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Mozart: Don Giovanni / Jacobs, Weisser, Fink, Freiburg Baroque Orchestra

Mozart/ Jacobs / Im / Bystrom / Pendatchanska
Release Date: 05/13/2008 
Label:  Harmonia Mundi   Catalog #: 9909013  
Composer:  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Performer:  Alessandro GuerzoniNikolay BorchevSunhae ImJohannes Weisser,   ... 
Conductor:  René Jacobs
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Freiburg Baroque Orchestra
Number of Discs: 2 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Physically, this is almost a Non-Giovanni. The sets (by Vincent Lemaire) are minimalist in the extreme and consist of an upright, white-washed, sloping semi-circle in which there are two doors and a window; scaffolding and slats are later added to stand in for a house, and the banquet scene features an empty table on an otherwise almost bare stage. Many scenes are played in front of the curtain, which, interestingly, is often used as a prop. Almost everyone is dressed (by Christian Lacroix) in modern-day black and white except for Elvira, who wears nice gowns, and the Don, who wears a gold and blue striped floor-length waistcoat with red lining and gold, blue, and green breeches, giving him the appearance of a dandy, a circus clown, or just Read more a gawky kid playing dress-up. (The fact that Johannes Weisser, who plays Don Giovanni, is slim, at least a head taller than anyone else in the cast, and looks like a 20-year-old adds to the whole picture.)

Put these traits together with a portrayal of the lead character that disallows any evil, true arrogance, or dangerous sexual allure and you have a very strange reading of this opera. Each scene has its own dramatic timing and tension, but it does not add up to the punishment of a debauched man; no lessons are learned, there is no catharsis. It's just a terrific, picaresque story and a stunning night at the opera.

In a bonus documentary, conductor René Jacobs discusses the fact that it was only in the 19th century that the role of Don Giovanni was re-interpreted, changed from a randy adolescent to a demonic character, and we must believe that Jacobs and director Vincent Boussard are in agreement. Jacobs pleads for nimbleness: the original Don Giovanni was 24 years old; the original Donna Anna was most certainly not a dramatic soprano; there is nothing in text or music to make us believe that Anna has any conscious or subconscious desire for the Don; Ottavio is a fine gentleman and probably is the same age as the rest of them--that is, young. Leporello is an older, avuncular type who goes along with Don Giovanni because he needs the work and thinks he can dissuade him from his mischievous ways.

Boussard has the characters racing around endlessly. The people in Donna Anna's household--a bevy of young people in their nightclothes--come to see the aftermath of the duel and sympathize. Leporello has no catalog and he recounts the Don's conquests matter-of-factly, winding up reclining, humming. Zerlina is lively, naughty, and fun-loving (and barefoot, as are all of her friends), and she knows herself well: we can tell by her indulgent, very personal embellishments. The addition of her duet with Leporello makes sense given her strong character. Masetto is just an unlucky dope.

As I felt about Jacobs' performance of the opera on CD (with a few cast changes, but voices of similar weight and an approach just the same as it is here), there is nothing wrong with seeing the opera this way, and musically it is marvelous. But let's face something unavoidable: Don Giovanni, if he is merely the eternal adolescent who is greedy for every woman he meets, receives a punishment that seems both cruel and unusual--he is dragged down to hell. This is not the way flirts or even roués are dealt with. Perhaps they are battered by a group of outraged peasants or smacked around by irate husbands--but hell?

If you are willing to overlook this utter flaw in logic and in the fairness of the universe (and don't tell me that Lorenzo da Ponte and Mozart secretly felt that men who slept around deserved eternal damnation) then sit back and enjoy the performance. Johannes Weisser, the 27-year-old Don (who looks years younger), is sweet, lithe, rail-slim, and smooth, with a supple tone that has nothing of the "bass" in "bass-baritone" about it. He sings "Deh vieni" at a sustained pianissimo with plenty of embellishments while he's lying on his back--yes, he's an adolescent who loves to show off, and he's got the goods.

Alexandrina Pendatchanska uses her petiteness to play off Weisser's extreme height; it makes her love-mad Elvira even more vulnerable. Vocally, she is a dynamo as well, with handsome tone, endless breath, and no fear of using chest voice. Soprano Malin Byström, new to me, is a young, lovely Anna, elegant, intelligent, and scared of the Don, and she has no problems with either the exclamatory moments or the wicked coloratura that closes "Non mi dir".

Werner Güra is the solid, understanding Ottavio, and his "Dalla sua pace" is nicely shaded; you wish Jacobs had used the Prague version so we could hear him sing "Il mio tesoro". Sunhae Im's Zerlina is piquant and sexy, and she uses rubato and high-lying cadenzas to great expressive effect (thank you, Maestro Jacobs). Marcos Fink, twice the age of the others (save the Commendatore), is a solid, warm-toned Leporello. Nikolay Borchev's Masetto is somewhat faceless, but Zerlina must have good reason to love him, and the Commendatore of Alessandro Guerzoni, who enters the Supper Scene from the audience, is pulsating and angry.

The overall impression of the tempos throughout is that they are quick; in fact, a closer listen finds Jacobs doing very interesting things with them. Leporello's opening scene begins leisurely but picks up wildly soon after, and these sorts of very individual touches are found throughout. They invariably serve the drama. A huge part has been given to the continuo--a pianoforte, occasional clavecin, and cello to underpin dark spots--with plenty of "improvised" commentary. The Freiburg Baroque Orchestra seems an extension of Jacobs' arm; its playing has all the bite, personality, and story-telling abilities Jacobs could ask for. The timpani alone could raise Satan, but as we know, he's nowhere near this interpretation.

There will be those who find the central problem--a cute Don Giovanni who is more busy and horny than dangerous or evil--insurmountable, and may have to discount the entire reading as a result; but they will be cutting off their noses to spite their faces. Musically, there is so much to love here that I hope it can be appreciated as it is; Jacobs has an ear and a feel for this music and drama that help to serve up pleasant surprise after pleasant surprise, and no fan of this opera should pass it by. And since half of the DVD versions of this opera are grotesque in one way or another, your choices are limited to the excellent Muti-led performance on TDK, with a fine Mediterranean cast, the somewhat puzzling Zurich Opera production with Simon Keenlyside as the Don (on EMI), or this alternate, superbly sung and played Jacobs performance.

--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

Don Giovanni, K 527 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Performer:  Alessandro Guerzoni (Bass), Nikolay Borchev (Baritone), Sunhae Im (Soprano),
Johannes Weisser (Baritone), Malin Byström (Soprano), Marcos Fink (Baritone),
Alexandrina Pandatchanska (Soprano), Werner Güra (Tenor)
Conductor:  René Jacobs
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Freiburg Baroque Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1787; Prague 

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