Listening to this has been an interesting experience, and the discussion has already begun – we hijacked the Adriano post in the comments, and we also talked a bit over at thadieu’s (comment thread warmly recommended for all the Anna meta!), but I wanted to write a separate post about it.
I am standing on a frozen lake of ice, black water visible underneath the glossy surface. The air, and the light, are cold and sharp, brilliant. There is a distant pull downwards, into the blackness, yet it does not reach my body: I only feel the ice and its surface.
This is my body, my mind, listening and reacting to the Currentzis recording of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”. I can only try to find words for my own impressions and talk about where my perspective and my comparisons stem from, in defiance of or in compliance to established views on music.
But also those views, even if they – once pliant thoughts of a breathing body and mind – have hardened into the volcanic rock of a presumably set and objective list of criteria over time, are never more than subjective views, tied to the reception through specific bodies, specific biographies, no matter how deep their knowledge of the music, its theory or its reception.
This is me, listening.
I had been looking forward to the Currentzis recording, at first without urgency. I enjoyed his previous two da Ponte recordings, in a way that one looks at something peculiar, finding it at different times both fascinating and foreign, but without being overwhelmed by it. I listened up at the slender sound, the lighter voices, the way moments seemed to me shaped with a lot of precision and willpower.
I looked forward to this recording with impatience after reconnecting this past year with some of Karina Gauvin’s live concert recordings and after discovering Myrtò Papatanasiu’s work – the Elvira and Anna in this recording.
In parts, I enjoyed this “Giovanni”. Partially I was intrigued, and partially I was – well, not angered as much as puzzled by it. At odd moments, I was decidedly underwhelmed, and I had the lingering, uneasy sensation of swallowing some ingrained sexism where I shouldn’t have.
(My listening perspective, whether I am conscious of it or not, is that of a queer woman and I found this recording to be an occasion that keenly reminded me of my perspective.)
I do not deal well with genius antics. I find them disrespectful and impolite, and the narrative of ‘true art’ depending on essentially disrespecting others is one I find highly problematic. I don’t take issue with not wanting to compromise artistic vision, but I take issue with subjugating others.
In consequence, the (marketing) self-presentation of Currentzis, especially in its intersection with commercialized rebelry, is something I find off-putting. I’ve linked to Brachmann’s review in the FAZ before and while Brachmann’s own listening perspective – and his, as I perceive it, being offended by Currentzis’ attitude – is that of a more conservative man who is not questioning reception history the way I do, I share his discomfort with the genius narrative.
Brachmann may be irked by the disrespect of tradition and the overselling of someone undoubtedly talented and dedicated as ‘genius’; I take issue with the inevitable elitist and misogynist undertones of the genius/revolutionary narrative that all too often boils down to privileged white males remodeling the (patriarchal) establishments they claim to tear down.
So I do not arrive at this recording without baggage. I do, however, greatly enjoy the work of both Gauvin and Papatanasiu, and was curious about their casting in this studio recording, as I find them both to give their strongest performances on live stages.
My biggest pet peeve about this recording, then, also relates to these two voices (also because I am the most familiar with them among this cast and can more easily pinpoint specifics): both come across with a polished gloss that does away with the fiery hooks and dents that characterize their live performances and make up a good part of their vocal charisma. Here, they both sound reigned in and oddly detached. Domesticated. (and when reading Brachmann complaining about Papatanasiu as ‘only being able to create emotional tension through extravagant embellishments’, whereas she is is actually a stage performer who excels at depicting emotional tension independent of that, you start wondering what the ideas behind this recording have been)
My first impression of the sheer sound – before getting to the minute choices in the accompagnati in particular – was that of two voices staged for their beauty, and not for their core, slender in a way of women being put into high heels because you don’t want them to be able to run and stomp (I cannot say whether the editing is similar when it comes to the Zerlina of Christina Gansch because I have not heard her in anything else yet).
Part of this ties in with Currentzis’ general sound aesthetic, if you listen to his “Così” and his “Figaro”: He chooses lighter, flexible voices, and they come across detached in sound engineering. And part of this may also be Currentzis, though not Russian by birth, having adapted to the Russian symphonic school of making the sound, when the music is passionate, not warmer, but instead colder: standing on ice.
I wish I were more familiar with Dimitris Tiliakos, who has a beautiful tone, but not too beautiful: it’s bitter chocolate, richness tempered by a darker, denser coloring and it creates a Don Giovanni who is sound-staged as seductive in his being demanding and dismissive. I found him bordering on smarmy in the larger recitatives with group interaction, and was much more taken with Tiliakos in scenes with just one partner, where there was less posturing and sexy-demonic laughing, especially when it came to dealing with class difference (talking to Leporello or Zerlina, e.g.), and more communication.
