It seems incredible now that Carlo Maria Giulini was
the third choice of conductor for this famed recording. First
choice was Beecham, and when that fell through, Walter Legge, the producer,
engaged Klemperer, who, though weakened by illnesses and accidents,
began working on the recording, only to withdraw after three days because
of pericarditis. Legge sent an SOS to the then relatively unknown Giulini,
who responded positively, though, as the booklet tells us, with some
trepidation. The rest is indeed history, as the whole ensemble proceeded
to work like a dream, and produce what in this case is without question
one of the supreme recordings of the twentieth century, and will surely
never be surpassed on disc.
Credit must go to Legge for two things in particular;
firstly for assembling the peerless cast, and secondly for overseeing
the technical aspects so faultlessly. The beauty of the singers is that,
as befits the nature of the opera, they were either young (Alva, Wächter,
Sutherland and Cappuccilli in their thirties, Sciutti in her twenties)
or in their absolute vocal and dramatic prime (Schwarzkopf, Taddei and
Frick). Giulini himself was just 45, and the whole project has a dynamism
and wicked sense of humour that could only be obtained with a team possessing
this blend of talent, comparative youth and experience.
To anyone who knows her only in 19th century
Italian repertoire, Sutherland is a revelation here. She sings Donna
Anna's arias with rare delicacy and elegance, plus the expected technical
brilliance, while Schwarzkopf is simply perfection as Donna Elvira,
transforming her from what can sometimes be a mournful nag into a woman
of great dignity and strength of character. The young Sciutti was an
inspired choice as Zerlina, giving her a delightfully disingenuous quality
that is as endearing as it is entertaining.
The men are equally good; Wächter was an exceptional
Don, and in his vocal colouring contrives to reflect brilliantly all
the different ways the character presents himself to those he wishes
to manipulate, be they male or female. Alva makes an appropriately sweet-toned
and rather deadpan Don Ottavio (though he is a touch rhythmically slack
in places), and Cappuccilli makes an hilarious Masetto, aflame with
righteous indignation and sexual jealousy. Frick is in his best cavernous
voice as the Commendatore, reminding us of the great recorded Hagen
he was to become soon after this.
A cast ‘to die for’, then, no doubt about that. Yet
there are plenty of opera sets that fail to ignite despite the starriest
of line-ups. It’s the pacing of the whole thing that is so superb,
and here the continuo player, Heinrich Schmidt, makes a huge contribution.
He gets the passages of recitativo secco bowling along at a terrific
rate, emphasising the knockabout humour. In particular, the exchanges
between Don Giovanni and Leporello are outstanding, the master’s twitting
of the servant having, for modern ears, unmistakable echoes of Blackadder
The orchestral playing is what finally lifts the performance
to the sublime level it achieves. Giulini draws the most sensitive,
stylish and dramatically aware playing from the Philharmonia, especially
from the strings, who produce a warmth and beauty of tone that is very
special. This serves to underline how this opera came to mean so very
much – arguably more than any other 18th century stage work
– to the Romantics of the 19th century.
The recording captures all of this faithfully, with
a balance that manages to make the singers sound just a little larger
than life without losing the correct perspective. One of the greatest
musical and dramatic experiences available on disc, then, and one that
I personally will always treasure.
Recordings of the Century