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
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