With him, one gets the sonic impression that the producing team looked at Giovanni from an admiring perspective of “What a guy!” And that is echoed, I find, in the singing and in the conducting.
Currentzis himself has been quoted describing Giovanni as a rebel and revolutionist who would “dare to do what others don’t”. To me, that reads like admiring someone for the act of being transgressive (from a very privileged position), without thoughts to whom those transgressions effect, and how.
In the end, what is it that Giovanni dares to do? Rape and cajole his way through the coutryside without taking responsibility? <irony>But what does it matter, isn’t he fearless? How very admirable.</irony> – And it’s again that narrative of ‘to do great things, it’s okay to trample on others’.
Again, how do we listen? We always listen from inside our own stories, and things will resonate, or not resonate, with us because of our paths. Pretending that listening to music is objective, that reviewing can be objective, is just as pretentious as saying that music-making is objective.
But even though I am uncomfortable with what I perceive as sexist undertones in this recording (in between the staging of the voices, the sound editing, and the interview bits by Currentzis), there are aspects I find fresh and intriguing.
Perhaps Currentzis would protest the term ‘sound editing’ since, from what I have read, part of his approach is to make a recording sound as alive and direct as possible. And he does take steps towards such a goal: the voices set in almost conversationally at times, without shaping the sound into evenness (but since it’s not shaped around diction in turn, the singing lines come across untethered at times – Vito Priante’s colloquially colored Leporello needs a while to finds his footing, e.g.).
The voices Currentzis employs are on the lighter side, there is no pressure on the singing (there are also no voices that could overpower him or the band at any time). It’s not the pasty 1960s Mozart that seems to be his imaginary opponent, not the dense approach to heavy evenness that did, perhaps, permeate the recordings and performances he grew up with and that he is so opposed to. And yet he ends up delivering a polished, glossy (if somewhat thinner, more tightly-wound and brittler) version himself, which is not without irony.
Saying there is no sound editing has the same structural problem as the Dogma movement (other than the self-righteousness): as soon as we set up a microphone, or a camera, as soon as we choose a site to record something, we are already editing, we are already influenced by ideological positions and are actively making choices.
To me, this recording has been made by an orchestra person – a person starting from the perspective as the head of a musical body – and not by a singer person. The sound transports as if the singers are standing behind the orchestra: distant, removed and somewhat aloof, despite the lack of a stentorian approach.
The things that made me listen up first were all smaller accents in the orchestra, not in the singing: Just take the overture – the menacing clockwork, like a gum drawn tight, in the first dotted notes in the string in the overture (as of bar 5): this is not sedate at all.
Or take the precision and speed of the sixteenth figures – again, the strings – in bar 17-19: mice feet scurrying through the cold.
Or the connectedness and elasticity of the dotted celli underneath the rolling flute and violin scales as of bar 23: transparent, clear, precise, yet breathing.
And then there’s a sound choice in the faster second section of the overture, where it suddenly sounds at the edges as if it was recorded in someone’s bathroom, with a padded reflection that gives it a cramped feel (check the falling eighths runs in the violins as of bar 56 in contrast to the tutti accents). Who signed off on that?!
I enjoy the overall use of the pianoforte for not just the recitatives, but also to add in during the musical numbers – though of course it comes with an undertone of “look at me, I dare something, I add ironical undertones and establish a commentary level”, which also furthers the sensation of an at times clinical detachment to the characters more than that of a freer stance regarding the material.
The ornamentation in the arias – as in both “Non mi dir” and “Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata” – is modestly veering off the beaten cadenza path, which I find a plus, though I am, again, puzzled by how one can have Gauvin and Papatanasiu, whom I have witnessed galvanizing audiences through exactly that, and have them so glossed over and so removed in the sound arrangement that their performances are not immediate electrifying? And I have never heard Gauvin (to whom I have listened for longer than to Papatanasiu, whom I only discovered last year) being anything but electrifying.
Only on a second, on a third listen, the sound structure of the accompagnato preceding “Mi tradì” began to take shape for me, but I had to listen closely – the way Gauvin takes back “sciagurato!” mid-word, as if regretting her own harshness, the nervous tension in describing the lighting bolt hitting Giovanni’s head, the actual whisper that starts the “Aperto veggio…” phrase: Gauvin, whose work has never been about one even vocal color, thrives here, in an approach that does not demand that of her. The immense amount of time, the piano she she is given for “perchè questi sospiri?”: that is beautiful, and more gripping than the aria even, where the “oh Dio” accents stand out, in an “infelice…” line that seems withdrawn.
