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Posts Tagged ‘Don Giovanni’

Don Not Dusted

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on February 13, 2014 at 2:01 pm

Review – Don Giovanni (Royal Opera House, Wednesday 12 February 2014)

Don Giovanni – Mariusz Kwiecień
Leporello – Alex Esposito
Donna Anna – Malin Byström
Don Ottavio – Antonio Poli
Il Commendatore – Alexander Tsymbalyuk
Donna Elvira – Véronique Gens
Zerlina – Elizabeth Watts
Masetto – David Kimberg

Director – Kasper Holten
Set Design – Es Devlin
Video Designs – Luke Halls
Costume Designs – Anja Van Kragh
Lighting Design – Bruno Poet

Royal Opera House Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Nicola Luisotti (Conductor)

Don Giovanni is quintessential Mozart. Nothing after it surprises – or challenges – as much as this opera does.

Written in 1787, I think that Don Giovanni is the culmination of Mozart’s musical armoury. It finesses the ensemble writing of Le Nozze di Figaro that isn’t bettered in his final three operas; the orchestral writing is truly symphonic and his fusion of counterpoint and baroque idioms is more fluid and integrated here than in later works.

And in Da Ponte he had a librettist – a storyteller – who matched Mozart’s incredible talent with characters of flesh, blood and passion.

At the end of the day, Don Giovanni is a (pre) Gothic novel. It has murder, intrigue, sex, death and revenge. It might be the “graveyard” of opera directors but in a sense it is a very easy story to tell.

And it’s been a long time since I have seen a production of Don Giovanni as confident and coherent as this – perhaps not since Jonathan Miller’s production for ENO in the 1980s in fact. And while there is a great deal to enjoy in Casper Holten’s new production, there were moments when I wish he’d done a little less tinkering.

Above all this production was incredibly strong musically, with some of the singing of a very high standard indeed.

Mariusz Kwiecień is quickly making Don Giovanni a signature role, but I would argue that his Don is still a work in progress but nearing maturity. Vocally he is well suited to the music, with a commanding baritone of great flexibility that shows little strain at either end of his range. He displayed an intuitive sense of ensemble but in the solo numbers I would have preferred a little more colour rather than simple dynamic shading. His acting was very good – he clearly enjoyed and believed in Holten’s direction for the Don – and I would really enjoy seeing him in this production again when it inevitably returns.

I wasn’t so sure about Esposito’s Leporello. His was a one-size-fits-all performance vocally. Most disappointing was Madamina, il catalogo è questo. Almost barked through, it lacked both swagger and the necessary sense of emotional intelligence to make it meaningful in terms of both the characterization of the Don Giovanni and Donna Elvira.

On the other hand Antonio Poli’s Don Ottavio was vocally impressive. Poli’s supple yet confident tenor voice glided through his two arias and again he worked well in the ensembles. But I think – as with other productions – Don Ottavio was almost an after-thought for Holten. Granted he is probably Mozart’s most two-dimensional character, but it really did feel like he had slipped of Holten’s list. Similarly Masetto – well sung by David Kimberg – felt like a cipher rather than a real flesh and blood character.

But the women were magnificent.

Véronique Gens as Donna Elvira was a maelstrom of emotions wrapped in some of the most exciting and dramatic singing and acting I have seen in a very long time. From her first appearance with Ah, chi mi dice mai she inhabited the character and reveled in Mozart’s music. In quali eccessi … Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata was the expected tour de force her ensemble work was equally thrilling. Protegga il giusto cielo is a real jewel moment in this opera and Gens and the Donna Anna of Malin Byström complimented each other perfectly.

And this Swedish Donna Anna was equal to the task. It’s a formidable role but Byström was more than equal to the task. In possession of a solidly grounded soprano in terms of technique, while there was some slight tightness at the top of her range she convincingly and confidently tackled Donna Anna’s music head on and it paid dividends as she turned in a compelling and sensitive performance.

