major Mozart operas is essential listening. Bo Skovhus shines as a wry Don, his lightweight approach matched by Allessandro Corbelli's Leporello. Christine Brewer is a fierce Donna Anna. 

Chamber Orchestra of Europe cond. Claudio Abbado  (DG, 1998)
Released among a slew of Mozart recordings in the 1990s, this is an overlooked and underrated gem. Simon Keenlyside and Bryn Terfel are ideal as master and man, with Terfel clearly relishing the servant role as the comic Leoprello. Carmela Remigio is a fiery Donna Anna and Matti Salminen delivers real terror in a deep basso profundo: the finest statue in any recording. 

If you've read this far here's your treat: Anna Netrebko as Donna Anna singing "Or sai chi l'onore" from Act I of Don Giovanni. Performance filmed at La Scala.


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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.