This is one of those recordings where I had more “huh, that’s interesting” moments than “wow!” moments (although there are some wows, mostly associated with Joyce DiDonato as Donna Elvira).
Nézet-Séguin has a tendency to bring out the pulses in long chords and otherwise to throw in some unexpected moments of emphasis on particular notes. This happens in the opening chords of the overture, and again when that music returns at the opera’s end. It also happens in “a chi mi dice mai” and the “in quali eccesi, o numi” recitative. The first of these felt rather slow to me as did quite a few other sections of this opera. Sometimes slow worked, as in some parts of Anna’s “Ottavio, son morta!” where she’s recounting Don Giovanni’s attempt at rape to Ottavio. In some cases (“mi tradì”) the slow tempos sounded spacious. At other times the orchestral playing felt almost ploddy, e.g. in parts of “batti, batti, bel masetto”. But in terms of the orchestral playing, I did like the way the quote of “non più andrai” near the end sounded sarcastic and mocking. And in an opera where you have a lot of really great musical transitions (from the overture into Leporello’s “notte e giorno”, or the key change in “sola, sola in buio loco” after Leporello decides it’s time to fuggire, right before Ottavio and Anna show up), there were a lot of stretches of this where you can hear very distinctly how each section of a given scene leads on to the next.
Joyce DiDonato is one of those singers who can make slow tempos sound spacious or odd emphases really interesting. When Elvira first turns up in “a chi mi dice mai” the tempo of the orchestral introduction is slow, and somehow one is very aware of the beat. But the orchestral music also sounds deliberate rather than plodding here, not too agitated and kind of decorous – Nézet-Séguin hits the quarter-note chords in the opening bars fairly strongly and then pulls back for the little bits in between them. And while that feel of slowness remains through the first bars of the vocal part, pretty soon we’re in DiDonato country – singing that is full not just of character, but which has that quality of hers that you can hear physical gestures in the music. When she gets to “gli vo’ cavare il cor” one almost sees Elvira making a twisting/gripping gesture. “Mi tradì” is wonderful – Elvira is lost and hurt and occasionally angry, although this is an interpretation that is weighted more towards sadness and confusion than overpouring anguish. Listening to it again just now what I heard was a really effective and expressive mesh of the rising and falling patterns in the vocal part with the rising and falling patterns in the orchestral music (there is another moment of odd orchestral emphasis on specific notes in bars 132-138).
If DiDonato is gesturing, Rolando Villazòn as Ottavio is waving his arms. I am not a falling-down Villazòn fan to begin with, and with this performance I occasionally got pretty annoyed. This is a very smarmy Don Ottavio. In “dalla sua pace” there are a lot of odd little dips and stresses in the emphasis/phrasing, and although the sound itself is fairly pleasant, by the end I really wanted this man to go away. I’m not sure whether this was ironic-smarmy or not, but my gut says not. To take another example, there is a lot of vocal hand-wringing and grand gestures in the recitative before “il mio tesoro intanto” in Act II. Occasionally throughout this performance I get this odd feeling of tension in his singing – I don’t know what it is. But the whole thing feels sort of over-wrought, and not in a way that I enjoyed. It’s like Don Ottavio stopped over in a Puccini opera before turning up in this one. (I think Villazòn is better singing Verdi than he is singing Mozart – but if he’s recorded any other Mozart and done it differently from how he does this, I’m willing to change my mind about that.)
There is, though, an argument for Don Ottavio being smarmy. I’m not convinced that Villazòn’s smarminess was ironic or put on with this goal in mind, but one of the things that this performance as a whole did bring out to me was that Ottavio and Anna are a little bit weird. Usually Elvira is the one who occupies an interesting and indeterminate space between sympathetic, bizarre and risible – here Ottavio and Anna are in there too. This occurred to me during “Ottavio, son morta . . .or sai chi l’onore” in Act I. Diana Damrau’s Anna sounds sort of tremulous and extremely upset (the type of wide vibrato you hear here from Damrau is not normally my thing, but it works in this case in terms of characterization) and this coupled with the aforementionedly smarmy Don Ottavio made me think – Jesus, these two are a piece of work. All this stuff about oaths and honor and all the grand gestures and all that – they’re a little bit ridiculous too.
Ildebrando D’Arcangelo has a voice that sounds big and soft-edged and round to me, and his Don Giovanni didn’t have as much of a nasty edge as I was expecting. At times he seems almost gentle, e.g. in Act II in his response to Leporello’s request that he “lasciare le donne.” In some of his exchanges with Zerlina (Mojca Erdmann, who consistently sounds very pretty but whose performance was not as full of character as some of the others) he sounds downright Falstaffy. Luca Pisaroni as Leporello I enjoyed. “Madamina, il catalogo è questo” contains some sprightly orchestral playing, with a tongue-in-cheek rhythm in the violins in bars 33-36; you can hear all the little turns and corners in the music. And this is one of those arias where the orchestral part offers support and embellishment rather than adding ambiguity to what the character is saying – Leporello is telling the truth. There are moments in this where Pisaroni’s Leporello seems to be mocking Elvira (the last drawn-out “quel che fa,” the one that’s often hummed) but more often you get something closer to gentle pity than mockery, e.g. at the first “voi sapete quel che fa.”
So anyway. I felt like I learned something from this performance, and it did result in me writing JOYCE DIDONATO IS SO GOOD in all caps in the margin of my notebook at least once. Definitely worth it.