I remember one of Elizabeth Watt’s first major appearances, as Hope in ENO’s L’Orfeo. Since then she has constantly demonstrated that she is developing into a soprano of talent and character. Her Zerlina displayed a rich and even soprano of some maturity as well as a real sense of style and dramatic (and comic) timing. I can’t wait to hear her impending recital disc of Mozart arias.

In the pit, Luisotti tempi was spot on and he drew some attentive and delicate playing from the orchestra. But I wasn’t convinced about the alternation from harpsichord to fortepiano.

I think that Holten’s production has drawn mixed – if not divided – opinion. On the whole I liked it but some elements were not convincing.

Starting with the ending, I can understand the dramatic impact from a directorial point of view but I simply don’t agree with cutting the sextet. Mozart made the cut for the Vienna premiere but he did so because of the Viennese audience. The Emperor Joseph remarked that the opera had “too much teeth” for the Viennese which prompted Da Ponte’s famous retort, “let them chew on it”. They didn’t and it was dropped after fifteen performances until after Mozart’s death.

Cutting that section unbalances the ending, denying the audience and the characters an important sense of closure. Without it Holten’s approach to Donna Anna is undermined. If – as he suggests – she is a willing accomplice in her seduction then that glorious moment when she asks Don Ottavio “Lascia, o caro, un anno ancora allo sfogo del mio cor” needs to be heard. But truth be told, I didn’t buy that supposition.

Throughout the opera, Don Giovanni is the sole instigator and his downfall is predicated on the violence of that initial act. It’s in the music both at the opening of the opera as well as infusing all of Donna Anna’s own music – her horror at seeing her dead father, the demand for Don Ottavio to swear an oath, her horror before Non mi dir. To make her an accomplice undermines her character and belief system.

Similarly his relentless pursuit of Zerlina was undermined by her ‘self-dishevelment’ at the end of Act One.

I also wish Holten had done more with Don Giovanni’s relationship with Donna Elvira. One very smart touch was to have her try to save him at the end of Act One. It could have been developed.

But it was a smart and intelligent production. The use of video worked well in this production. From the projection of the catagolo during the overture set the scene immediately and use of ‘virtual environments’ was stunningly applied and the Escher-inspired set by Es Devlin suggested not only a sense of history constantly repeating itself but also futility. The futility of trying to escape the inevitable no matter what door or passage any of the characters tried. I don’t think we were necessarily in Don Giovanni’s mind per se, but rather in a world he had created but – as it got more complicated and convoluted – became a place he could no longer control.

And while I might have had reservations about the musical ending of Holten’s vision, the idea of the Don alone at the end – rather than the more traditional demons and flames – was very original.

Holten’s Don might have escaped his own maze and his attackers but had paid the ultimate price – solitude.

This Don Giovanni will undoubtedly return regularly at Covent Garden. I sincerely hope so but I do also hope that Holten will reconsider his ending.

Character? The Don Left Home Without It.

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on January 7, 2013 at 4:14 pm

Review – Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni – Ildebrando D’Arcangelo
Leporello – Luca Pisaroni
Donna Anna – Diane Damrau
Don Ottavio – Rolando Villazón
Donna Elvira – Joyce DiDonato
Masetto – Konstantin Wolff
Zerlina – Mojca Erdmann

Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Conductor)

Don Giovanni is one of my favourite operas of all time. Indeed the first CD I ever bought was Haitink’s recording of Don Giovanni and to this day – while I have pretty much every other recording – it remains my favourite recording of this work. Haitink draws magnificent singing from the cast – yes even Maria Ewing – and his sense of pacing and drama is second to none. And no Don’s final cry is as chilling as Sir Thomas Allen’s.

On paper, this new recording of Don Giovanni has excellent prospects – a strong cast and an excellent conductor and orchestra.

But somewhere, somehow, it doesn’t fall into all the right places.

I know it is almost “common hackney’d” to say that – like The Godfather – this opera rises or falls on the Don. But is it true. The Don Giovanni character isn’t only the lead, but he is the foundation on which each and every reaction by every other character is played out upon.

