Arte Nova has given us cause to be grateful for
this fascinating document. That is not to say it is infallible
(see below), rather that as an entity it works remarkably well,
is musicologically aware and offers a great deal of pleasure along
the way. At super-budget price, it is well worth a spin or several.
The opportunity to hear a younger generation of singers in major
roles proves fascinating. Both for de Billy’s conducting and much
of the singing, this is a youthful delivery of the score (and
Mozart, remember, was never anything but young) which is gripping
both dramatically and musically. Even the booklet notes are lengthy,
informed and informative.
Although issued on three discs, the third is
actually an appendix (hence the duration of only a little over
a quarter of an hour) that includes the Vienna alternatives. Don
Giovanni, remember, was premièred in Prague on October
29th, 1787; the Vienna première, at the Royal
National Court Theatre, occurred a year later.
Let’s start at the very beginning … for here,
in the Overture, the characteristic traits of de Billy’s reading
are immediately apparent. Stormy, arresting, violent even, the
initial orchestral explosion (no other word for it here) is startling
in the extreme. Dramatic and to the point, punchy and gripping,
it is easy to believe that one is in an opera house. Here also
the qualities of the Sendesaal recording itself are manifest:
clarity and believable space in harmony.
Leporello is the first character to appear. Maurizio
Murara is a well-travelled singer who also numbers Sarastro (Zauberflöte)
and Escamillo (Carmen) in his repertoire. He sang Bartolo
(Figaro) under Riccardo Muti at the Vienna State Opera
and Osmin (Entführung) at the Volksoper there. Impressive
credentials. His ‘Notte e giorno faticar’, taken fast, may seem
somewhat distanced initially, but remains focussed. He seems to
have found full voice for his Catalogue Aria (‘Madamina, il catalogo
è questo’) where his confident characterisation carries
the listener with it. Again, every word counts, and de Billy’s
accompaniment is razor-sharp.
De Billy’s velocity invokes considerable excitement
in the initial Donna Anna/Giovanni/Commendatore confrontation.
Two things immediately become apparent: this is an ensemble effort,
and diction is all. Despite the substantial lick, all words carry.
The Commendatore (Reinhard Hagen) is of a smaller voice than is
often the case; Regina Schorg’s Donna Anna is full of voice and
nicely projected. Vibrato is there, but it is dramatic without
being overly distracting. The Commendatore’s death is affecting
without indulgence. No lingering: there is evidently a long way
Time now for our Don Ottavio to show his colours.
American tenor Jeffrey Francis has made a career in the baroque
and Rossini fields, only recently taking up the Mozartian challenge.
He is light-voiced, but it is a voice full of expressive possibilities.
As he tries to revive Donna Anna, his tenderness shines through
– it is easy to believe his devotion, even if he is somewhat literal
in his entreaties (the ‘Fuggi, crudele, fuggi!’ duet). Francis’
Don Ottavio is, in fact, an ‘almost but not quite’ assumption.
Although in the second act he is somewhat stretched at the close
of ‘Il mio tesoro’, he nevertheless phrases well and takes the
melismas in his stride.
A pity the Don’s first entrance is notable for
the recording edit at its start, a reminder this is a studio performance.
Korean bass Kwangchul Youn , who landed in Europe in 1990, has
been linked to the Berlin State Opera since 1993. He took the
part of Landgraf in Tannhäuser at Bayreuth in 2002.
Youn and Muraro spark off each other in their recitative.
Heidi Brunner’s Elvira makes for compulsive listening
in recitative (how often can one say that?); Birgid Steinberger’s
Zerlina and Reinhard Mayr’s Masetto are perfectly matched in the
lightness of voice. A pity that only slightly later Masetto and
Leporello, both basses, sound somewhat similar (especially apparent
when one listens to Masetto’s ‘Ho capito, signor, si!’). No problems
of individuality for Steinberger’s Zerlina, whose part in the
most famous Duettino of all (‘Là ci darem la mano’) reveals
a fresh young girl, surely the epitome of what Mozart had in mind.
She reveals a further depth to her character, though, as she later
attempts to assuage Masetto’s jealousy in ‘Batti, batti, o bel
Masetto’. Tenderness is all here.
Throughout this exposition of principal characters,
de Billy’s pacing has been consistently effective and dramatically
astute. It is not until Donna Anna’s ‘Or sai chi l’onore’ that
tension sags appreciably for the first time. Listening ‘blind’,
it would be difficult to credit that the subject of the aria is
revenge. Perhaps this was planned to contrast with the Don’s breathless
‘Fin ch’an dal vino’ not too much later?. Youn and de Billy just
get away with it, Youn actually managing not to babble.
For the Finale of Act 1, the onus is on the conductor
to tie it all together into a coherent musico-dramatic entity,
and de Billy comes through the test well, characterising the individual
parts (a charming, gallant Menuetto, for example) within the umbrella
of whole. As chaos reigns, the strength of this recording in its
ensembles comes to the fore and leaves a lasting impression as
the (metaphorical) curtain falls.
Lovely that each Act fits onto one disc. The
Second Act begins with the Don and Leporello in duet. It is informative,
as Youn emerges as stronger than Muraro. In fact, Muraro improves
considerably by the time we get to ‘Deh, vieni alla finestra’,
for which he employs a silky smooth legato (in addition, de Billy’s
tempo seems perfect). On his ‘return’, Hagen’s Commendatore is
appropriately ominous (helped by a touch of added reverb: from
‘the other side’, one imagines!). If Donna Anna’s ‘Non mi dir
‘projects a predominant sadness well, it is in the finale that
things really fall into place, right from the impressively bustling
Youn’s assumption of the title role is not the
most strongly defined on record, but perhaps in an overall conception
that emphasises the several rather than the one, that is appropriate.
De Billy ensures the action is fast and furious.
Importantly, the arrival of the statue is expertly managed in
that it makes its effect without causing the dramatic curve to
The supplement, disc three, offers the Vienna
additions: Don Ottavio’s ‘Della sua pace’ (to be inserted after
CD1, track 24), nicely sung by Francis and alternatives for Act
Two, Nos. 20 and 21 (including Elvira’s ‘Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata’).
Fascinating and rewarding, this is a most instructive,
aware Giovanni that at the price should be a compulsory
purchase for every opera-lover.