And, really, if Gauvin gives you the impression of Barbarina standing in the rain in this aria (and there is beautiful rain cozying up to her in the B part as of bar 91 – the violas are winding around her sound in patronizing comfort), you do a double take. Gauvin, who has a tendency to incinerate concert podiums?! Gauvin would, by logic of nature, set the rain on fire!
And it is tricky to weigh impressions here: on one hand, this is utterly beautiful in the line – gentle, melting without becoming cloying, never pushing at the seams, and Gauvin does all the coloring over consonants and breath, never volume, and she is marvelous and unstrained. And, yes, you can absolutely read this aria as Elvira gently weeping to herself. Then again, you look at the text and its words of betrayal and ungratefulness, of torture and revenge, and you cannot shake the layer of puzzling whether – all much critic-worthy, pompous recording tradition aside – there is a woman denied her rage here, her pain and her experiences belittled by the most persuasive of piano lines.
It’s one of several moments I have particularly over the women’s roles in this recording where I am left conflicted. Look at the final dinner sequence, also at the first act finale, in how much more scope in dynamics is allotted to Tiliakos’ Giovanni there, how much more graininess in forming consonants (also, side note: I actually love his take on “La ci darem”. It’s not smarmy, very chamber duet, even though Zerlina gets a bit of too much overwhelmed heavy breathing).
Along similar lines to “Mi tradì”, we could look at “Non mi dir”: the same aesthetic of a gentle flow, a slender, youthful sound, marvelously unstrained. But also hindering any larger emotional scope – it’s crying softy, killing me softly. No underbelly of Anna being weathered or haunted. “che nostr’alma desia” has something of a blushing debutante, and you just need to check the YT-available Amsterdam recording to see the nervous abyss Papatanasiu can put into this recit. Even the brief outbreak of “Ma il mondo!” is immediately drawn back into an “oh Dio” (and is it just my mp3 copy, or is there a hard take segue before “oh Dio”?!) that is poised and gentle.
Oh yes, it is beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. I could drown in it. But does it do Anna and her many layers justice? What is me being used to rougher, grittiertakes and needing to open my ears more to this, and what is, again, a portrayal of femininity stifled in ‘proper’ emotions – crying: yes, fragility: yes, anger: no?! And, yes, perhaps the only way to get to more intensity here is the embellishment on “abbastanza”. And then listen to the unhurried, patronizing last word the pianoforte has in this recit, as if saying: “Oh, look at her. She’s all sad. Poor little Anna, all confused, and I will mansplain this to you.”
“Non mi dir” actually gets some phrases that are a bit more no-nonsense, taking away from the sweetness, though I’d also attribute that to Papatanasiu being very familiar with the role. Overall though, the way the voice is positioned here (with the exception of the coda), is once more vaguely uncomfortable in listening, with the rubati where the pianoforte and the flutes seem to giggle at Anna’s turmoil slated as if to say “Oh, look! Bridal jitters, how cute.” Because, yes, this is a way to do this. It is also the exact opposite to any approach looking at Anna as someone who is, int that moment, in the crosshairs of sexual demands being placed upon her (Giovanni tried to get into her pants under false pretenses and physically attacked her, Ottavio is just then trying to guilt her into a speedy marriage) and is allowed being stressed out over this.
I didn’t find this as prevalent or unsettling in the first Anna/Giovanni scene, where the pronounced withrawing of sound on “disperata” (it’s less logical on “scellerato”) fits with nervous distress, and where the arrival of patriarchy with the Commendatore is both very effectively done (the first chords of arrival in their brusqueness! the nervous battuti of sorts for the skittering of blades in the duel (marvelous!)! The Idomeneo-esque chord of the stabbing!), but also so conventional in systems of gendered seniority that I could weep over it. And, apropos, into that column, add the (beautifully sung) catalogue aria.
Oh, and don’t get me started on”Ah fuggi il traditor”. Fine, it does not need to be spitfire. Although – scratch that. Actually, yes. Yes, it does. And Gauvin does a lot of smaller things with rhythm in that one, but, again: slender sound cannot mean erasing range of emotional scope through limiting dynamics. Gauvin’s middle name could be spitfire. How can this aria not go boom like the proverbial dynamite with her?!
And I return to the perspective of orchestra focus: Time and again, I get the impression that the commentary and the background of the orchestra, in their texture and weight, get precedence over the voices. The actual main character here is the orchestra, and perhaps Giovanni. The others are relegated to the sidelines.
What I didn’t expect to like as much, but did, was the accompagnato preceding “Or sai chi l’onore” because the initial phrases of Anna calling for help and Anna denouncing Giovanni are completely swept bare of any larmoyance. It’s the most sober “He slaughtered my father” I can recall, and it’s very effective.
