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Recordings

W. A. Mozart: Don Giovanni
27 Dec 2007

MOZART: Don Giovanni

The glorious universe of the Baroque has been receiving tribute from the wonderful talent of countertenor and early music guru René Jacobs for more than thirty years now.

W. A. Mozart: Don Giovanni

Johannes Weisser, Lorenzo Regazzo, Alexandrina Pendatchanska, Olga Pasichnyk, Kenneth Tarver, Sunhae Im, Nikolay Borchev, Alessandro Guerzoni, RIAS Kammerchor, Freiburger Barockorchester, René Jacobs (dir.)

Harmonia Mundi HMC901964.66 [3CDs]

$34.98  Click to buy

His passion for “excavating old dusty manuscripts” has illuminated Monteverdi, Cavalli and Cesti, Couperin and Charpentier, Schütz and Buxtehude, Blow and Purcell, Bach, Scarlatti, Keiser, Telemann, and Handel (whose little-known Flavio is a sentimental favorite of mine among Jacobs’ recordings). Jacobs’ approach to the concept of “early music” is all-embracing, ecumenical, one might even say “neo-Classical” — that is, anything pre-Beethoven is fair game. This approach gave us Gluck’s Orfeo and Haydn’s The Seasons; and Mozart, of course — Figaro, Tito, Così, and now finally Don Giovanni, with RIAS Kammerchor and Freiburger Barockorchester, out this year on Harmonia Mundi label.

Don Giovanni (Prague 1787, Vienna 1788) has had arguably the most tortuous reception history of all Mozart’s masterpieces. The most performed of his operas, it has also been the least understood, the most second-guessed and mutilated, as the composer’s vision was compelled to submit to the Romantic fantasies of the next generation that appropriated his creation. René Jacobs’ stated goal in this recording (see his fascinating interview in the CD booklet) goes far beyond restoring the Mozart sound (that has been done before, after all, by him and others). He proposes nothing less than deliberate and complete de-Hoffmannization of Don Giovanni. It was E.T.A. Hoffmann, after all, who single-handedly spearheaded the performance tradition of the opera as a chronicle of a tragic Faustian hero in search of the eternal feminine in which his demonic, tormented soul would find salvation. This view of Don Giovanni as a tragedy, Jacobs argues, has impacted the decision-making of performers and directors in a tremendous variety of ways, such as voice casting, tempi, and the choice of the numbers to include in and excise from the conflated Prague-Vienna version typically performed these days. Thus, it gave birth to the questionable tradition of excising the scena ultima, Mozart’s comedy’s moralistic epilog, as well as downplaying other giocoso aspects of the drama whose Shakespearean mixture of drama and farce made quite a few Romantics (starting with Beethoven) uncomfortable.

The character of Don Giovanni has probably traveled the furthest away from Mozart’s dissoluto punito over the years. Jacobs’ “restored” Don is pointedly lacking in Faustian gravitas. Instead, he is what da Ponte’s libretto describes as “an extremely dissolute young man” — in essence, a Cherubino five years older than he was in Figaro (accidentally or not, the wonderful young baritone Johannes Weisser, who brings both his gorgeous lyrical sound and nuanced comic timing to the role on this recording, is about the Don’s age). His voice may have broken from mezzo-soprano to a baritone, but he still has not learned impulse control. As in Figaro, instead of a tragic Romantic pursuit of an ideal, his misadventures in this opera (including the graveyard scene) are a series of comic catastrophes, which make his final confrontation with Commendatore all the more dramatic by comparison.

In the Hoffmannesque tradition, an antagonist to the demonic Don Giovanni was Donna Anna, whose secret passion for the Don is fueling her rage and thirst for revenge. As a result, Anna is almost inevitably cast as a dramatic soprano, completely against the voice type suggested by Mozart’s score that, with its affecting pianos and lyrical high register, is so clearly designed for an ingénue. On Jacobs’ recording, Olga Pasichnyk emphasizes Anna’s sweetness, not her bile. This interpretation not only completely transforms her Act 1 Or sai chi l’onore from a rage aria into a cantabile, but also allows the possibility of the famous Non mi dir, bell’idol mio (the very aria on the basis of which E.T.A. Hoffmann accused Anna of faking her devotion to Ottavio by not speaking with her own voice) to sound both fully justified and entirely convincing.

The bile in Jacobs’ Don Giovanni is reserved for entirely for Donna Elvira (Alexandrina Pendatchanska) — the Don’s true nemesis, and a classic donna abbandonata whose forcefulness comes across wonderfully in the angry lows of Act 1 Ah chi mi dice mai. Hoffmann sees Elvira as a comic character, and in a way she is (but then so is the Don – both characters are classified as mezzo carattere). Pendatchanska also emphasize Elvira’s softer side that comes across in Act 2, particularly in Mi tradì and the sextet, helping to set up the justification (often absent in Don Giovanni productions) for her last-minute intervention attempt in the Act 2 finale.

