If you want to investigate the gulf between genius and mere skill, you might try comparing the "Don Giovanni" of Mozart with the opera of the same name by Giuseppe Gazzaniga, which had its first performance (with a tenor in the title role) in Venice on Feb. 5, 1787, about eight months before Mozart's premiere in Prague.
The similarities of plot and incident are striking, though Gazzaniga's opera is shorter, composed in opera buffa style and somewhat simpler, taking only one act of about an hour and 40 minutes. The cast of characters is almost identical, though there is one more female victim, Donna Ximena, and Leporello, Masetto and Zerlina have different names. Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, knew Gazzaniga's libretto (written by Giovanni Bertati) and plundered it for many ideas, including the whole opening scene, Leporello's and Masetto's big arias in Act 1 and the rustic wedding episode.
Gazzaniga's opera sounds fine as long as you don't (unfairly) compare it with Mozart's, and some enterprising opera company should consider putting it on, perhaps as part of a "What's in a name?" season, with such operas as Rossini's "Otello," Paisiello's "Barber of Seville" and Leoncavallo's "La Boheme" -- all good operas that left the repertoire after head-on collisions with more powerful namesakes. Meanwhile, the curious can hear Gazzaniga's "Don Giovanni" in an excellent performance, recorded in Munich, on the Orfeo label (214 902, two CDs). The title role is sung by John Aler, who will be singing here in the National Symphony's "Messiah" and the Washington Opera's "Magic Flute." Aler is one of the best light tenors singing today -- perhaps the best -- and the quality of his performance in this recording is an index of the quality of the whole production.
French Baroque I suspect that many people have wanted a recording of Jean Philippe Rameau's uniquely comic opera "Platee" (now on Erato 2292-45028-2, two CDs with libretto) since it was presented at the Spoleto Festival a couple of years ago. Rameau, one of the towering geniuses of the 18th century, has not been fully recognized because the French baroque repertoire has had less attention than the Italian and German, but that situation is rapidly being changed -- primarily by Erato's "Musifrance" series and the excellent early music recordings of Deutsche Harmonia Mundi. The most spectacular work is being done in opera and vocal music, but there are also a lot of impressive instrumental recordings.
"Platee," which is as notable for its elaborate dance music as for its vocals, tells of the doomed love of the world's ugliest water nymph (sung eloquently by a tenor, Gilles Ragon) for Jupiter, king of the gods. Sometimes it may remind you of Offenbach, or Gilbert and Sullivan, but there is no other work quite like it. A striking feature is the use of bird and animal imitations and other descriptive sounds, not only in the orchestra but notably in the heroine's froglike repetition of "pourquoi, quoi, quoi."
Rameau's serious operas are exquisite, as can be heard in the exemplary recording of his tragedie lyrique "Zoroastre," conducted by Sigiswald Kuijken (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 77144-2-RG, two CDs with libretto). He was ingenious in chamber music; hear his Pieces de Clavecin en Concerts as performed by Jean-Pierre Rampal, Isaac Stern and John Steele Ritter (Sony SK 45868), and he was a master of dance music -- for example, the lovely ballet with voices "Pygmalion" (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 77143-2-RG), but "Platee" stirred up in him a wild comic imagination otherwise evidenced mainly in his little harpsichord pieces.
Those who enjoy Rameau should also note some excellent recent recordings of music by Jean Baptiste Lully and Marc-Antoine Charpentier, 17th-century pioneers of the highly rarefied art that Rameau brought to its pinnacle in the 18th century. Perhaps the most notable is Charpentier's music for Moliere's comedie-ballet "Le Malade imaginaire," performed by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants (Harmonia Mundi 901336, with libretto) -- for my taste, one of the best recordings of the year. This was Moliere's first collaboration with Charpentier. Earlier, Lully had been his partner in works that usually are performed today as simple spoken comedies but were actually much more like Broadway musicals with elaborately produced song and dance sequences. The musical numbers for "Le Malade imaginaire" are so inventive that one wishes it had been the beginning of a long collaboration. Unfortunately, Moliere died after the fourth performance of this show. But it remains a monument to imagination and high spirits.
Lully, the Italian-born court composer to King Louis XIV, adapted the tradition of Monteverdi and Cavalli to French tastes with results that were often spectacular but sound delicate, subtle and beautifully stylized in three little "Divertissements" for voice, string quintet and harpsichord (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 77218-2-RC). Mezzo-soprano Guillemette Laurens sings the texts (full of classic mythology and idealized landscapes), including one song in Italian -- a graceful tribute to the composer's and the music's roots. The instrumental ensemble, Capriccio Stravagante, is new to the international recording scene but is obviously well-seasoned both in French baroque style and in playing together. Particularly noteworthy is the imaginative continuo playing of the group's founder, a harpsichordist with the unlikely name of Skip Sempe. This disc whets an appetite for his work, which DHM promptly fills with a simultaneously issued CD of "Pieces de Clavecin" by Francois Couperin (77219-2-RC). The playing has vitality, style and inventiveness -- very much in the spirit of the music.
Anyone who has heard the Smithsonian Chamber Players perform the music of Marin Marais need only be told that it has now been recorded (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 77146-2-RC). Marais, one of history's greatest performers on the viola da gamba, also composed for that gentle-voiced instrument with a plaintiveness and descriptive power matched by no other composer. Bass violists Kenneth Slowick and Jaap Ter Linden and lutenist Konrad Junghanel explore the depths of his highly specialized genius in his Suites in D Minor and G, plus his "Tombeau de Mr. Meliton." Also on DHM (77145-2-RG), playing the higher-pitched and livelier viola da gamba and sometimes the violin, the brothers Sigiswald and Wieland Kuijken give a vivid sample of "Musique a Versailles" (actually chamber music at Versailles) that includes two works of Marais ("La Sonnerie de Sainte-Genevieve" and "Tombeau de Mr. de Sainte-Colombe") as well as Antoine Forqueray's multifaceted Suite in C Minor. This is an excellent disc, made even better by the distinctive harpsichord-playing of Gustav Leonhardt, who solos brilliantly in Jean-Henri d'Anglebert's Prelude in D Minor.