As soon as it veers into the territory of describing Giovanni’s attack then (Anna herself calls it ‘l’infame attentato’ in case you’re inclined to roll your eyes at me and whip out your E.T.A. Hoffmann), it’s a mixed bag – one one hand, the sober approach (with one effective slide on “grido!”) is great, on the other hand, it is again the question of whether it belittles what happened to her.
Currentzis does manage to draw up though the most nefariously ambiguous take on “vincolarmi, torcermi e piegarmi”, though, where you are not quite sure what kind of context Anna’s movements are supposed to have. Then – with a wonderful Kenneth Tarver who maneuvers, in his very few lines, the twilight zone between empathy and douchebaggery – it’s back to clear-cut, focused ire (yes! Ire! Finally!) with no wallowing in it: no wailing extensions of “compie il misfatto suoooooooo!”, no drawn-out “col dargli morte”.
“Or sai ch l’onore”, then lives through the intensity of Papatanasiu’s narration where the mezzoforte boulder might have again annihilated some of the aria’s scope. The initial quiet nerves in, again, the strings are an immediate draw, so is the quiet first a” on “cor”: it’s white-hot/cold and desperate and only in few moments made me wonder whether the direction is cutting off emotional range.
And, again, the actual core protagonist is the orchestra: the string tremoli set the mood, not Anna. Anna – to put it bluntly – is the paper cutout, the orchestra tells the story. There are moments of balanced drive, though, as in the vocal coloring Papatanasiu employs in the first “l’onore” in the reprise (bar 101/102) – a bit more open, a bit more reproachful. It’s looking after such minute details that add to this recording.
Overall, though, I find my way around the arias easier than e.g. through the first act finale and the raising hell in the end, where I find the ductus more conventional and pompous, with the motivations – even if I may question those very motivations – less transparent, less palpable. The demon spiel and shtick is not really something that works on me, not through a paternalist lense.
The voices Currentzis has chosen, I enjoy throughout, even if the concept of a lighter, more flexible sound is something that has already been employed by various conductors coming from, or inspired by, Early Music approaches.
The voices do sound a lot more ‘natural’ here in approximating speech patterns, but as someone who is very much used to the rhetoric measurement of early belcanto instead, I startle at the lack of structure through diction (perhaps also an editing issue, at least in part?).
In his FAZ review, Brachmann was enraged by Currentzis casually tossing belcanto to the side and claiming – I paraphrase – it would cloat Mozart, whereas Mozart wrote for voices who actually belonged within that aesthetic. I find the idea of cutting back on the even sound interesting, but missed a focus at times. It didn’t seem spontaneous as much as lost, unless it is the performers – and again, I return to Gauvin and Papatanasiu – who add in that focus, but those two have ample Early Music experience under their belt.
Actually it’s puzzling (and woeful), how with an approach that seems to actively forego thick polish and ask for a more slender, less evened out take on recitatives and anything in the vicinity of parlando, you get so little out of the voices.
Yes, I can pinpoint moments with both Gauvin and Papatanasiu, but that is because I have listened to them a lot and can add a context that the recording does not give me (would Brachmann have brushed off Papatanasiu as he has if he had heard her in a live performance before? I doubt it).
The male voices are another interesting facet – while slender and flexible, Mika Kares as Commendatore and Tiliakos as Giovanni, in a way also Kenneth Tarver as Ottavio, each display a sonorous, smooth voice, projecting complexity and density not through volume, but through fashionably dark and/or steely color (which- and I stress this – is timbre, I don’t find it ‘made’): independent of all three of them being good singers with a beautiful, unstrained sound, they do, in this take, present a sonic image of uncontested paternalist masculinity, counting with more weight than the women’s voices.
Perhaps that wasn’t a conscious choice on the producing side, but to my ears, it is very audible.
Summary: Is this a good recording?
It is an intriguing one. It has moments of startling awareness, it has interested choices in tempi and appealing voices and there has clearly gone a lot of work into precise orchestra accents and very exact dynamic shadings. And the overall approach of getting away from booming vocal sonority (even if not new, even if reeking of subjugation here) is a palatable approach, though if I had to pick what the strong point is, I’d say orchestral accents and dynamics, and their precision, particularly in the strings.
Is this recording genius?
Muti is more demonic. Harding is more driven and still precise, still tinged with earthy warmth. If you want slender, transparent takes in the sense of Early Music that make space for the little tenterhooks in the orchestral body: there is already Harnoncourt, there is Jacobs.
I’ll gladly put the Currentzis next to them onto the shelf. But I won’t throw out everything else and only put up this, with a cross and two candles.