MOZART: Don Giovanni

His passion for ìexcavating old dusty manuscriptsî
has illuminated Monteverdi, Cavalli and Cesti, Couperin and Charpentier,
Sch¸tz and Buxtehude, Blow and Purcell, Bach, Scarlatti, Keiser, Telemann,
and Handel (whose little-known Flavio is a sentimental favorite of
mine among Jacobsí recordings). Jacobsí approach to the concept of
ìearly musicî is all-embracing, ecumenical, one might even say
ìneo-Classicalî ó that is, anything pre-Beethoven is fair game. This
approach gave us Gluckís Orfeo and Haydnís The Seasons;
and Mozart, of course ó Figaro, Tito, CosÏ, and
now finally Don Giovanni, with RIAS Kammerchor and Freiburger
Barockorchester, out this year on Harmonia Mundi label.

Don Giovanni (Prague 1787, Vienna 1788) has had arguably the most
tortuous reception history of all Mozartís masterpieces. The most performed
of his operas, it has also been the least understood, the most second-guessed
and mutilated, as the composerís vision was compelled to submit to the
Romantic fantasies of the next generation that appropriated his creation.
RenÈ Jacobsí stated goal in this recording (see his fascinating interview
in the CD booklet) goes far beyond restoring the Mozart sound (that has been
done before, after all, by him and others). He proposes nothing less than
deliberate and complete de-Hoffmannization of Don Giovanni. It was
E.T.A. Hoffmann, after all, who single-handedly spearheaded the performance
tradition of the opera as a chronicle of a tragic Faustian hero in search of
the eternal feminine in which his demonic, tormented soul would find
salvation. This view of Don Giovanni as a tragedy, Jacobs argues,
has impacted the decision-making of performers and directors in a tremendous
variety of ways, such as voice casting, tempi, and the choice of the numbers
to include in and excise from the conflated Prague-Vienna version typically
performed these days. Thus, it gave birth to the questionable tradition of
excising the scena ultima, Mozartís comedyís moralistic epilog,
as well as downplaying other giocoso aspects of the drama whose
Shakespearean mixture of drama and farce made quite a few Romantics (starting
with Beethoven) uncomfortable.

The character of Don Giovanni has probably traveled the furthest away from
Mozartís dissoluto punito over the years. Jacobsí ìrestoredî
Don is pointedly lacking in Faustian gravitas. Instead, he is what da
Ponteís libretto describes as ìan extremely dissolute young manî ó in
essence, a Cherubino five years older than he was in Figaro
(accidentally or not, the wonderful young baritone Johannes Weisser, who
brings both his gorgeous lyrical sound and nuanced comic timing to the role
on this recording, is about the Donís age). His voice may have broken from
mezzo-soprano to a baritone, but he still has not learned impulse control. As
in Figaro, instead of a tragic Romantic pursuit of an ideal, his
misadventures in this opera (including the graveyard scene) are a series of
comic catastrophes, which make his final confrontation with Commendatore all
the more dramatic by comparison.

In the Hoffmannesque tradition, an antagonist to the demonic Don Giovanni
was Donna Anna, whose secret passion for the Don is fueling her rage and
thirst for revenge. As a result, Anna is almost inevitably cast as a dramatic
soprano, completely against the voice type suggested by Mozartís score
that, with its affecting pianos and lyrical high register, is so
clearly designed for an ingÈnue. On Jacobsí recording, Olga Pasichnyk
emphasizes Annaís sweetness, not her bile. This interpretation not only
completely transforms her Act 1 Or sai chi líonore from a rage
aria into a cantabile, but also allows the possibility of the famous Non
mi dir, bellíidol mio
(the very aria on the basis of which E.T.A.
Hoffmann accused Anna of faking her devotion to Ottavio by not speaking with
her own voice) to sound both fully justified and entirely convincing.

The bile in Jacobsí Don Giovanni is reserved for entirely for
Donna Elvira (Alexandrina Pendatchanska) ó the Donís true nemesis, and a
classic donna abbandonata whose forcefulness comes across
wonderfully in the angry lows of Act 1 Ah chi mi dice mai. Hoffmann
sees Elvira as a comic character, and in a way she is (but then so is the Don
ñ both characters are classified as mezzo carattere).
Pendatchanska also emphasize Elviraís softer side that comes across in Act
2, particularly in Mi tradÏ and the sextet, helping to set up the
justification (often absent in Don Giovanni productions) for her
last-minute intervention attempt in the Act 2 finale.

