Yesterday afternoon at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, the New Esterházy Quartet presented their second At the Opera program, featuring string quartet arrangements of opera music, primarily from the eighteenth century. Since Anthony Martin is still prevented from playing viola due to a wrist injury, he was replaced by special guest David Wilson, performing with violinists Lisa Weiss and Kati Kyme and cellist William Skeen. The program was structured around two operas entitled Don Giovanni, both of which were first performed in 1787.
The more familiar of these was the second to be performed in 1787. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 527 made its debut in Prague in October of 1787. However, in was preceded in Venice, probably as part of the pre-Lenten carnival, by a much lighter approach to the same subject matter entitled Don Giovanni Tenorio by Giuseppe Gazzaniga and first performed in February of 1787. Martin was still on hand to provide some introductory remarks and observed that, at the time, Gazzaniga’s was the more popular opera, receiving several subsequent performances, perhaps as a carnival favorite. However, K. 527 was more enduring; and in the late eighteenth century the publishing house N. Simrock (which was founded in 1793) released a string quartet arrangement of fourteen selections from the opera. There is no record of the name(s) of the arranger(s).
Those fourteen selections provided the heart of yesterday’s program, with the intermission strategically placed between the last selection from the first act (the so-called “champagne” aria) and the first from the second act, the trio scene in which Leporello, disguised as Giovanni, serenades Donna Elvira. For this portion of the program, the quartet was led by Kyme on first violin. It goes without saying that the performance was a far cry from an “opera experience;” but it still made for a generous serving of engaging music.
After all, there is so much in the opera that one often has difficulty paying attention to the music. The first act includes both a swordfight (culminating in fatality) and a grand ball involving two independent instrumental ensembles on stage. The second act sees the monumental statue of the man slain in the first act come to life and subsequently summon all the demons of Hell to claim Giovanni’s body and soul. In the absence of all of those dramatics, one discovers some of Mozart’s finest writing; and, through a string quartet performance, there is a transparency that reveals his ingenious approaches to interleaving independent voices of counterpoint. Thus, while the fires of Hell may not have been strong enough to light up a single newspaper page, yesterday’s performance effectively disclosed just how expressive the music itself could be in the absence of any theatrical machinery.
By way of an “overture” to this performance, Skeen prepared quartet arrangements of one instrumental and three vocal selections from Gazzaniga’s opera. It was clear that no one would mistake this as Mozart’s music, but one could definitely appreciate the appeal it would have held for the Venetian carnival crowd. Led by Weiss on first violin, the ensemble accepted that there was more spirit than flesh and offered up their own “spirited” account, in turn. Perhaps most interesting was the extent to which Gazzaniga injected some Spanish elements into his music, while Mozart kept himself intently focused only on Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto.
Most importantly, however, was that, like so many New Esterházy programs, this was a journey of discovery. Furthermore, that discovery included more than a few long-neglected samples of Gazzaniga’s music. It also offered up new ways to listen to K. 527 without the distractions of a full-blown opera production.