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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Opera Explained – An Introduction to MOZART’S Don Giovanni

Thomson Smillie (writer); David Timson (narrator)
Don Giovanni, Bo Skovhus (bar); The Commendatore, Janusz Monarcha (bass); Donna Anna, Adrianne Pieczonka (sop); Don Ottavio, Torsten Kerl (tenor); Donna Elvira, Regina Schörg (sop); Leporello, Renato Girolami (bass); Masetto, Boaz Daniel (bass); Zerlina, Ildikó Raimondi (sop)
Hungarian Radio Chorus and Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia/Michael Halász
(music from NAXOS 8.660080-82)
Rec. Motivation Sound Studios, London, 2003. DDD
NAXOS 8.558115 [78:59]


Serious opera lovers may not approve of this endeavour – the latest offering from the Naxos "Opera Explained" series. David Timson narrates an elementary, nevertheless entertaining, script – punctuated with musical snippets – that takes us from a general account of Mozart's life to a closer inspection of the three Da Ponte operas of which Don Giovanni is the crowning achievement.

Of course it is of interest to us all to learn about the genesis of Mozart’s operatic masterpiece, and for those of us who prefer to be spoon-fed the biographical details, this CD will be much appreciated. There is nothing revelatory in Smillie’s easily-digested script, but thanks to a very agreeable narrational intonation, we are spared a potentially patronising performance.

It is a pity, therefore, that the music is not spared this insult. As far as this CD is concerned, music is a means to a narrational ends, and the price we pay is a handful of butchered illustrative musical excerpts. If only Thomson Smillie had paid closer attention to his observation in the CD notes that "it is – as ultimately it has to be – the music that defines the experience".

A further injury to the musical aspect are the quotations from the Marriage of Figaro. An ugly, warbling Countess Almaviva is, to our great misfortune, neither camouflaged nor supported by the accompanying orchestra’s heavy-handed execution. My heartfelt commiseration that she is reflecting sadly on past happiness and lamenting an unfaithful husband, but must we all suffer her distress? This is, fortunately, not an issue for the ensuing Don Giovanni passages that boast extremely impressive performances across the board.

Ultimately, this recording satisfies what it sets out to do, and that is to give a layman’s introduction to Mozart’s Don Giovanni with a taste of its musical gems. In doing so, however, the music is necessarily compromised and the story trivialised. Thankfully, however, the performances for the Don Giovanni extracts are good enough to perhaps encourage the listener to purchase the opera proper.

It is not a crime to be introduced to the opera through the "Opera Explained" series, but if you choose this route, do so in the full awareness that you are only scraping the surface.

Aline Nassif

see also review by Robert Farr

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