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Don Giovanni

Available at Amazon:
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Mozart, Don Giovanni, Freiburger Barockorchester, R. Jacobs
(released on October 9, 2007)

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Mozart, Don Giovanni, S. Ramey, A. Tomowa-Sintow, Berlin Philharmonic, H. von Karajan
When pressed on the identity of my favorite opera (a question, like that of "favorite composer," impossible to answer), Mozart's Don Giovanni would usually come first to mind. It is perfectly constructed, never allowing the listener's attention to wane and occasionally blowing his mind. The libretto, the greatest of Mozart's collaboration with Lorenzo da Ponte, is at once comic and tragic, providing both pleasing divertissement and a myth of universal significance. The opera holds together when interpreted as composer autobiography, socio-political commentary, or just entertaining drama. In short, Washington National Opera's new production of Don Giovanni, which opened Thursday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House (see my preview at DCist), is most welcome. To paraphrase Mae West, even if it's bad, it will still be pretty good. Ionarts will review the second performance of the production, this evening, on what happens to be the anniversary of the world premiere, in Prague's Gräflich Nostitzsches Nazionaltheater, on October 29, 1787, two hundred twenty years ago.

WNO Reviews:

Tim Page, This 'Don Giovanni' Is More Parry Than Thrust (Washington Post, October 27)

T. L. Ponick, A dark 'Giovanni' of depth, beauty (Washington Times, October 27)
Chez Ionarts the recording of choice for Don Giovanni has generally been Samuel Ramey with Herbert von Karajan, but two recent recordings present worthy new choices, beginning with the latest installment in the unofficial Mozart cycle by René Jacobs (most recently, La Clemenza di Tito, the Ionarts Best of 2004 Le Nozze di Figaro, and Così fan tutte before that). The Jacobs Don Giovanni, created for a staged production at the Innsbruck Early Music Festival in August 2006, is generally in line with those recordings, instrumentally strong and challenging to ear and mind, in terms of removing the shellac of centuries of performance. The Freiburger Barockorchester is captured in beautiful sound, with the brass and percussion cutting through powerfully and the soft flutes and other winds adding subtle colors.

Sometimes the unconventional tempo choices work, but the Stone Guest scene just comes off as too fast, with the singers almost stumbling over the words. (Jacobs does marshal some convincing evidence in his booklet essay for his rapid tempo.) The recitatives, brilliantly accompanied by Giorgio Paronuzzi at a pianoforte, have frankly never sounded better. In general with such a strong and exciting instrumental component to this recording, one cannot help but think that Jacobs has miscalculated by not using more recognized singers than this cast list. In his essay, Jacobs makes a point of noting that the singer who premiered the title role in Prague, Luigi Bassi, was only 21 years old, and Johannes Weisser is about the same age. Da Ponte identified the Don as a libertine youth (Un giovane estremamente licenzioso), or "a sort of Cherubino five years older" as Jacobs puts it. Adding to the case that this recording is a must-hear, however, is its completeness. Jacobs has opted for the Vienna revision, so that all of the favorites added there are included, with an appendix of four tracks containing everything performed only in the Prague premiere.

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Mozart, Don Giovanni, directed by Joseph Losey

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Mozart, Don Giovanni, R. Raimondi, K. Te Kanawa, Opéra National de Paris, L. Maazel
(released on August 29, 2006)
There may be one or two readers who have not seen Joseph Losey's spectacular 1979 film version of Don Giovanni. Some do not like the freer treatment of the story, in which the director added some supernumerary characters and symbolism not found in the libretto, but it is one of the most successful productions of the opera. There are a few clips on YouTube, but the best one is embedded at the bottom of this post, the unforgettable Catalogue Aria, in which Leporello and his assistants spread out the carefully noted list of Don Giovanni's conquests, carrying the connected pages across the lawn and down a street, before the horrified eyes of Kiri Te Kanawa's Donna Elvira.

Last year, Sony released a remastered version of the soundtrack used in that film, with Lorin Maazel conducting the Orchestra of the Paris Opéra. The sound is indeed improved, and this is an astounding cast, with Ruggiero Raimondi in the title role, the thundering John Macurday as Il Commendatore, and Teresa Berganza (!) as Zerlina joining Van Dam and Te Kanawa. However, one of the risks of listening to the Jacobs version of the opera is that your ears will become sensitized to the shellac built up on a version like this. Where is the crisp sense of ensemble among the instruments and with the singers? Why are some of the numbers so slow, in contrast with the tempo markings? Still, that Stone Guest scene makes my skin crawl every time.

Harmonia Mundi HMC 901964-66 / Sony Classical 82876-87758-2

Catalogue Aria ("Madamina, il catalogo è questo"),
José Van Dam, film directed by Joseph Losey

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