was in September 1961 that Georg Solti became musical director
at Covent Garden. The third new staging under his aegis was
Don Giovanni in February 1962, a production directed
by Franco Zeffirelli. This recording was made at the premiere,
which took place two days after the demise of Bruno Walter.
The performance was dedicated to his memory and as bonus tracks
on the last disc we can hear Sir David Webster’s speech and
the march of the priests from Die Zauberflöte, which
was played to a standing audience.
BBC broadcast the performance but unfortunately the original
tapes have been lost and what we have on these discs is a private
off-air recording, which has its limitations. The sound in general
is small-scale and congested, there is a great deal of distortion
in forte passages, some variation in tape speed and also some
drop-outs. The orchestral sound is scrawny and undernourished
but the voices are, in the main, well caught, even though they
vary in strength due to the singers’ positioning on stage. The
Stone Guest, who should be a thundering experience in the church
yard scene in act 2, is very distant and doesn’t convey the
frightening situation. The recording is also afflicted with
stage noises, which quite often heighten the live feeling. One
example is after the sextet in act 2 when Leporello eventually
manages to run away from Don Ottavio, Masetto et al and
we vividly hear Geraint Evans’ footsteps disappearing. Audience
reactions are also captured; sometimes laughter, obviously as
a reaction to visual gags.
Solti recorded Don Giovanni twice commercially, first
in the 1970s and again in the 1990s; the latter being the most
successful. As can be expected from him this early reading is
dynamic and occasionally hard-driven, sometimes also a bit heavy-handed.
This was long before period performance practice had made its
entrance. It was obviously a lavish production but it was criticized
at the time because it took so long to change the scenes. This
is nothing that the listener needs to worry about, and provided
one can accept the mono sound and the shortcomings I have listed
above there is a lot to enjoy. Zeffirelli-Solti had picked a
cast that is among the best on any recorded performance.
of the singers are represented on ‘regular’ recordings of this
opera. Cesare Siepi sang the title role twice for Decca under
Josef Krips and Erich Leinsdorf. He was a great favourite, not
least at the Metropolitan, both for his dashing stage appearance
and for his superb singing and acting. He was a master at adapting
his voice to the differing moods and attitudes of this many-faceted
character. Listen for example to the recitative in the first
act when he tries to ensnare Zerlina. In the duet La ci darem
la mano his voice shivers with passion. Elsewhere he can
be menacing, cynical, proud or just good-humoured. He sings
a rousing Champagne aria. He is wheedling and sly in the scene
where, disguised as Leporello, he coaxes Masetto to hand over
his weapons. The serenade has been more honeyed in other versions.
This Don Giovanni is so self-assured that he doesn’t need to
be ingratiating. He sings it rather quickly and straightforwardly.
Sometimes he and Geraint Evans’ Leporello deliver their lines
in recitatives at machine-gun rattle speed, which may have been
effective on stage but on record it tends to sound merely breathless.
Geraint Evans – the knighthood lay in the future when this recording
was made - set down this role for EMI under Barenboim in 1975.
Alongside Figaro and Falstaff this was one of his signature
roles. With his crystal clear enunciation and perfect Italian
– Italians thought him Sicilian – he is ideal in the role. He
makes the most of his solo scenes, wringing the last drop of
meaning out of the catalogue aria. Mirella Freni, very early
in her career, is a fresh, lyrical and lovely Zerlina, Batti,
batti, o bel Masetto wonderfully nuanced. She also recorded
it twice: for EMI with Klemperer in the mid-1960s and a decade
later for Philips with Colin Davis. Philips also recorded the
opera in conjunction with the Mozart celebrations in 1956 with
Rudolf Moralt conducting and Sena Jurinac singing Donna Elvira.
She catches to perfection the vacillating feelings of this unhappy
character and the aria Ah, fuggi il traditor boils with
anger, sorrow and frustration. Her voice seems to have hardened
a little and acquired an edge, compared to the Philips recording
but it is still a fine achievement. In the late 1950s she also
recorded Donna Anna for DG under Fricsay, a role that was a
size too big for her, even though she sang it with style. Solti’s
Donna Anna is, however, superbly suited to the part and she
is probably the main reason for acquiring this set. Turkish
soprano Leyla Gencer was for many years regarded as one of the
greatest singers of her generation but for some reason she was
almost totally ignored by the record companies. Was her voice
badly suited to the microphone? Judging from this recording
it wasn’t at all. On the contrary hers is one of the most consummate
readings ever, both interpretatively and vocally. She was often
compared to Callas and she has the same identification, the
same intensity but has none of the defects of Callas, no disfiguring
vibrato, no shrillness and a better feeling for Mozartean style.
Try her in the recitativo accompagnato and aria Don Ottavio,
son morta! … Or sai chi l’onore (CD1 tr. 22-23) and I am
sure you will be convinced of her greatness. At her side Richard
Lewis’s Don Ottavio tends to pale, but on his own he is excellent:
stylish, nuanced and with a fine legato. His Dalla sua pace
(CD1 tr. 25) is on a par with Anton Dermota’s, which is praise
indeed. Robert Savoie is a good Masetto and he sounds so miserable
after he has been beaten up by Don Giovanni that one almost
feels his pain. David Ward is a monumental Commendatore.
are good notes by Patrick O’Connor and the booklet also has
the full libretto with English translation, as is the rule with
these issues in the Royal Opera House Heritage Series.
a first or only choice but a splendid complement to a recording
in modern sound. First class singing by all hands and one of
the best Donna Annas anywhere.