The Don Giovanni in Opera North’s recent production wasn’t up to muster and sadly, on this recording neither is Ildebrando d’Arcangelo. It isn’t that he is a bad Don. He sings all the notes. But it is that he simply sings the notes. There is no depth or dimension, light or shade to either his voice or performance and consequently therefore his characterization is a cipher. This is a shame as I have seen him as Leporello at Covent Garden and even his solo recital CD was a stronger performance that we have here.

For me, the most telling moment isn’t in the more expected passages or arias but his performance in the quartet Non ti fidar, o misera. This is the very moment when Don Giovanni’s world because to unravel. In my opinion, he could have got away with the murder of the Commendatore up to this point, but from here on in it’s all downhill. And there is nothing from d’Arcangelo at this point that indicates either this, or the necessity suaveness of character that he realizes he needs if he is to dupe Donna Anna (again) and Don Ottavio.

And sadly this sense of a single dimension Don is evident throughout the opera. La ci darem la mano is tepid with single moments of loud bluster and only in Deh! Vieni alla finestra do we get even the smallest hint of what could have been.

And the closing scenes have none of the electricity and menace that is usually so evident. Indeed so lukewarm and lacklustre are the closing scenes that I’m surprised the Commendatore didn’t simply shrug and not bother. Hell would probably be a more interesting place without this Don Giovanni.

Similarly, casting Rolando Villazón seems an odd choice. Perhaps mentally sporting doublet and hose for Don Ottavio and the Spanish story confused him. For the most part he sings the role as if he is actually on the set of Don Carlo.

Konstantin Wolff is passable as Masetto and so it’s left for Luca Pisaroni to redeem the men of the cast. His Leporello is magnificent – confident as well as confidante, darkly humoured with just the right sneer to his voice. Madamina, il catalogo è questa, from his opening word is a musical equivalent of a money shot even if the orchestra is a little lacklustre. Indeed I couldn’t quite work out why Pisaroni wasn’t the Don sometimes.

And so to the women. Mojca Erdmann is as passable as her beau and while Diana Damrau takes a while to warm up at the beginning, hers is a formidable Donna Anna both musically as well as in terms of character. Of course it is in the two magnificent set pieces that Mozart wrote for this character that Damrau shines. While some sopranos see these more as opportunities for vocal athleticism than personality, Diana Damrau delivers both – pinpoint accuracy, brilliant singing and intense characterization.

For example, just listen to how Ms Damrau shades her voice and handles the words when recounting Don Giovanni’s assault before launching into a full-blooded reminiscence of her struggle. And all this before she launches into a magnificent rendition of Or sai chi l’onore.

Similarly Crudele … Non mi dir, bell’idol mio. Each phrase in the accompanied recitative is beautifully molded and the subsequent aria is a masterclass of how this aria should be sung. Not as a vehicle for vocal fireworks so much as a heartfelt plea to her fiancé. Although by this point in the opera I think she has pretty much made up her mind to dump the man.

And Joyce DiDonato – vocally superb as ever – brings just the right shade of insanity to Donna Elvira from her opening aria where she literally spits out ’empio’ to In quali ecessi … Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata where her technique is as much in evidence as her musicianship.

Sadly however – and through no fault of their own – both Mesdames Damrau and DiDonato don’t stand out because of the quality of their own individual performance. Rather they inadvertently suffer from the lacklustre contributions of their colleagues.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin more than ably conducts the Mahler Chamber Orchestra through a note-precise performance and you cannot fault his sympathetic support of the singers. But I did wont for greater orchestral characterization. Mozart filled the score with an incredibly amount of colour and bite and for the most part it isn’t much in evidence either in Nézet-Séguin’s conducting nor in the playing of the orchestra.

So all in all this Don Giovanni doesn’t add up for me. For the majority of the time it’s like looking at a watercolour copy of a Goya oil painting. The characters are all there but somehow the music making has got watered down.

