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Damrau, DiDonato, Erdmann; D'Arcangelo, Villazón, Pisaroni, Wolff, Kowaljow; Vocal Ensemble Rastatt, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Nézet-Séguin. Text and translation. Deutsche Grammophon 477 9878 (3)
What is Mozart telling us in the Don Giovanni overture? The meaning of the andanteintroduction is straightforward enough: the slithering chromatic scales, foreshadowing the statue's apocalyptic visit, seem to emanate from Hell itself. But the allegro that follows raises a number of uncertainties. Its bustling surface suggests the sex farce that, on one level, this opera surely is. But hints of danger keep breaking through. The harmonies veer off from the tonic D major to give off minor-key intimations. The bumptious descending line of the second subject anticipates the protagonist's ultimate descent into the abyss. Even the segue into Leporello's "Notte e giorno" has the air of a musical question mark. If the work is to be a comedy, it will be a most unsettling one.
The great virtue of this recording, taken from a run of concert performances at the 2012 Baden-Baden Festival, is how thoroughly it embodies Don Giovanni's ambiguity. Yannick Nézet-Séguin takes fast, exciting tempos that give the familiar score an unexpected suspense; you can trick yourself into forgetting what happens next. But his signal achievement here is his ability to hold the opera's comedy, sentiment and moralism in an exact, if uneasy, balance.
Take the Act I quartet, "Non ti fidar, o misera." In this ensemble, as so often in this opera, Mozartean counterpoint serves as the sonic embodiment of the complexity of human interaction. Here, Elvira presents herself as the central figure of her own opera seria, while the Don, mocking her, tries to steer the ensemble into buffo territory. Anna and Ottavio, meanwhile, are faced with the task of sorting through the conflicting evidence. Through delicate momentary hesitations — subtle enough to keep the music's momentum undisturbed — the conductor suggests their process of discovery: it's as if human thought itself were taking musical form. As the ensemble proceeds, the transparent sonic textures keep the disparate emotional strains in simultaneous aural view. In this Nézet-Séguin is helped by the precise, musicianly work of his singers, as well as by the stunning playing of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.
The recording has an interesting cast, if not a uniformly accomplished one. The usual contrast between master and servant is here reversed: Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, the Don, has a darker, gruffer voice than his Leporello, Luca Pisaroni. He is in no way the customary insinuating charmer, hiding his dark intentions beneath a gallant exterior. Instead his burly, forceful bass brings the brutality right to the surface: this is a man who has the muscle and the arrogance to behave as he pleases. But at certain key moments — specifically, "Là ci darem la mano" and the serenade — I found myself wishing for a more conventional suavity and a true, sustained legato.
A puzzling element of the casting is that Pisaroni is the more aristocratic singer. His lean, focused voice responds with quicksilver nimbleness to the contours of Mozart's melodies, and his articulation of the text is so deft that the words become one with the music. His Leporello is no buffoon but a wily, quick-witted foil for his master, and quite plausibly a man capable of competing on the same sexual playing field. (When the Don taunts Leporello with the claim of having wooed his wife, you can understand where the confusion comes from.)
Like a handful of notable mezzos before her, Joyce DiDonato takes the role of Donna Elvira, and her work here almost entirely justifies the casting. I say "almost" because an ideal Elvira would luxuriate more comfortably on the high As of "Ah! Taci, ingiusto core," and also because DiDonato takes "Mi tradì" down a half tone. Still, the aria's treacherous arpeggiations have never, in my experience, been sung more accurately; it's as if the melody had been handed to a virtuoso clarinetist. DiDonato's beauty of tone throughout makes one wonder how the Don could so cavalierly abandon this Elvira.
The timbre of Diana Damrau's soprano is cold and unyielding, but she is nonetheless a formidable Donna Anna. Her fearlessly accurate singing, especially her negotiation of the upward leaps studded throughout the role, becomes the aural correlative of Anna's stalwart nature: this is a woman who knows her own mind, every step of the way.
There's no denying that the texture of Rolando Villazón's voice has coarsened in recent years, but he still makes an impressive Don Ottavio. His two arias are marked by his ability to sing through consonants, binding them to vowel sounds and creating a liquid, noble legato. Mojca Erdmann, the recording's Zerlina, emits her focused but monochromatic sound with synthesizer-like inexpressiveness; as if in recompense, she applies coy baby-doll effects like so many decals on a glass surface.
Vitalij Kowaljow is the Commendatore; his gravelly bass makes him more convincing as the outraged father than as the voice of divine retribution. Konstantin Wolff, the Masetto, attacks the text with relish, but he sounds just a bit too mature and knowing to be a convincing country bumpkin. In general, the cast strikes me as more a collection of individual talents than a true ensemble. But Nézet-Séguin's guiding intelligence makes this Don Giovanni cohere.
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