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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791)
Don Giovanni - dramma giocoso in due atti (1787-1788)
Johannes Weisser (baritone) – Don Giovanni; Lorenzo Regazzo (bass-baritone) – Leporello; Alexandrina Pendatchanska (soprano) – Donna Elvira; Olga Pasichnyk (soprano) – Donna Anna; Kenneth Tarver (tenor) – Don Ottavio; Sunhae Im (soprano) – Zerlina; Nikolay Borchev (bass) – Masetto; Alessandro Guerzoni (bass) – Il Commendatore
RIAS Kammerchor, Freiburger Barockorchester/RenÚ Jacobs
rec. November 2006, Teldex Studio Berlin
Texts and translations included
[3 CDs: 60:39 + 52:31 + 57:36]


From the very outset this promises to be a very different – and thrilling – Don Giovanni. The overture is dark and threatening – telling us that this is exactly what Mozart and Da Ponte promises us: a dramma giocoso. The giocoso is not underplayed but tells us that this is indeed a dramma. That it is an interpretation in authentic style is obvious at once. The strings are playing without vibrato but with tremendous force and the overall effect is luminously transparent. The woodwind, so characteristic of any Mozartean score, is prominent and there is a thrust to the music-making that is very “authentic”. Readers familiar with the idiom will know what I mean. Readers who are not so familiar will understand at once when hearing the first chords. This is music closer to Bach – whom Mozart admired – than Brahms.

Once again RenÚ Jacobs has rethought a Mozart score and the results do not primarily encompass the sound, important though that is, but first and foremost are reflected in the contents. Confirmed by the ‘interview’ with himself as printed in the lavish booklet he has approached the drama without preconceptions. He has created a personal and to a great extent new view of this endlessly fascinatingly opera. Having loved this work for more than 45 years and lately reviewed half a dozen of recordings, old and new, I thought I knew it fairly well; not so. Jacobs has come up with a completely new and revolutionary version. When Arnold Ístman presented his view with forces from the Drottningholm Theatre almost twenty years ago, it was a reading that in many respects turned the established idea of the opera upside-down. His was also an authentic-instrument concept with lighter voices than those normally assigned and with tempos that at times felt break-neck. Not so with Jacobs. Tempos are important to him but most important is to give the singers scope to give meaning to the text. We can hear that directly after the overture, where Leporello has all the time in the world to articulate and even embellish the musical line. This is an expressive reading. And not least in the recitatives Jacobs allows his singers to take time. There is one specific example towards the end of act 1 (CD2 tr. 1), where Leporello relates how he has taken care of Masetto and his friends, while Don Giovanni has tried to seduce Zerlina. There the dialogue is normally brought forward at a rousing tempo but here Don Giovanni hesitates before his answers: Who joined the party? - - - Zerlina! And who came with her? - - - Donna Elvira! Don Giovanni has to think for a moment and this is what we hear. He may be intelligent and we – the listeners – know the answer but he doesn’t – at least not immediately. As a whole the recitatives are the most lively, the most integrated with the music I have ever heard. They are accompanied on a fortepiano, enormously flexibly, extemporized (?) and sometimes assisted by a continuo cello to heighten the tension. I can’t remember a recording or a live performance where the secco recitatives have been so engagingly performed. Another is that there are sometimes dramatically effective pauses before an aria or a recitative starts. There are so many recordings where this feels like a longueur – with Jacobs it is to make a point, to make the listener think.

This is one distinctive feature of this recording. Another is the active presence of the orchestra. This is no novelty. Everyone with some knowledge of Mozart’s music knows the interplay between the vocal lines and the comments of the orchestra. It is only that Jacobs finds so much more to comment on, that the orchestra is so much more present.

I touched on tempi earlier and must return to this since again Jacobs has gone to the sources to find ‘authenticity’. Mozart gives tempo instructions in the conventional way: Andante, adagio, allegro etc, but what does this imply? What did Mozart expect when he wrote andante? One of the clues is, according to RenÚ Jacobs, that so much of Mozart’s music is based on dances of the day and that it is possible to know what was the basic tempo of these dances in Mozart’s day. And it is true: large portions of this score dances, even the champagne aria, which is a ‘hidden’ contredanse. In fact the whole essay by Jacobs, entitled “Burning Questions”, is a fascinating read and more or less necessary to understand his interpretation.

When it comes to the question of versions Jacobs has firmly opted for the Vienna one but has included in an appendix the numbers cut from the Prague edition. This means here that the rarely heard Zerlina–Leporello duet in the second act is performed in the opera proper.

I can imagine many readers saying: this is interesting, this is fascinating, but what about the singing? There isn’t a single name I know. Be consoled. Neither did I – bar Kenneth Tarver. I happened to catch Tarver in this role in the Aix-en-Provence production in the late 1990s, where he sang Don Ottavio when I saw it in Stockholm. I found him ideal then and he is one of the strengths on this recording – lyrical and honeyed but with heft enough to be a worthy counterpart to Donna Anna. Here she is here sung by a lighter-of-voice soprano than one usually encounters. Olga Pasichnyk has all the required power but is more lyrical than many sopranos in this role. Impressive she is, certainly, and those expecting a spinto singer need not fear. Donna Elvira is often regarded as the opposite party to Don Giovanni. Here she is thrillingly sung by Alexandrina Pendatchanska, whose bright soprano tones superbly depict this ill-fated and split character. Her Ah! fuggi il traditor throbs – and no mistake.

Regular readers may have seen my rave review of the Naxos Die Sch÷pfung where I praised the bright soprano of Sunhae Im. She is a delightful and bright Zerlina here and her arias are little gems.

Many recordings of this opera suffer from a lack of distinction between Don Giovanni and Leporello. Not so here, where the young Norwegian baritone Johannes Weissner can never be mistaken for the superb Lorenzo Regazzo. Regazzo’s servant is as theatrical as any in my memory. Weissner is a principally lyrical singer, one the most elegant Don Giovannis one can hear and as a nobleman can’t possibly be as coarse and blustery as some interpreters make him. The likewise young Belarusian bass Nikolay Borchev is a superb Masetto with really instinctive acting abilities. He is fast advancing to the very top of the trade, as I predicted when reviewing Simon Mayr’s L’Armonia on Naxos (review). The other bass, Alessandro Guerzoni as Il Commendatore, could ideally have been steadier and more thunderous but the character is an old man. Checking old opera and concert programmes I found that he also sang the role in the aforementioned Aix-en-Provence production.

The recording is superlative, the enclosed book (304 pages!) with essays in three languages, sung texts and translations, biographies and even a very extensive bibliography is a model of its kind and the box is both practical and decorative.

For a wholly engrossing performance of this eternal masterpiece with swathes of cobweb blown away, this is a set that should be in every collection irrespective of how many other versions one already has. I would be very surprised if this doesn’t appear at the top of my “Recordings of the Year 2008”.

G÷ran Forsling




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