Thursday, May 25, 2006

A new Don Giovanni

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus (1756-1791)
Don Giovanni - Peter Mattei
Leporello - Gilles Cachemaille
Donna Anna - Carmela Remigio
Donna Elvira - Véronique Gens
Don Ottavio - Mark Padmore
Zerlina - Lisa Larsson
Masetto - Till Fechner
Commendatore - Gudjon Oskarsson
Académie européenne de musique d´Aix-en-Provence
Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Conductor: Daniel Harding
Virgin Classics 7243 5 45425 2 7

Harding's conducting is amazing. For me, he is now up there with
Oestman, Mackerras, Jacobs and Gardiner as one of the
preeminent Mozarteans of our time. He has the knack for
coordinating the recitatives with the set pieces to make one
narrative flow. There sometimes seems to be no caesura
whatsoever between the one and the other.

The one moment where I really found myself questioning this approach
was in the transition from the conclusion of the terrifying trio and
chorus culminating in the Don's damnation to the opening of the final
sextet. I could swear there was literally no break at all between the
final damnation chord and the opening chord for the sextet. I could
swear it was all one note with no space at all. I doubt there is any
sanction for making this musically continuous in any edition of the
score, but I'd be delighted to be proved wrong on this, because
everything else that Harding does is simply so captivating. One
has to be dazzled by the sheer sleight-of-hand on display.

He has also worked out every scintilla of the phrasing scrupulously
with each of his soloists. The quicksilver coordination of the myriad
cues in this sinuous approach and the subtleties of tempo and dynamics
flow perfectly but with a feeling of the utmost dramatic spontaneity
at the same time. Another surprising aspect to this reading is how
little of it is played for laughs. For one thing, Elvira's suffering
is presented absolutely seriously, for a change. The "forces of
darkness" aspect in this work are not laid on that forcefully (as in
the classic '53 Furtwaengler/Siepi/Schwarzkopf/Arie on GALA). But one
is never in doubt that this is a high-stakes drama where intense
suffering is involved. The straighforwardness, clarity and lack of
wallowing in this reading make the intense feelings painfully human
and real rather than overly melodramatic.

Mattei's Don is, if anything, even more multi-faceted than when I saw
him, undoubtedly due, in part, to the more mercurial conducting (at
the Met, we got stuck with Cambreling in the pit, which he was
(IMO) of his conducting must excuse me, but I really found
him badly de-energized, I'm afraid). In this set, Mattei is
particularly good at showing the lively sense of humor this character
has. At the same time, like the ingenious Siepi (on stage), Mattei is
excellent at limning the cruelty undergirding the humor. This is a
Don who is at his most amused when others are at their most
uncomfortable. Sometimes, it can be hairraising, but never
unplausible or over the top. Mattei's deft sense of true style never
leaves him. He is Siepi's truest successor, IMO -- and he is, in
addition, a baritone (unlike Siepi), who may therefore be closer(?) to
the way the original Don (a twenty-three-old youth) sounded......?
Sometimes, I wonder when I have heard such a complete assumption. Not
only does the voice "face" seem entirely apt, but when has the elusive
combination of the suave seducer and the cruel tormentor with an
deeply unsettling sneer under the smile ever been so tellingly depicted?

Harding and Mattei dominate this set, but the others are worth a word
or two. Cachemaille's Leporello continues being as stylish and
charming a reading as under Oestman. Again, he is not always played
for laughs either. But wit is not absent -- rather absorbed into the
true humanity of the role instead. Gens's fine Elvira, expertly
vocalized and painfully credible, completes a satisfying trio of
principals. It's a boon to hear a set where (as I always hope for)
the Don, Leporello, and Elvira make the strongest impression. They,
to me, are the chief pillars of the drama, and very few sets succeed
in placing the emphasis squarely around this three-sided tension that
frames Da Ponte's story.

I am not as taken with the other two women. While it is refreshing
to hear an Anna who is recognizably a lighter and a younger persona
than Elvira for a change, Remigio's Anna lacks the elegance and ease
of many of her colleagues. Larsson's Zerlina is somewhat preferable,
but she certainly takes a lot of time reaching her stride (although a
commercial release, this is based on a live performance). Some
audible tension and lack of flow mar her performance. Disappointing,
since I have admired her singing on other occasions.

Some have written of their admiration of Mark Padmore. He, too,
I feel, is uneven. Certainly, the "Dalla sua pace" is well sung,
with a cool, translucent tone and excellent line. But elsewhere (and
not just in the "Il mio tesoro"), more forceful utterances adversely
affect his pitch in the mid-range -- that is, he will attack certain
mid-range notes recognizably flat, and then, if given time inside a
note, the note will "click in" correctly. Pretty disconcerting.
Let one rather obvious example suffice: When opening the "Il
mio tesoro intanto", the ..."tan"... of "intanto" is attacked slightly
flat, and he doesn't really seem totally back in key until ..."to".
He's almost back in the saddle already for much of the second
half of the ..."tan"..., but the ..."to" is just that much more finely
tuned, and consequently a bit of a giveaway. This is an odd kind of
problem that might ultimately be due to too much tension. Hard to
say. It's a shame, since the voice itself is so lovely, and Padmore
really does his job in making Ottavio as human and well-rounded a
character as anyone else in the opera -- such a rare thing in an Ottavio.

As with other sets I've heard, Masetto and the Commendatore are not
given to the same bass (the same singer sang both parts at the world
premiere), which up-ends so many of the inspired parallels Da Ponte has
set up between the Don's confrontations with first one and then the
other. It also up-ends the vocal contrasts and parallels that seem
intended in Masetto's own confrontations with various characters (but
all this is for another "article"). Fechner's Masetto is
accomplished enough, but Oskarsson's Commendatore strikes me as
sometimes weak and tentative, which is unfortunate, considering the
masterly control shown by the other artists in the trio and chorus
encapsulating the Don's ultimate damnation.

I feel this set goes quite high in the Don Giovanni discography. For
one thing, its combination of potent conducting and a consistently
masterful trio for the Don, Leporello and Elvira already place it in a
very special class. The only sets that combine just this essential
quality alone are, I feel, the first of the two sets featuring
Furtwaengler/Siepi/Edelmann/Schwarzkopf ('53 [GALA] with Arie's
Commendatore instead of the past-it Ernster on the '54 [EMI]), the
Walter broadcast from the MET ('42) with Pinza/Kipnis/Novotna (even
though Kipnis has a few severe memory lapses) and the Klemperer
with the potent trio of Ghiaurov, Berry and Ludwig. Casting
throughout these three is exciting and strong, so the Harding cannot
compete with these.

However, I find the Harding just slightly more satisfying as a whole
than any of the others. And yes, that includes the Oestman, the
justly famed Glyndebourne, the Kubelik, the Fricsay, the Krips, the
Giulini and the Maazel (starring the magnificent Ruggero Raimondi).
These are all sets that I still much admire. But it's the combination
of so many positive assets together in the Harding that make it
slightly superior to these others (for me, anyway). Sure, there are
places where Oestman may be more sheerly beautiful, the general
consistency of ensemble in the Glyndebourne may be slightly greater,
and the same may be true of some of the supporting singers in the
Kubelik, and so on. But in the Harding set, the structure of the
drama and its arch is so clearly shaped and with such consistently
potent artists at its center that its virtues as a whole now surpass,
in my mind, many of these other sets.

Three cheers for Furtwaengler, Siepi, Walter, Pinza, Klemperer,
Ghiaurov -- and Harding and Mattei.

Geoffrey Riggs


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