Edda Moser – A Masterclass In Meaningful Mozart

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on October 31, 2011 at 4:40 pm

Review: Mozart Arias (EMI)

My first and enduring memory of Edda Moser was as Donna Anna in Joseph Losey’s film of Don Giovanni. With a cast including Ruggiero Raimondi, Teresa Berganza, Kiri Te Kanawa and José van Dam and conducted by Lorin Maazel, it’s a film – or is it a production? – which I regularly return to.

As part of a strong ensemble, Edda Moser was a perfect Donna Anna. Not only did she perfectly capture the hysteria of the character but she married it with an innately informed and musical approach alongside her colleagues.

In today’s marketing-led world of classical music, Edda Moser would not be characterised as having a ‘beautiful’ voice – where ‘beautiful’ is often simply a synonym for bland and uninteresting. But what this reissue of her recital of Mozart arias demonstrates is that ultimately Moser is an accomplished, flexible and talented artist who literally breathes life into every character she portrays on the CD. I would hazard a guess that not many of today’s artists would be as capable of this level of musicianship and interpretation.

Additionally her diction is superlative. Indeed I understand that as well as being a professor of singing at Cologne’s Hochschule für Musik, she is the founder of the annual Festspiel der Deutschen Sprache, championing the use of proper German over ‘Denglish’. Enough said.

And while her voice may not be ‘beautiful’ to those brainwashed by today’s sleeve-note marketeers, it has a beauty, individuality and real sense of musicianship which should be the envy of many of today’s singers – a unique and distinct timbre, even and precise throughout her entire range with exacting and incredible vocal control even in the most challenging moments of coloratura.

Edda Moser is a confident singer, completely assured and hers is a voice that makes you sit up and not listen so much as demand that you pay absolute attention. This is not a CD to drive to or have on as background music. It must be listened to with no distractions.

The recital disc covers original recordings made between 1971 and 1976 just a few years after Ms Moser made her 1968 debut. Conductors Leopold Hager, Eugene Jochum, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt and Peter Scheider provide able support through a selection of arias from Die Zauberflöte, Idomeneo, Don Giovanni (of course), La clemenza di Tito as well as a few both concert and religious arias.

Throughout Moser conveys a real sense of each character she portrays coupled with perfect diction and intelligent interpretation. From Die Zauberflöte she sings to the two arias for the Königin der Nacht, interestingly in reverse order – and clearly to give the disc an impressive ‘opening number’. And it works. In Der Hölle Rache not only is there real fury and fire in the delivery the text but she delivers the demanding coloratura – and the famous high f’s – with pinpoint accuracy, exuding the very confidence and assurance I’ve already mentioned. Just listen to her final phrase – Hört, Rachegötter, Hört der Mutter Schwur! – delivered with utter conviction. In Oh Zittre Nicht, mein Lieber Sohn! … Zum Leiden bin ich auserkoren, Moser adopts a more lyrical tone as befits the aria but with careful attention to detail to the words in the accompagnato and the opening of the aria itself. But again the faster second section holds no difficulties as she once again throws out confident and machine-gun accurate coloratura including a top f which with so many other singers sounds pinched.

Staying with the singspiel theme, next is Marten aller arten. I love this aria but more for it’s passages of coloratura and four delicately balanced concertante instruments that for it’s dramatic potential. Only a precocious adolescent genius would stop the drama at the precise moment when it reaches a critical dénouement, cock a finger at the audience and make them sit there for almost ten minutes. Granted, through a marvellous, beautifully crafted and inventive aria but lessening the emotional and dramatic impact. Compared to Zaide’s Tiger! wetze nur die Klauen, Martern aller arten does what Mozart intended it to say on the tin of the opera – show of Signora Cavallieri’s talent. But this isn’t to complain. And while some people might prefer a greater sense of urgency in the tempo of this aria, Moser’s performance is incredibly accomplished, working with the concertante soloists and with a purity of tone and legato throughout. A more measured tempo not only allows her to negotiate the florid passages with note-perfect ease but actually allows them to breathe and in reality adding dramatic impetus. This is almost the best performance on the disc.

