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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Don Giovanni (1787) [173:13]
Don Giovanni - Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (baritone)
Donna Anna - Diana Damrau (soprano)
Leporello - Luca Pisaroni (bass)
Il Commendatore - Vitalij Kowaljow (bass)
Donna Elvira - Joyce DiDonato (soprano)
Don Ottavio - Rolando Villazón (tenor)
Masetto- Konstantin Wolff (bass)
Zerlina- Mojca Erdmann (soprano)
Vocalensemble Rastatt/Holger Speck
Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
rec. July 2011, Festspielhaus Baden-Baden. DDD. stereo
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 9878 [3 CDs: 59:30 + 54:45 + 58:58]

Experience Classicsonline

A new recording of Mozart’s operatic masterpiece with this kind of pedigree and casting must be welcomed and treated with respect. This especially because it is the first in a planned series of seven recordings of concert performances of major Mozart operas in the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden. In these days of austerity it is rare to find the kind of sponsorship required for such an undertaking. Whereas recordings of Don Giovanni were once frequent it is a good while since we had a new one of any real quality. Many of us are abashed to confess that we return to recordings forty, fifty and even sixty years old when we want to hear it.
Nonetheless, I find my reaction to it to be very mixed indeed, a response most dictated by some anomalies and peculiarities in the conception. These arise not least from the mismatch between Nézet-Séguin’s direction and his singers’ style. It is immediately apparent in the cleanly articulated overture that, in line with the modern fashion, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra is a reduced band that employs very little vibrato. By contrast, the sopranos, especially Diana Damrau, all employ fruity vibrato verging on a wobble - perhaps not by choice but more because their voices cannot adapt to the smaller-scale idiom the conductor applies. This is a recording full of incongruities: even while he requires the strings to eschew vibrato, Nézet-Séguin frequently employs rubato. The result is more of an etiolated whine than is entirely pleasing. Nor is there much drive or excitement in this performance. I miss the febrile, even hysterical, quality that should characterise the Don’s sex-obsession and the outraged responses it generates. “Deh vieni” is absurdly lugubrious with no spark at all, so slow and restrained that an incipient tremolo intrudes into D’Arcangelo’s tone. Conversely, the Champagne Aria is taken so fast - as if the conductor vaguely sensed he needed to take the opportunity to inject some spark in the generally staid proceedings - that the singer can barely get his sizeable voice around the divisions. There is a general atmosphere of carefulness about the reading which is perhaps inevitable in a mere concert performance. It lacks the spark and brio of a fully staged version.
A further oddity: the Don has a much richer, basso-coloured tone than the Leporello who is essentially a light baritone without a hint of the buffo weight desirable in the role. This although Pisaroni has a fleet and engaging way with the words and it is a pleasure to hear two Italians make so much of their exchanges, joshing one another idiomatically. We have enjoyed great chocolate-voiced Dons such as Siepi and Ghiaurov in previous celebrated recordings and there is certainly nothing inappropriate about D’Arcangelo’s big, black, handsome-brute of a bass to portray the Don’s cocksure brutality. Yet for all that I very much appreciate D’Arcangelo’s saturnine characterisation, for me the stars of the recording are Villazon and DiDonato.
He is the surprise of the recording and a very welcome one, too, not just because we all want to hear such a lovely voice back in form after its vocal crises. He offers us something really different and convincing in his Don Ottavio. This is no wimpish pi-boy but an ardent flesh-and-blood lover who persuades us of his determination to defend and avenge the woman he loves. His dark, husky beauty of tone, fine gradations of dynamic and poised, virile top notes are all a delight, while his long-breathed “Il mio tesoro” may stand comparison for elegance and legato with any predecessor. It is to his Ottavio I shall return as a model of its kind.
The shock of Damrau’s wobble when she joins Villazon in “Soa, sola, in buio loco” is really unpleasant. She squeezes and flaps, and the vocal security which marked her 2008 solo Mozart recital album has mutated into a decidedly self-conscious struggle with the notes. The power in “Or sai” is still there but the basic tone is now strident and harsh - qualities accentuated by the beat. This compromises her ability to make Donna Anna sound poignant and vulnerable. She is simply shrill. In the context of 110 years of recorded Donna Annas she isn’t in the running.
Mojca Erdmann as Zerlina is similarly unimpressive: a very ordinary, thin-toned, rather charmless singer, again afflicted by an exaggerated vibrato and one who cannot stand comparison with previous exponents such as Freni, Sciutti, Gueden and Seefried. Her attempt to interpolate a high C in “Vedrai, carino” is ill-advised.
DiDonato by comparison is so much more agreeable on the ear. She manages the awkward tessitura of Donna Elvira’s music with triumphant ease. She is a rich-voiced spitfire in the Schwarzkopf mode. Whether she is the great singer many acclaim her as, I am not sure but she is certainly impressive here.
The Masetto is perfectly adequate. The Commendatore is somewhat given to - yes, you’ve guessed it - wobble and a slightly nasal, throttled vocal production. He has a good low D. A pity that he doesn’t command and chill in the manner of the most impressive Stone Guests; the final scene doesn’t really catch fire.
All in all, a mixed bag: an admirable trio of singers in D’Arcangelo, DiDonato and Villazon but otherwise too low-key to stir the blood.  

Ralph Moore 

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