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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Don Giovanni
Don Giovanni – Dimitris Tiliakos
Leporello – Vito Priante
Commendatore – Mika Kares
Donna Anna – Myrtò Papatanasiu
Don Ottavio – Kenneth Tarver
Donna Elvira – Karina Gauvin
Masetto – Guido Loconsolo
Zerlina – Christina Gansch
Musicaeterna/Teodor Currentzis
rec. 23 November-7 December 2015, P. I. Tchaikovsky State Opera and Ballet Theatre, Perm, Russia
SONY 88985316032 [3 CDs: 61:13 + 65:54 + 42:57]

I came to bury this recording, not to praise it. I’d heard Teodor Currentzis’ recordings of Le Nozze di Figaro and Così fan Tutte and hated them both. To me, they’re brash, abrasive, careless and often ugly. So I admit I approached his Don Giovanni with a bag of prejudice. We reviewers are only human, after all. In the event, however, I found it rather wonderful, albeit with heavy caveats. You need to let your ear tune into Currentzis’ very peculiar Mozartian sound world, but once I did so I found it really very compelling, and infinitely more involving (and convincing) than his Figaro or Così.

Musicaeterna’s sound uses period instruments, but pushed to breaking point. At times Currentzis goes for a sound that, in most contexts, would be described as intentionally ugly, but before long I began to appreciate it more for its dramatic effect than for the sound itself. In fact, it’s the drama that is at the heart of Currentzis’ success and his whole approach. I suspect, in fact, that it’s even more important to him than the music.

You see, Currentzis repeatedly tweaks the music away from the notes in Mozart’s score, taking some outrageous liberties (and, unlike René Jacobs whose Mozart cycle often did something similar, there is no serious attempt in the booklet notes to justify it). Purists should head for the hills, and I recently counted myself in their number, but what converted me was the way I repeatedly found myself dramatically convinced, often in spite of myself.

The most obvious and consistent place you’ll find it is in the hyperactive recitatives. The continuo line plays all manner of games, such as the way it whooshes up into Fin ch’han dal vino, or slithers into the trio of Ah, taci ingiusto core, to give only two examples from many. However, where Currentzis does this, it’s always for a dramatic effect. In the above cases, it allows the Don to seem even more rakish and reckless in Fin ch’han dal vino, and it makes Ah, taci ingiusto core feel even more duplicitous than usual.

Principally he uses them as a way to draw more acting from his principals. I loved the introduction of Zerlina and Masetto in Act 1, for example, where they’re both characterised utterly differently through exaggerated use of their recitatives, and the Don’s seduction of Zerlina – in the recitative, not in the duet – is utterly irresistible, drawing a huge smile from my cynical soul, even against my better judgement.

Currentzis takes plenty of other liberties, too. Leporello has too many “no”s at the end of Notte e Giorgio, for example, and there is a criminal (but actually delightful) reference to the mandolin serenade in the continuo that accompanies Ah, taci ingiusto core.  However, they refreshed rather than irritated me, and they're part of Currentzis’ vision of re-energising the piece.  Sometimes it fails, such as the downright daft recitative that precedes the duet for Zerlina and Leporello (we get the amalgamation of the so-called Vienna and Prague versions here), and I didn’t get the (doubtless very clever) musical reference in the recitative that introduces the graveyard scene. There is more good than bad, though, and I speak as a relative sceptic.

Currentzis also uses his very particular sound to great dramatic effect, too. The most obvious places to see that are the climaxes of the drama. The overture is thrillingly direct, as is the damnation scene, and there is a pleasing touch of chaos to the rival dances of the Act 1 finale. The period sound is used to great effect, too. The thin string tone makes Elvira’s Ah, fuggi il traditor even more strident than usual, and it turns Anna’s accompagnato, which precedes Or sai chi l’onore, into a thrill-a-minute-suspense-fest.  Currentzis is on the fast side, but not always: Là ci darem, for example, is a lot slower than usual, but used successfully for dramatic effect to illustrate the sensuous nature of what is going on.

I’d summarise by saying that what came to my mind most when listening to this recording was the concept of a radio play, the Hörspiel idea that René Jacobs invoked in his recording of Die Entführung aus dem Serail. I also thought of the SonicStage Decca recordings of John Culshaw in the 1960s, where Culshaw wanted to create a unique theatrical experience for home listening, though not in the sense of sound effects or entries from left and right, as there isn’t much of that. No: Currentzis isn’t just trying to record the music; he is giving you a unique, unrepeatable and highly specific insight into the characters and the drama. It’s particular, it’s highly biased, and at times it’s infuriating but, for me, it worked, to my very great surprise.

He has a very good cast of singers, too, who have completely bought into his vision. Myrtò Papatanasiu heads the women as a strident but very vital Donna Anna, and she is matched with luxurious casting by having Kenneth Tarver as Don Ottavio. He’s sensational, his honeyed tones turning Ottavio’s arias into two of the highlights of the set, and he brings sensuous beauty to the ensembles, too.  Furthermore, both introduce intelligent ornamentations into their arias, which isn’t inappropriate, as they’re the most baroque characters in the piece. Karina Gauvin, a born actress, plays Elvira as genuinely wounded when she first enters, but achieves great dignity as the drama progresses. The trio Protegga il giusto cielo is a beautiful island of stillness in the mayhem of Act 1, and her Mi tradì is sung with great insight.

Vito Priante is a brilliant Leporello, his performance so vigorous as to come to life in your mind’s eye, and he’s a genuine foil to his master. I also loved the weariness that he brings to their shared recitative at the start of the second act. Christina Gansch is winningly breathless with excitement when she first enters as Zerlina, but utterly beguiling in Là ci darem and Batti, batti. Guido Loconsolo’s Masetto is bluff and straight-talking, and Mika Kares makes a commanding Commendatore.

The most controversial part of the casting is the Don himself. Dimitris Tiliakos plays him fairly introverted, far from the conventional Alpha Male, and it’s the intimate duets where he sounds most comfortable. When the big showpiece of Fin ch’han dal vino comes, he seems to mutter it to himself, and he goes to his eternal fate with resignation rather than defiance. Still, that’s clearly what Currentzis wanted, and it’s a fresh insight rather than something utterly offensive.

The packaging is a luxurious hardback book that’s well presented with full texts and translations, if lacking in genuinely informative liner notes. My only other criticism is the recorded sound, which is very close. That’s great for the solos and duets, but the Commendatore’s music has no room to breath, and the damnation scene is too confined.

So, if you’re looking for a beautiful Don Giovanni look elsewhere, and there is no shortage of contenders. As I’ve made clear above, this recording comes with any number of health warnings, but if you want something as fresh as a new coat of paint and bristling with life then you should turn to this one for some exciting new discoveries.

These are words I never thought I’d write! Maybe I was wrong about Figaro and Così

Simon Thompson



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