Apart from rescuing Elvira’s reputation, René Jacobs comes to the aid of another much-maligned character of the opera, Don Ottavio. In the Hoffmannesque tradition, he is usually portrayed as a weakling both dominated by forceful Anna and unworthy of her. Jacobs’ Ottavio, on the other hand, is an antithesis to selfish and impulsive Don Giovanni: he is “the new man” of the sensible Enlightenment, whose strength lies in a perfect balance of reason and emotions. As such, he is Donna Anna’s equal and her free choice. Between Ottavio’s two arias, Jacobs chooses Dalla sua pace, the Vienna insert, for the main recording, which is worth getting just to hear Kenneth Tarver’s sonorous, velvety but restrained bel canto in that piece. Arguably, Dalla sua pace is dramatically more convincing than Prague’s Il mio tesoro as an immediate response to Anna’s preceding Or sai chi d’onore; if the listener is partial to the latter, it may be found in the appendix. In his interview, Jacobs is very clear about his view on an established performance tradition that incorporates both arias. He believes that an uninterrupted aria parade in Act 2 that results from this unfortunate practice disregards Mozart’s fine sense of pacing and his intolerance for monotony, particularly when the hilarious Zerlina-Leporello duet is excised from the same act as unseemly in a tragedy (it is of course present on this recording).

The issue of pacing brings me to the most immediately controversial aspect of René Jacobs’ interpretation of Mozart’s opera — tempo indications. The Hoffmannesque tradition, he believes, led to the extreme range of tempi in Don Giovanni productions, some gravely slow, others maniacally fast. The revisions made in Jacobs’ recording are partially based on identifiable dance rhythms that underline some vocal numbers, such as the minuet in the Catalog aria (taken here somewhat faster than usual). Don Giovanni’s notorious Champaign aria, Jacobs points out, is a contradanse – a popular couple dance of the Mozart-era middle class that the Don would soon be dancing with Zerlina at the very ball that the Champaign aria aims to organize. The dance is an appropriate one for the Don — after all, it is a partner-switching dance. Therefore, the aria — as close to a self-portrait as Mozart’s notoriously elusive character ever comes in the opera named after him — should be performed at the contradanse speed, still lively but slower than the usual breakneck pace that makes the all-important text of the aria all but incomprehensible.

The pacing issue is even more important to ensemble numbers, which according to Mozart’s letters are supposed to resemble naturally flowing buffa conversations, in which time flies and intrigue continues. The tragic interpretation of Don Giovanni, Jacobs contends, causes the Act 2 sextet to be taken much too slowly. What Hoffmann sees as the sublime center of the drama, Jacobs reasonably recognizes as a typical comic finale (which it would have been in the unrealized 4-act version of the opera), with its ubiquitous mixture of sentimentality, hilarity, and confusion. Similarly, the scene with the Commendatore statue in the Act 2 finale — the very scene previewed in the opening section of the overture — is, Jacobs contends, ruined by having the statue make its pronouncements at the usual funereal speed. At the “normal conversation” pace on this recording, the verbal sparring between Don Giovanni and his undead nemesis becomes less of an otherworldly apparition and more of the musical and dramatic equivalent of their Act 1 duel, thus tying together the two scenes and supporting the finely balanced structure of the opera as a whole.

The more traditional and probably more accepted concern of a typical “early” recording showcased in Jacobs Don Giovanni is the issue of improvised embellishments. Every performer includes them, both instrumentalists (see, for instance, a brilliant little pianoforte flourish at the beginning of Act 1 Scene 4 secco) and vocalists — including in the buffa numbers such as the Catalog aria, the Act 1 duettino, the Champaign aria, and of course the second verse of the Act 2 canzonetta. As Jacobs points out, buffa characters were expected to improvise ornamentation for their parts as a matter of course; they were also expected to “act out” the comedy (which Lorenzo Regazzo as Leporello certainly does here).

In conclusion, René Jacobs’ Don Giovanni is a true achievement; it is brilliant, polished, inventive, and engaging. The cast is almost uniformly excellent (Sunhae Im as Zerlina was by far my least favorite, and yet she is a must-hear in the Act 2 duettino); so are the orchestra and the choir. And whether or not one agrees with his tempo indications (I personally prefer my spooky statue music nice and slow), Jacobs’ interpretation is based on specific and reasonably verifiable principles of late-18th-century performance practice, not phantoms of Hoffmann’s wonderfully fertile imagination. The supreme pragmatist Mozart would surely have appreciated it.

Olga Haldey

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