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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Don Giovanni. Opera in two Acts, K527 (1787)
Don Giovanni: John Brownlee, baritone
Donna Anna: Ina Souez, soprano
Donna Elvira: Luise Helletsgruber, soprano
Zerlina: Audrey Mildmay, soprano
Don Ottavio: Koloman von Pataky, tenor
Commendatore: David Franklin, bass
Leporello: Salvatore Baccaloni, bass
Masetto: Roy Henderson, baritone
Glyndebourne Festival Chorus and Orchestra/Fritz Busch
CD transfer of 1936 78 rpm recording at the Glyndebourne Theatre
NAXOS Great Opera Recordings series 8.110135-37. 3 CDs [total playing time 200.52]
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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 accompaniment.

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.

Roy Brewer

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