Crudele! … Non mi dir, bell’idol mio is the only aria Ms Moser performs from Don Giovanni and it immediately transported me back to Losey’s film. Her burnished dramatic soprano comes into it’s own and – perhaps because of the association with the film – this is the finest performance on the disc. From the opening Crudele, Moser inhabits the character of Donna Anna sliding through the demanding tessitura and the sweeping arc of the vocal line with faultless technique. More often than not for the audience and the soprano simply the accompagnato as a means to the aria. Not so Ms Moser. Here the emotional emphasis is equally distributed with a smooth legato vocal line and beautifully crafted phrases and embellishments clearly articulated in the opening section of the aria. In the ensuing allegro this is combined with note perfect coloratura which Moser delivers as part of – and not separate to – the overall emotional context. Wonderful.

From Hispanic victim to vengeful Greek for Elettra’s Tutte nel cor vi sento from Idomeneo. And before I proceed, one minor gripe. That EMI cut the aria stone dead by not including the subsequent choral entry. Despite a strong performance it leaves the track somewhat incomplete. Yet Ms Moser is in her element here and I wish I could have seen her Elettra on stage. Here – and in the subsequent aria for the character, Oh Smania! Oh Furie! – D’Oreste e d’Aiace – Moser brilliantly captures a princess full of hatred and a desire for revenge with the broken, hesitant phrases and she accents the appoggiaturas skillfully without ever cutting the notes short or snatching at them. In Elettra’s final aria, Moser raises the emotional temperature without ever sacrificing the Mozart’s lyricism. Although towards to end – and the only moment on the disc – Moser comes close to intonation troubles. Almost but not quite.

Sandwiched between these two arias, and at least chronologically correct unlike Die Zauberflöte at the top of the disc, is Elettra’s Idol mio, se ritroso. In comparison to the character’s other arias in Idomeneo I always feel that this aria is somewhat of a cipher> It lacks the heart-on-sleeve emotion of either of the other two and doesn’t attaining their emotional level. Perhaps because of this, Ms Moser’s performance seems somewhat muted.

From La Clemenza di Tito Moser performs the marvelous Ecco il punto … Non piu di fiori. Following an impassioned accompagnato, the aria launches into one of the stateliest tempos I have heard. With a great control, Moser sails purposefully through the vocal line, ably abetted by a mellifluous clarinet obbligato. And in terms of attention to diction, just listen to her delivery of Stretta fra barbare aspre ritorte, veggo la morte ver me avanzar.

The remainder of the disc is given over to two concert arias and excerpts from Mozart’s sacred music including the Agnus Dei in ensemble with Julia Hamari, Nicolai Gedda and Dietrich–Dieskau. All are beautifully performed but the single most pleasant surprise of the entire disc is Moser’s performance of the incredibly challenging Popoli di Tessaglia … Io non chiedo written for Aloysia Weber, for whom Mozart wrote some of his most demanding concert arias. An aria more commonly associated with Rita Streich, Edita Gruberova, Natalie Dessay and Cyndia Sieden, I was intrigued to hear Edda Moser.

This is not an aria to shrink from and Moser confronts it head on, delivering a performance of innate musicality and verve with intense control of her voice. As with the other examples on the disc, Moser gives equal weight to the opening accompagnato with attention to both the words and the vocal line. It’s interesting to note that the conductor on this occasion is Leopold Hager, who would later return to this aria with Gruberova. His handling of the delicate and filigree orchestral accompaniment with its oboe and bassoon obbligati is wonderfully detailed and Moser rises to and surpasses the challenge, spinning a rich yet even tone throughout her register. Indeed the richness of her tone surpasses many other performances of this aria.

And with a sense of ease that is remarkable she hits each and every g’ that Mozart fiendishly wrote. And indeed she sails to the note and holds it. No snatching from Ms Moser. Indeed, listening to her effortlessly fling out the coloratura, without a doubt Moser combines vocal security with innate musicianship that tips this performance of Popoli di Tessaglia well above those of other singers.

Brava Signora Moser! A masterclass in Mozart and a pleasure for repeated listening.

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