So many opera recordings are coming out these days - whether old performances from radio archives or new ones from the operatic provinces - that even a new Don Giovanni doesn't automatically have a sense of occasion.
An exception, though, is conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin's new recording of Mozart's greatest opera - and his debut audio recording on the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label - with the kind of starry cast that few opera houses could assemble. Headed by Ildebrando D'Arcangelo and Luca Pisaroni (Giovanni and Leporello), Diana Damrau and Joyce DiDonato (respectively Anna and Elvira) plus Rolando Villazon as Don Ottavio, it's a lineup enabled by the shorter-term commitment of these live but unstaged performances in Baden Baden.
With handsome, intelligent packaging, the three-CD set feels like a throwback to the good old days when opera recordings were made with more consistent care and thought. And this disc is the first in a series encompassing Mozart's last seven operas. Already, Cosi fan tutte is finished, with Nézet-Séguin conducting. Since he and tenor Villazon are the project's designated artistic advisers, the Philadelphia Orchestra's new music director is quite likely to record more of the operas.
This Don Giovanni, set to be released Tuesday, ranks high among considerable competition: It's more red-blooded than Claudio Abbado's Deutsche Grammophon set, less historically authentic but with fewer quirks than Rene Jacobs' on Harmonia Mundi, orchestrally less distinguished than Carlo Maria Giulini's on EMI, but with more dramatically detailed recitatives.
Virtually all Don Giovanni recordings have weak links in this strangely plotted opera that is, in fact, a series of confrontations among a wide range of characters, all of which require optimum talent. With Nézet-Séguin conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in hot tempos that recall the Dionysian Giulini, the recording goes splendidly, with one accomplished, high-personality performance after another - until the final scene, when the murdered Commendatore rises from the grave and sends Don Giovanni to hell. Sadly, the unimposing bass Vitalij Kowaljow hardly makes the blood run cold.
Elsewhere, the music-making represents a range of styles. Female characters especially are given to exciting vocal ornaments, with fullblown cadenzas from Mojca Erdmann's Zerlina. Tenor Villazon sticks close to the written score while impressively singing long phrases in a single breath. Now the Leporello of choice, Pisaroni brings an accumulated range of humorous personal touches, though Mozart purists may object. If you want more consistency, there's always the John Eliot Gardiner recordings on Deutsche Grammophon.
Mezzo-soprano DiDonato risks ungracious vocalism to convey Donna Elvira's near-hysterical emotional pitches, though shaping her arias in highly considered ways that point up the emotional transformation each one represents. Damrau is equally charismatic, and brings a lieder singer's detail to Mozart's great scenes. In the title role, D'Arcangelo inspires mixed feelings: His voice is a rich foil to Pisaroni's leaner baritone, but his seductive manner feels forced, even self-conscious, especially in his phrase-splintering treatment of his serenade "Deh, vieni alla finestra."
So perhaps Nézet-Séguin is too permissive with his cast, though any momentary flourishes are smartly encased in a larger interpretive framework. He lays out the plot at an appropriately hectic pace, giving way to more ruminative tempos and confiding singing as the characters increasingly know themselves, before snapping to attention for the long finale.
Also, it must be said that D'Arcangelo's singing is far more accurate than the Leporello he sang at La Scala in 2006 under Gustavo Dudamel, whose taste in matters Mozartean has been highly questionable. The comparison puts Nézet-Séguin's Mozart in a certain perspective: With him, a wide range of interpretive expression is indeed possible, but there are certain boundaries of taste that he will not cross.
Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at firstname.lastname@example.org.