Don Giovanni is a complex opera and fascinating for its subtle character
portrayals, in particular that of the Don himself. For such reasons it is
as difficult for an audience as for a reviewer to nominate a top-class, let
alone definitive, performance. Here we have an experienced Glyndebourne cast
determined to get the utmost out of this mercurial score playing it for every
twist of comedy, drama and vocal gymnastics, ably abetted by Fritz Busch,
an acknowledged expert on the Mozart operas. However, the inevitable differences
between a recording of this vintage and a present-day performance are obviously
important. In the opera house it may well have deserved its "historic" accolade,
but in the days before magnetic tape allowances must be made for technical
quality, since the singers could not move freely about the stage and retakes
were comparatively rare. The overture prepares us for the remarkably high
quality of orchestral sound maintained throughout; but once the singing starts
be prepared for some uncomfortable moments.
On the credit side, John Brownlee makes a superb Don, arrogant, seductive
and enjoying every minute of his demanding role. Despite occasionally overdoing
the stage "business" Salvatore Baccaloni rises confidently to the comedic
opportunities of Leporello. However, the female singers are less impressive.
Ina Souez (Donna Anna) sounds less than vengeful in the famous "vengeance"
aria Or sai chi l'nore in Act I and Helletsgruber's nervousness in
the fearsome Mi tradi (which Mozart inserted at the last moment to
pacify a soprano who had complained that the part was "not difficult enough")
is little short of embarrassing. The least secure is Audrey Mildmay (wife
of John Christie who built the Glyndebourne opera house). The voice can be
uncertain, is sometimes forced and certainly not as youthful and vulnerable
as it needs to be for the important part of Zerlina.
The Hungarian tenor. Koloman von Pataky makes a fine job of Ottavio, as does
the baritone Roy Henderson as Masetto. Possibly due to technical or time
constraints (the original recording covers 46 78 rpm sides) one of the worst
features of this set is the absurdly rushed pace of most of the recitative
(including that of the Don), a feature, not improved by a lugubrious piano
Such reservations are, of course, subjective, but where does it leave us?
A modern recording will certainly have a more resplendent sound, but it is
worth remembering that, over the last sixty-five years, while recording
technology has vastly improved styles of operatic singing and production
have also changed significantly, not invariably for the better. Indeed it
is tempting to suggest that there never will be a perfect Don. (In
a recent production the
main character arrives on stage driving a Cadillac, and the latest Glyndebourne
offering has by no means had a smooth ride from the critics). Revealing
comparisons can be made in the Don Giovanni excepts by "golden age
singers" on the final ten tracks, where including Chaliapin, Tauber, Pinza,
a delicious Vedrai carino from Elizabeth Schumann. And Frida Leider
gives a thrilling account of the vengeance aria.
The production as a whole will reward connoisseurs for its bravura and panache,
and deserves a place in the excellent Naxos Historic Opera Recordings
series, though it is. not recommended to those of a nervous disposition,
or to newcomers to Mozart's masterpiece.