A Long Line of 'Don Giovannis'

Ryan Brown conducts Francois Loup as Leporello in the "Giovanni" survey.
Ryan Brown conducts Francois Loup as Leporello in the "Giovanni" survey. (By Louis Forget)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Mozart's "Don Giovanni" is one of the great original operas of all time. "Original," however, is relative. There were scores of plays, operas and ballets about the seducer Don Juan written before Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte got their hands on the material. On Sunday afternoon at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Northwest Washington, Opera Lafayette offered an intriguing high-speed tour of some of the earlier versions, including one by Giuseppe Gazzaniga and the librettist Giovanni Bertati, written in the same year as Mozart's, from which Da Ponte drew not only influence but the structure of entire scenes. We refer to this as "borrowing"; today, it would earn Da Ponte a plagiarism suit, or at least a dressing-down from Oprah.

Opera Lafayette's survey, which was like an iTunes playlist of past "Giovanni" highlights, began with Gluck's 1761 ballet, which was clearly known to Mozart. Our concept of what constitutes high drama has changed considerably (not least because of louder modern instruments) since Gluck's day; the shock and awe of his final scene, in which the don is pulled into Hell in a fiery earthquake, sounded awfully pretty to modern ears. One reason Mozart's opera has endured is that he moved past the conventions of his day to create music that still conveys a sense of the sinister and the dramatic; in contrast, Gluck's music had the effect of a woman in a hoop skirt affecting perplexity at the rumored appearance of a mouse.

The other versions were an early, classicized setting from 1669 by Alessandro Melani (gracefully put across by two of Opera Lafayette's trainee sopranos, Meghan McCall and the ardent Adria McCulloch), and an opera by Albertini that was popular in Poland after its 1780 premiere. A comic aria from the latter, in which Leporello (Francois Loup, singing in a near-Sprechstimme, with plenty of mugging) lectures Giovanni on musical styles, is not necessarily an antecedent to the musical quotes Mozart inserted into Giovanni's final dinner; such quotation was a common practice in comic opera at the time.

The Gazzaniga was the most interesting, simply because of the parallels to its better-known successor; there are at least two musical near-quotations, and the dramatic structure is so similar that Opera Lafayette ran straight from one into the other without a break. This meant that the tenor Jean-Paul Fouchecourt shifted from the role of Giovanni in the first piece to Don Ottavio in the second -- a historically accurate move, since tenor Antonio Baglioni created both roles in 1787. Fouchecourt, a regular with the company who also delivered a buffo aria in the Melani that he did not seem very interested in singing, was obviously invested in the Ottavio, which he phrased with elegance. His is an unusual voice, with the light, straight timbre referred to as "white," but with an underlying robustness; he is a very musical singer but not a very pretty one. William Sharp was an adept Giovanni, and Millicent Scarlett gave some vocal power to Donna Anna.

Ryan Brown, the group's founder, spoke, conducted and played the violin (in the Melani) with a palpable and contagious engagement. If there was a flaw to his thoughtful program, it was that there was too much Mozart and too little of the curiosities that seem to be this company's strength. But it's the Mozart that sells tickets.

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