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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 – 1791)
Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni – Benjamin Luxon (baritone)
Leporello – Stafford Dean (baritone)
Donna Anna – Horiana Branisteanu (soprano)
Donna Elvira – Rachel Yakar (soprano)
Don Ottavio – Leo Geoke (tenor)
Zerlina – Elizabeth Gale (soprano)
Masetto – John Rawnsley (baritone)
Commendatore – Pierre Thau (bass)
The Glyndebourne Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
Rec. Glyndebourne Festival Opera/Southern Television Production, 1977.
DVD Region 0
ARTHAUS MUSIK EUROARTS 101 087 [168’00"]

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This 1977 performance of Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne has long been held to be a classic staging. Peter Hall’s direction does nothing that works against the plot or da Ponte’s libretto, and is generally sensitive to the music too. John Bury’s sets present the opera in a somewhat gloomy atmosphere but this works to underline the darker side of human behaviour portrayed by the character of the Don, and thus never far removed from civilised society.

But this is not a production for those seeking deep psychological insights into the characters, their actions or the motivations behind them. The closest the cast comes to insightful acting is the Leporello of Stafford Dean. The graveyard scene for example shows Leporello genuinely not wanting to be there addressing the Commendatore’s statue and showing real shock at the fact that it speaks. Don Giovanni not so much as lifts an eyebrow at this momentous event, although he remarks on the strangeness of it. For a singer that sends that cold shiver down the spine, and makes you feel it too, you should look elsewhere; for example to Thomas Allen’s portrayal conducted by Muti, now available as part of the La Scala DVD edition (OALS3001D). What you do get is a well-sung production, though perhaps not an outstanding one all round.

The opera throws up notorious problems in relation to casting which are highlighted by the choices made. Benjamin Luxon is hardly the first baritone who springs to mind as a suitable Don, in terms of appearance at least. Tall, thin and with a handlebar moustache he is most definitely not your generic slick, fresh-faced wideboy who uses nothing more than good looks and charm to make petticoats ruffle. Instead he delivers a performance that is all the more creditable because he uses the genuine assets he has as man, musician and actor to win over his conquests. He is a Don of age, experience and presence approaching his latter years, yet still excited by the adding of conquests to the list to prove his pulling power has not yet deserted him. As such, the running scorecard, if you will, that is Leporello’s list seems not totally beyond the bounds of physical possibility, yet still beyond the measure of most men.

The voice is finely focused, phrasing delivered with experience and care. Rarely has ‘Deh vieni alla finestra’ seemed so right, or indeed so moving. The character is weaker though when it comes to the more exuberant moments – the ‘champagne aria’, for example – these do not convince me nearly as much. But it is still a fine reminder of Luxon in his vocal prime.

Stafford Dean as Leporello continually brings Rembrandt’s ‘Wide Eyed’ self portrait etching (1630) to mind, so involved and animated are his facial expressions throughout. However, there are moments when these are missed slightly due to the camera angles or edits, and this is a pity. He finds genuine and mocking humour, cowardice, compliance against his will and many of the other requisite facets of the character to contrast with Luxon’s Don, combined with a generally excellently sung rendition of the role.

Donna Anna is a problematic character to cast. Do you go for the dramatic soprano to bring out the thirst for vengeance in her arias and portray her as a fire-eating battleaxe of a wife, or a more lyrical soprano to show more genuine humanly emotions? Horiana Branisteanu’s portrayal is most definitely the latter – indeed, with the possible exception of Joan Sutherland on the Giulini CD set, she is one of the few I have heard who can both declaim her big moments without harshness and scale down the voice to observe the markings as written ... and appear distraught. Though like others her face lacks obvious emotion, her eyes say much with their smouldering dark powerful stare.

Leo Geoke (Don Ottavio) moves efficiently through the role, though he is easily superseded by many a tenor in terms of technique, finesse and acting skill. The late Gösta Winbergh on the Karajan CD set (one of that set’s few out-and-out successes) comes to mind. Even without seeing Winbergh you can imagine stage action, and occasionally even when seeing Geoke it is difficult to place him in the action.

Rachel Yakar has the dramatic measure of Elvira I feel and vocally too is capable of meeting the task, but suffers somewhat by appearing constrained by the direction she has received. If left more to her own dramatic inclinations the results might have had greater visual impact.

The pairing of Elizabeth Gale’s Zerlina and John Rawnsley’s Masetto is a pleasing one – both are full of character. Pierre Thau’s Commendatore is no match for that of Gottlob Frick for Giulini, but then who is? His contribution is steady within the confines of the part, but more could have been made of it.

The London Philharmonic play with obvious experience of both score and house; though at times I felt the winds a little recessed. Haitink’s Mozart opera experience, as he freely admits, was at that time only beginning, and relative to later achievements this is evident. However, there is nothing that is unmusical or overtly out of place – it just lacks the depth of insight he was to achieve later on, or indeed the driving inevitability achieved by Furtwängler in his Salzburg staging (now available on DVD).

So in summation, this is a set that tends to wear its qualities lightly in relation to others. For me, largely because of the voices (Luxon, Dean and Branisteanu in particular), this set will serve as an appendix to other interpretations I have mentioned, most of which take priority due to their interpretational qualities.

Evan Dickerson

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