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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Don Giovanni (1787)

Ezio Pinza (bass-baritone) Don Giovanni; Salvatore Baccaloni (bass) Leporello; James Melton (tenor) Don Ottavio; Mack Harrell (baritone) Masetto; Zinka Milanov (soprano) Donna Anna; Jarmila Novotna (soprano) Donna Elvira; Bidú Sayão (soprano) Zerlina; Norman Cordon (bass-baritone) Commendatore; Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, New York/Paul Breisach
Broadcast performance of April 3rd, 1943.
GUILD HISTORICAL IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES GHCD2236/7 [2CDs: 156’45: 77’04 + 79’41]

Guild’s accompanying documentation points to the remarkable fact that, despite contracts with both RCA and Columbia, Ezio Pinza did not actually record a complete opera. However, Guild reassures us that 19 of his roles in 38 complete recordings are preserved as broadcasts, and that it will be issuing many of these in due course.

This set has already enjoyed fair coverage from MusicWeb – see reviews by Christopher Howell and Robert J. Farr . But a cast list such as this always deserves further comment, as indeed does Paul Breisach’s conducting (CH’s review also includes a brief but very useful entry on this conductor as a postscriptum). For sonic reasons and, it has to be said, interpretative ones to be discussed below, there is no way this could ever be recommended as a library version, interesting though the light it sheds on various singers’ careers may be.

As always, Guild provide a detailed and fascinating accompanying essay. Perhaps it is sometimes selling the product a little, as when Richard Caniell, the author, refers to the Don’s Champagne aria as ‘dashing’. I think he means ‘dashing’ in the male attractive sense, yet the double meaning is unfortunate for that is exactly what happens – ‘Finch’ han dal vino’ is here uncomfortably breathless. There is no denying that it does (pardon the pun) fizz along, yet voice and orchestra do part company more than is comfortable and the playing is scrappy (and this is not the only example of approximate orchestral playing, either, although in the case of the Overture this more invokes the smell of grease-paint than anything else). Yet Pinza’s Act Two ‘Deh vieni alla finestra’ is a model of smooth legato and a dream to encounter.

Salvatore Baccaloni is the Leporello caught up in the madness. The recitative exchanges these two men enjoy are some of the highlights of the set ( they have even more life than in the recently reviewed Arte Nova set, but Baccaloni’s ‘Catalogue Aria’ is marred by bad ensemble with the orchestra. The orchestra is light and fast here, but the singer struggles to keep up. Again, voice and orchestra part company along the way. His ‘O statua gentilissima’ includes some delightful vocal phrasings and great vocal acting.

Bidù Sayão as Zerlina is bewitching. Her duet with Pinza in Act One, the famous ‘Là ci darem la mano’, is simply lovely, her scalic work sounding easy and natural. Their final ‘Andiam’s are commendably unsyrupy. Alas the same cannot be said for ‘Vedrai, carino, se sei buonino’. Sayão does her best, but she has to emerge out of orchestral soup and wade her way over and through it.

The Czech soprano Jarmila Novotna is a strong and expressive Donna Elvira (try ‘Ah, fuggi il traditor!’ or ‘Ah taci, ingiusto core!’), but Zinka Milanov’s Donna Anna overshadows her somewhat. Not technically perfect, certainly, but she carries with her a steely determination, as in ‘Or sai chi l’onore’ (a pity this is a little distanced in perspective terms) and she shows her ability to float a note in the ‘Calmatevi, idol mio!’ exchange with Ottavio in Act 2.

James Melton’s assumption of Don Ottavio is stretched by Breisach’s positively funereal pace for ‘Dalla sua pace’. It is achingly slow and played blind to a musical novice it would not sound like Mozart. Caniell is plain-speaking about Melton – ‘There is not an iota of difference in nuance, tone or the shaping of phrases to distinguish his Don Ottavio from his Pinkerton or Wilhelm Meister’. Well, we are examining him purely in Don Giovanni and it must be admitted that his ‘Il mio tesoro’ (Act 2) is delivered in the most lovely of fashions, ardent in its understatement.

The arrival of the statue is interestingly accompanied by some whistling noises that make it sound like this Giovanni is set on Guy Fawkes day. Alas this scene lacks the drama it so requires (Breisach rather carves his way through it) and there are some pitch fluctuations (sometimes severe) later on..

It takes Caniell full two pages of small type to explain the various patchings involved in making this opera play through as one continuous experience. By the time you get here in this review you may well have decided whether you want to hear this set and if you do, the relevant pages are 17 and 18.

Colin Clarke

 

 



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