Notes and Editorial Reviews
It's curious how times change. For a great Don Giovanni, one used to think in terms of the Vienna Philharmonic or some other famous orchestra, and the names of singers who had trod the stages of the leading opera houses of Europe. But here we are, with a relatively modest group, and in some respects this performance challenges even the most starry in the catalogues. It’s true that there are no astonishing or brilliant individual interpretations here, but the whole is full of life and energy and freshness.
Much of the credit should go to Sir Charles Mackerras, who seems to be celebrating his seventieth birthday year with a rush of youthful high spirits. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra are not a period-instrument group, but
Mackerras, as he explains in his thoughtful note in the accompanying booklet (and as we hear), uses valveless horns and trumpets and something close to period timpani – hence the alarming sound of the opening chords. He also calls for sharper attack and quicker decay from the string players and a very forward wind balance. Tempos are often but by no means always on the fast side. The overture’s introduction moves swiftly and urgently, and the entire opening scene-complex – up to the end of the Anna-Ottavio duet – is tautly held together, with no relaxing of the tension, as Mozart surely intended.
I like Mackerras’s quickish tempo for the quartet “Non ti fidar”, excellently mirroring the increase of tension in the drama, and his urgent direction of much of the Act 1 finale. But he also allows his singers plenty of time to phrase their music expressively, for example in the Giovanni-Zerlina scene in the first finale, in the trio at the beginning of Act 2 (some wonderfully sensual orchestral colours here), in Giovanni’s serenade, in the great sextet (very powerfully done) and in the cemetery scene, which has a proper sense of the hieratic and yet a knife-edge tension too. The second finale is very relaxed and divertimento-like to start with and suddenly tightens up with Elvira’s entry. Mackerras is very flexible in his pacing of the recitative, to good effect, and scrupulous but not dogmatic over the use of appoggiaturas. In sum, it is a highly theatrical interpretation, one that constantly has you on the edge of your seat. I might mention, by the way, that Mackerras transposes a few bars of recitative before Masetto’s “Ho capito”, to save the clumsy tonal ‘fault’ that Mozart introduced between recitative and aria when he (apparently) agreed to the downward transposition of the aria: Mackerras’s ‘correction’ of Mozart is discreet and amply justified (if I remember correctly, Bonynge corrected it another way in his recording, transposing the aria up to its probable original key).
It ought to be compulsory for recording companies to have some Italian singers in the cast for a Mozart opera: it makes a tremendous difference, it seems to me, to the way everyone treats the words. Umberto Chiummo, formerly unknown to me, makes a good, incisive Masetto and (perhaps with a little help) a truly formidable Commendatore in the final scenes. Nuccia Focile provides a beguiling Zerlina, with a sweet upper range and more than a touch of sensuousness and charm. Alessandro Corbelli, the Leporello, is a lively, lowish baritone who uses the sound of the words to advantage and can phrase with just the right hint of elegance; the voice itself is not specially varied and is occasionally slightly dry, but this is a very alert and compelling impersonation, with a touch of brilliance in the Act 2 sextet. His voice is very close, arguably too close, in general sound to that of the Giovanni, Bo Skovhus, yet the master-servant relationship is conveyed convincingly. Skovhus’s sharp vitality (listen to “Meta di voi”), his virile Champagne Aria and his deeply sensual portamentos in the Serenade stress those aspects of Giovanni’s character that underlie the plot.
Jerry Hadley offers an Ottavio of some intensity, not the smoothest or most graceful, but stronger in expression than most. He tastefully ornaments the repeat in “Dalla sua pace”. At first I wondered if Christine Brewer was slightly overparted as Anna, lacking the steel in the voice that is usual for the role; but she delivers a noble “Or sai chi l’onore”, spacious, with strong high notes and a real glow to her tone (and some apt appoggiaturas), as well as a fine, measured but powerful “Non mi dir”. Dame Felicity is in full, creamy voice in a role she has often sung with distinction. I liked, incidentally, the way Mackerras observes Mozart’s dynamics so exactly, and so effectively, in “In quali eccessi, o numi”: I’ve never heard this done before, as far as I can recall.
This raises the question of versions. Mackerras gives the Prague original first (with “Dalla sua pace” inserted in Act 1), by which I mean that, if you play the second disc through to the end, you should then skip the first ten tracks of the third disc to continue; or, if you want the Vienna version, you should skip the last six of the second and pick up at the beginning of the third, where you will hear the rare (and rather silly, though musically agreeable) Zerlina-Leporello duet and Elvira’s scene (but not “Il mio tesoro”). This is an excellent solution for listeners who can be bothered to press a couple of buttons. Lazy ones will hear some of the music twice over. The concert version of the overture is given as an appendix.
This seems to me, all round, an immensely enjoyable version of Don Giovanni. You will perhaps find more exciting individual readings elsewhere, but as an overall interpretation, imbued with theatrical feeling, this is as good as any I have heard. You may notice one or two moments of inexact ensemble between singers and band, but to my mind these represent a proper result of spontaneous and spirited performance and they do nothing to detract from the pleasure. And the Scottish Chamber Orchestra are a first-rate group, with splendid brass, sensitive solo woodwind and neat and fine-toned strings. I don’t think anyone could help enjoying this set.
-- Stanley Sadie, Gramophone [11/1996]
Works on This Recording
Don Giovanni, K 527 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Bo Skovhus (Baritone),
Nuccia Focile (Soprano),
Alessandro Corbelli (Bass),
Umberto Chiummo (Bass),
Felicity Lott (Soprano),
Jerry Hadley (Tenor),
Christine Brewer (Soprano)
Sir Charles Mackerras
Scottish Chamber Orchestra,
Scottish Chamber Chorus
Written: 1787; Prague
Date of Recording: 1995
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburg, Scottland
Length: 182 Minutes 37 Secs.
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