Here we have the final installment in the René Jacobs-led trilogy of the Mozart/da Ponte operas, and it's something to behold.
It is enthralling from start to finish, played with more color than any other version I know of, led with an occasional eccentricity of tempo that justifies itself almost invariably in context, sung beautifully and expressively, and using the continuo--pianoforte and cello--more creatively, more interactively, than I've ever encountered. That said, how you see it will depend on whether you agree or not with Jacobs' view of the central character.
The overture's opening moments as performed here give an ideal picture of what the opera has to offer: after the massive opening chords the gut-strung violins, played utterly without vibrato, give off an absolutely hellish chill--much like the Commendatore's handshake in the opera's final scene. It's eerie and disconcerting, as uneasy as dry ice is puzzling. The remainder of the overture is played at a good clip and with spirit--the "giocosa" part of the afore-played "dramma"--but with the lower strings always prominent and the timpani thwacking away fiercely. Jacobs peculiarly slows down in the overture's final seconds and strolls leisurely into the opening scene, which finds Leporello roaming about awaiting the Don; as his moments alone end and the Don and Donna Anna appear, the pace quickens noticeably. The tempo changes specifically mirror the situation, and they do so throughout the opera.
We are always aware of the participation of the continuo: when Donna Anna sings "Io manco! Io morro", in the scene following her father's death, the cello makes a sad, downward comment. Zerlina's arias are bright and swift; she's hot to trot. The penultimate scene in Act 1, the one concluding with the Maskers' Trio, is kept to a strict rhythm; the formality and poise of the nobility is being rigorously adhered to, but it doesn't lag. The on-scene violin in the first finale is played tartly with astringent tone, as if by a musician at a party; and the havoc, impeccably played, is dizzying. By contrast, you couldn't ask for more beautiful string sound than in the introduction to Anna's sympathetic "Non mi dir". "Deh vieni alla finestra" is sung at a whisper and is heavily embellished; this is the Don showing off his wares in a smooth, seductive manner. And the recitatives are always delivered at conversational tempos, with the Don's invariably sounding as if he'd rather be elsewhere, except when he's seducing.
The version presented is the Vienna, with an appendix consisting of recitatives and Leporello's "Ah, pieta, signori miei" and Ottavio's "Il mio tesoro". The voices please. Beginning somewhere in the middle, Alexandrina Pendatchanska's Elvira is both brilliant and dark; she's the ideal manic-depressive. Her coloratura is accurate and bright and her chest voice is dusky and troubled. We get it all in her opening number: When she sings "Gli vo' cavare il cor" (I will rip his heart to pieces), she dips down for the second syllable of "cavare" in a manner that can only be called vicious. It's a fabulous reading of the part. The Donna Anna of Olga Pasichnyk is brilliantly sung but perhaps not quite well-enough delineated compared with the Elvira. She presents a woman unready for life with Don Ottavio. Her dignity never fails her, not even in her impassioned "Or sai chi l'onore", but perhaps that's the point.
Kenneth Tarver as Ottavio exhibits a tightly focused tenor, fearless of any heights, fluent in fast music and endless of breath (he takes the ridiculously long one in "Il mio tesoro" with ease). Jacobs gives him appoggiaturas and embellishments and grants him plenty of rubato--perhaps a sign of strength. Lorenzo Regazzo's Leporello, very dark-hued, has the timing of a born cut-up and he refuses to mug; his diction is impeccable and the voice is young and firm. Sunhae Im's Zerlina, as suggested above, is no shrinking violet and she's chock-filled with a peasant's earthiness. Nikolay Borchev's Masetto is impressive, which isn't easy. The Commendatore is Alessandro Guerzoni, and he's quite a presence
The one controversial element mentioned above might be Johannes Weisser's Don Giovanni. He has a handsome voice--a light baritone (he's 27 years old) filled with detail. There's almost nothing it can't seem to do, from whisper to yell; he articulates the text, he spins a lovely legato line. Full disclosure makes me acknowledge that in an interview, Jacobs has said that he sees the Don is a "spoiled child whose evil side comes out when his demands aren't met," and this is the reading we get--but we can hear it even if we didn't know that Jacobs was working with that interpretation. He paints a fine picture of a smooth operator and someone who must have his own way, but--and this is where the possibility of the "flaw" takes over--he has nothing of the swaggering, cruel demonic Don in him. His voice totally lacks a dark side. And let's face it, Don Giovanni is a guy who never gives a damn and refuses to repent as the fires of hell are licking at his toes, and Weisser, here and throughout, has more of a Justin Timberlake star-petulance about him. What this Don lacks is gravitas. (Argument: Mozart's first Don Giovanni was only 21 and later became a tenor, so light may be right.) You may not mind because the argument is so solidly made, but you must feel that there's something heavier than brattiness going on if hell is the end result. At my most fully supportive I believe that Jacobs is going for a particularly chilling type of irony and is succeeding brilliantly. And it's funny, too.
That having been said, as if you haven't figured it out, this set is a knockout. Even if you want your Don grittier, Jacobs and his cast present a glorious, well-characterized, energetic, spontaneous-seeming performance, vocally and instrumentally. You will hear things you've never heard before and wonder why other conductors haven't spotted certain subtleties and not-so-subtleties. You may not always agree but you won't find it "wrong". The tension in this performance is always present and there's an inevitability to it that is close to Furtwängler's morbid, cruel 1954 performance, with which it has nothing else tangible in common other than the notes on the page (and even there we find many differences). What I mean to do is point out the importance of both readings, at two conceptual extremes.
At this point, my recommendation for a complete recording favors this new Jacobs, with Gardiner a close second for period-instrument readings and Daniel Harding's a fascinating, mania-filled third. For a more traditional view, the Mitropoulos on Sony (a live, 1956 performance) is terrific. The sound on this new recording is grand and pungent with balances among voices and between players and singers just about perfect. Jacobs may have mis-read the main character, but his view is alternative rather than wrong-headed, and he makes a great case for it. And it's like hearing Mozart anew.
--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com