An Excellent Concert Version of Don Giovanni Played on Period Instruments

20/06/2016

Mozart, Don Giovanni:  Soloists, Orchestra of Classical Opera, Philharmonia Chorus, Ian Page (conductor), Cadogan Hall, London, 17.06.2016. (RB)

Cast:
Don Giovanni:  Jacques Imbrailo
Leporello:  David Soar
Donna Anna:  Ana Maria Labin
Don Ottavio:  Stuart Jackson
Donna Elvira:  Helen Sherman
Zerlina:  Ellie Laugharne
Commendatore:  David Shipley
Masetto:  Bradley Travis

Classical Opera was established in 1997 by conductor Ian Page and it specialises in the music of Mozart and his contemporaries.  The company’s in house orchestra play on period instruments so it was a welcome change to listen to Mozart’s music as the composer would have heard it.  Classical Opera recently embarked on a project to record the complete Mozart operas and this was their first performance of Don Giovanni.  This was a performance of the original Prague version of the opera dating from 1987 so we did not get an opportunity to hear Ottavio’s aria Della sua pace, Elvira’s Mi tradi or the duet between Leporello and Zerlina.

This was a concert performance of the work rather than a semi-staged production so the cast were all wearing suits and evening dresses rather than traditional costumes and were seated at the side of the stage when not singing.  My strong preference is for semi-staged productions but there was limited space to do this in the Cadogan Hall and the cast for the most part acted their parts well.  I particularly enjoyed the ongoing dialogue between Jacques Imbailo’s Don and David Soar’s Leporello.  Imbrailo’s Don was suave, snarling, sexy and unpredictable while Soar brought humour, ingenuity and low cunning to the role of Leporello.  There was an ease and naturalness to their exchanges and the diction was exceptionally clear.  The trio of female leads also characterised their respective roles well with Labin giving us an intense and dramatic Donna Anna, Sherman a feisty and touching Elvira and Laugharne an innocent, wayward Zerlina.

There was much to admire in the performances of Mozart’s immortal arias and ensembles.  Imbrailo brought a silky seductive tone to La ci darem although elsewhere in the first Act I would have welcomed stronger vocal projection.  His performance of the ‘champagne aria’ was particularly problematic as he sang very lightly and was drowned out by the orchestra.  He seemed to come back reinvigorated in the second Act and brought Italianate warmth and charm to Deh vieni alla finestra and enormous vocal power to the final scene with the Commendatore.  Soar delivered Leporello’s trademark patter with enormous vocal agility and his handling of the ‘catalogue aria’ was superb:  the vocal line was light and well projected, the exchanges with the orchestra tightly coordinated and the final section of the aria suitably salacious and playful.

Labin brought fire and pathos to Donna Anna’s music together with flashes of vulnerability.  She produced a focused, well defined sound that suited this period production and there was a dark intensity to her singing.  Non mi dir was poignant and affecting and Labin was clearly on top of the coloratura although her performance did not always convey the very heartfelt emotions in the aria.  Sherman brought lyricism and rich vocal colouring to the role of Zerlina and her handling of Mozart’s coloratura was particularly impressive.  She seemed to find the perfect balance between high drama and lyricism in Ah, chi mi dice mai while Ah Fuggi il traditor was bright and imperious.  (It would be good to hear her performance of Mi tradi at some point in the future.)  Laugharne’s tone was a little thin in her opening duet with Bradley Travis although she brought a pure lyric beauty to her subsequent duet with Imbrailo.  She gave an accomplished, highly engaging performance of Batti, batti bel Masetto.

Stuart Jackson brought a gorgeous lyrical vocal bloom to Il mio tesoro and an ease and fluency to the coloratura.  David Shipley was perfect in the role of the Commendatore producing a deep sonorous bass while Bradley Travis showed much promise as Masetto.  The ensemble work was impressive throughout and I particularly liked the handling of the marvellous Act 2 sextet.  The climactic final scene with the Commendatore had a searing intensity and Imbrailo, Soar and Shipley are to be commended for recreating this most famous scene in such a vivid and powerful way.

Ian Page gave assured direction to the assembled forces throughout and his tempi for the most part seemed spot on to me.  In the Overture we were introduced to the distinctive period sound of the orchestra with its clean strings, piercing woodwind and shallow timpani.  The opening chords were acerbic and menacing while the subsequent chromatic scales ratcheted up the tension.  Page brought energy and brilliance to the Allegro section of the Overture although timpani and brass threatened to overwhelm the strings in the final section.  There were tight and well judged exchanges between the orchestra and soloists throughout and Matthew Truscott and Louise Buchberger handled the mandolin and cello solos well.  The bands of players synchronised well with the main orchestra in the ballroom scene in Act 1 while trombones and bassoons heightened the supernatural menace of the Commendatore.

Overall, this was a great performance of one of the seminal works of the repertoire and I was pleased to be able to hear it in the original Prague version.  The microphones around the stage seemed to indicate that it was being recorded so hopefully the CD will be available before too long.

Robert Beattie

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