Jeremy Yudkin is a professor of music at Boston University. He gives preconcert talks for Tanglewood weekends every Friday at 2:30 p.m. and Sunday at 11 a.m. at Lenox Town Hall.

Man conducts orchestra while singers perform opera

BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons conducts "Don Giovanni" at Tanglewood on Saturday, July 16. From left are singers, Nicole Cabell, Will Liverman, Janai Brugger, Cody Quattlebaum, (Nelsons), Michelle Bradley and Amitai Pati.

LENOX —When Mozart traveled to Prague, about 200 miles from his hometown of Vienna, he was greeted with the sounds of his own music.

“Here they talk about nothing but Figaro. Nothing is sung, played, or whistled but Figaro!” he wrote to a friend, As a result of the success of “The Marriage of Figaro,” the city commissioned from the composer a new opera, which resulted in “Don Giovanni,” heard here, at Tanglewood, on Saturday.

Choosing the well-known legend of the famous womanizer Don Juan (“Giovanni in Italian”) was a tricky move because of the government censors, but other composers had written on the theme and gotten away with it, and Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte made sure that the villain gets his just desserts in the end (a fact advertised ahead of time by part of the title of the work: “Il dissoluto punito” — “The Degenerate One Punished”). The premiere of the opera in 1787 was received with great excitement. “Prague has never heard the like,” enthused one newspaper. “Mr. Mozart conducted in person and was welcomed with joy and jubilation by the large crowd,” said another.

The performance of this opera at Tanglewood got a similar reception. And it was truly well deserved. The orchestra was conducted elegantly by Andris Nelsons and performed crisply and with evident delight by the orchestra. The deliberate — and historically appropriate — use of a small complement of string players allowed the winds and brass to shine. Of special enchantment was the clarinet playing of William Hudgins.

The score is large, comprising eight solo voices, a chorus, and a full orchestra with woodwinds, brass, and timpani — all of which Mozart created out of nothing and wrote out by hand. Mozart was a generous and phenomenally gifted composer, and he gave each vocal soloist accompanied recitatives and especially arias to display their special skills.

It is no exaggeration to say that every single one of the soloists shone in this Tanglewood performance. Ryan McKinny and Will Liverman made a perfect pair as baritones Don Giovanni and his manservant Leporello. Michelle Bradley as Donna Anna and Nicole Cabell, both sopranos, were suitably noble and distraught as befitted their characters.

They were strikingly on pitch despite the high ranges written for them. Janai Brugger and Cody Quattlebaum played the peasant couple Zerlina and Masetto. Ms. Brugger managed the subtleties of acting and singing most winningly, putting across the role of the self-interested, seductive young Zerlina with charm and lovely phrasing and tone. Amitai Pati was an excellent Don Ottavio, impressive in voice and sympathetic in his role as the frustrated but dedicated fiancé. Finally, Ryan Speedo Green mastered the role of the noble and vengeful Commendatore with aplomb, giving full rein to his powerful and commanding bass.

There were two ways in which this performance took advantage of marked progress in our modern concert world. The first was that the solo singers represented a diverse array of backgrounds and cultures, all coming together to immerse themselves in a joint creative effort. The second was the display throughout the opera of knowledge obtained through scholarly research into the performance practice of Mozart’s time.

The rebalanced proportion of winds/brass versus strings, the clarity and precision of the playing, and especially the accuracy of the singing, unmarred by a permanent wide vibrato, all owe their existence to what is generally called the Early Music Movement (nowadays usually known as Historically Informed Performance), which took hold widely some 40 years ago among groups of specialists and has now influenced traditional orchestral performances.

This Tanglewood performance was held on a concert stage, so, apart from some very sparse acting and stage movement, this was not a theatrical performance; but it mattered little. The devotion and commitment of the singers and instrumentalists to Mozart’s magical score created the scenery, the costumes, and the action all in our mind’s eye.

Jeremy Yudkin is Professor of Music at Boston University. His gives pre-concert talks for Tanglewood weekends every Friday at 2:30 p.m. and Sunday at 11 a.m. at Lenox Town Hall.