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Sunday, August 4, 2013

Recordings Review: All The Young Dudes

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts a Don Giovanni for our times.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Ildebrando D'Arcangelo in DG promotional art for Don Giovanni.
Image © 2012 Deutsche Grammophon/UMG
When a major label like Deutsche Grammophon puts out yet another recording of Mozart's Don Giovanni, it is a significant event. This 2012 set, (recorded live at a 2011 concert performance in Baden-Baden) is the Yellow Label's seventh, and the first in a new complete cycle of the major Mozart operas under the baton of conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

New recordings of Don Giovanni can serve as "time capsules" capturing the current state of Mozart singing at any given time. This set features a stellar cast for today's times, led by the strong pairing of Ildebrand D'Arcangelo and Luca Pisaroni as the Don and his hapless servant Leporello. Mr. Nézet-Séguin is quick to establish his credibility as a Mozartean, drawing thunderous chords from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and accompanying the singers with grace and power as needed.

Diana Damrau and Joyce DiDonato are the big "names" here, cast as Donna Anna and Donna Elvira, respectively. Ms. Damrau's focus and musical intelligence makes the idea of her as Anna an attractive one, although one wishes for a little more knock-em-dead passion in the last bars of "Or sai chi l'onore'." At least her natural vocal warmth makes the character somewhat sympathetic Joyce DiDonato is an inspired choice for Donna Elvira, singing with plush tone that indicates her true feelings for the opera's title character. Zerlina is Mojca Erdmann, coquettish and sweet in her two arias--among the loveliest Mozart ever wrote.

Mr. D'Arcangelo's interpretation of the Don is an angry satyr, driven by his own inner demons to a fiery end. There is vitality but also a harshness in his Act I "champagne" aria, which boils over into the attempted rape of Zerlina and his confrontation with the rest of the cast in the Act I finale. The singer is more relaxed and genial in the second act, singing a surprisingly tender "Deh vieni alla finestra" in one scene--laying the brutal smack-down on Masetto (Konstantin Wolff) in another.

Luca Pisaroni is a fine, funny Leporello, not as exaggerated as some but using his voice to good comic effect throughout the opera. His easy, rapid-fire exchanges with Mr. D'Arcangelo are among the highlights of the recording, along with his caustic, mock-appreciative performance of the Catalogue Song. Mr. Pisaroni is at his best when paired with Joyce DiDonato in the very funny scenes where Leporello is disguised as the Don and attempting to seduce--well, distract--Donna Elvira.

Although this is a credible set, there are a few question marks. The live, raw recording means that there are occasional, unwelcome pauses, where one can imagine the conductor finding his place in the score before starting again. Rolando Villazón's tenor is still in rehab, caught here two years after vocal surgery that nearly ended his career permanently.. He's a watery Don Ottavio, singing both of the character's arias. Finally, Vitalij Kowaljow is something of an afterthought as the Commendatore--a more imposing singer is needed to capture the terror and power of the Stone Guest.

Mr. Nézet-Séguin's command of dynamics is crucial to the finale. He establishes a light, frothy texture only to destroy it with shuddering, jarring chords that announce the Statue.  They simply boom out of the speakers, altering the texture of the opera to terrifying effect. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra provides expert support to the singers. Mr.  Nézet-Séguin whips up a frenzied chorus of demons, showing his expertise as a choral conductor and mastery of orchestral effect. He is the right conductor for this opera, which is hopefully the start of a very good new series from DG.

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