Apart from rescuing Elviraís reputation, RenÈ Jacobs comes to the aid
of another much-maligned character of the opera, Don Ottavio. In the
Hoffmannesque tradition, he is usually portrayed as a weakling both dominated
by forceful Anna and unworthy of her. Jacobsí Ottavio, on the other hand,
is an antithesis to selfish and impulsive Don Giovanni: he is ìthe new
manî of the sensible Enlightenment, whose strength lies in a perfect
balance of reason and emotions. As such, he is Donna Annaís equal and her
free choice. Between Ottavioís two arias, Jacobs chooses Dalla sua
, the Vienna insert, for the main recording, which is worth getting
just to hear Kenneth Tarverís sonorous, velvety but restrained bel canto in
that piece. Arguably, Dalla sua pace is dramatically more convincing
than Pragueís Il mio tesoro as an immediate response to Annaís
preceding Or sai chi díonore; if the listener is partial to the
latter, it may be found in the appendix. In his interview, Jacobs is very
clear about his view on an established performance tradition that
incorporates both arias. He believes that an uninterrupted aria parade in Act
2 that results from this unfortunate practice disregards Mozartís fine
sense of pacing and his intolerance for monotony, particularly when the
hilarious Zerlina-Leporello duet is excised from the same act as unseemly in
a tragedy (it is of course present on this recording).

The issue of pacing brings me to the most immediately controversial aspect
of RenÈ Jacobsí interpretation of Mozartís opera ó tempo indications.
The Hoffmannesque tradition, he believes, led to the extreme range of tempi
in Don Giovanni productions, some gravely slow, others maniacally
fast. The revisions made in Jacobsí recording are partially based on
identifiable dance rhythms that underline some vocal numbers, such as the
minuet in the Catalog aria (taken here somewhat faster than usual). Don
Giovanniís notorious Champaign aria, Jacobs points out, is a contradanse
ñ a popular couple dance of the Mozart-era middle class that the Don would
soon be dancing with Zerlina at the very ball that the Champaign aria aims to
organize. The dance is an appropriate one for the Don ó after all, it is a
partner-switching dance. Therefore, the aria ó as close to a self-portrait
as Mozartís notoriously elusive character ever comes in the opera named
after him ó should be performed at the contradanse speed, still lively but
slower than the usual breakneck pace that makes the all-important text of the
aria all but incomprehensible.

The pacing issue is even more important to ensemble numbers, which
according to Mozartís letters are supposed to resemble naturally flowing
buffa conversations, in which time flies and intrigue continues. The
tragic interpretation of Don Giovanni, Jacobs contends, causes the
Act 2 sextet to be taken much too slowly. What Hoffmann sees as the sublime
center of the drama, Jacobs reasonably recognizes as a typical comic finale
(which it would have been in the unrealized 4-act version of the opera), with
its ubiquitous mixture of sentimentality, hilarity, and confusion. Similarly,
the scene with the Commendatore statue in the Act 2 finale ó the very scene
previewed in the opening section of the overture ó is, Jacobs contends,
ruined by having the statue make its pronouncements at the usual funereal
speed. At the ìnormal conversationî pace on this recording, the verbal
sparring between Don Giovanni and his undead nemesis becomes less of an
otherworldly apparition and more of the musical and dramatic equivalent of
their Act 1 duel, thus tying together the two scenes and supporting the
finely balanced structure of the opera as a whole.

The more traditional and probably more accepted concern of a typical
ìearlyî recording showcased in Jacobs Don Giovanni is the issue of
improvised embellishments. Every performer includes them, both
instrumentalists (see, for instance, a brilliant little pianoforte flourish
at the beginning of Act 1 Scene 4 secco) and vocalists ó including
in the buffa numbers such as the Catalog aria, the Act 1 duettino,
the Champaign aria, and of course the second verse of the Act 2 canzonetta.
As Jacobs points out, buffa characters were expected to improvise
ornamentation for their parts as a matter of course; they were also expected
to ìact outî the comedy (which Lorenzo Regazzo as Leporello certainly
does here).

In conclusion, RenÈ Jacobsí Don Giovanni is a true
achievement; it is brilliant, polished, inventive, and engaging. The cast is
almost uniformly excellent (Sunhae Im as Zerlina was by far my least
favorite, and yet she is a must-hear in the Act 2 duettino); so are the
orchestra and the choir. And whether or not one agrees with his tempo
indications (I personally prefer my spooky statue music nice and slow),
Jacobsí interpretation is based on specific and reasonably verifiable
principles of late-18th-century performance practice, not phantoms
of Hoffmannís wonderfully fertile imagination. The supreme pragmatist
Mozart would surely have appreciated it.

Olga Haldey

image_description=W. A. Mozart: Don Giovanni
product_title=W. A. Mozart: Don Giovanni
product_by=Johannes Weisser, Lorenzo Regazzo, Alexandrina Pendatchanska, Olga Pasichnyk, Kenneth Tarver, Sunhae Im, Nikolay Borchev, Alessandro Guerzoni, RIAS Kammerchor, Freiburger Barockorchester, RenÈ Jacobs (dir.)
product_id=Harmonia Mundi HMC901964.66 [3CDs]