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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791)
Don Giovanni (1787)
Cesare Siepi (bass) – Don Giovanni; Geraint Evans (baritone) – Leporello; Leyla Gencer (soprano) – Donna Anna; Sena Jurinac (soprano) – Donna Elvira; Mirella Freni (soprano) – Zerlina; Richard Lewis (tenor) – Don Ottavio; David Ward (bass) – Il Commendatore; Robert Savoie (bass) – Masetto; The Covent Garden Opera Chorus, The Covent Garden Orchestra/Georg Solti
rec. live, Royal Opera House, London, 19 February 1962
ROYAL OPERA HOUSE ROHS007 [3 CDs: 64:30 + 65:47 + 42:13]



It was in September 1961 that Georg Solti became musical director at Covent Garden. The third new staging under his aegis was Don Giovanni in February 1962, a production directed by Franco Zeffirelli. This recording was made at the premiere, which took place two days after the demise of Bruno Walter. The performance was dedicated to his memory and as bonus tracks on the last disc we can hear Sir David Webster’s speech and the march of the priests from Die Zauberflöte, which was played to a standing audience.

The BBC broadcast the performance but unfortunately the original tapes have been lost and what we have on these discs is a private off-air recording, which has its limitations. The sound in general is small-scale and congested, there is a great deal of distortion in forte passages, some variation in tape speed and also some drop-outs. The orchestral sound is scrawny and undernourished but the voices are, in the main, well caught, even though they vary in strength due to the singers’ positioning on stage. The Stone Guest, who should be a thundering experience in the church yard scene in act 2, is very distant and doesn’t convey the frightening situation. The recording is also afflicted with stage noises, which quite often heighten the live feeling. One example is after the sextet in act 2 when Leporello eventually manages to run away from Don Ottavio, Masetto et al and we vividly hear Geraint Evans’ footsteps disappearing. Audience reactions are also captured; sometimes laughter, obviously as a reaction to visual gags.

Georg Solti recorded Don Giovanni twice commercially, first in the 1970s and again in the 1990s; the latter being the most successful. As can be expected from him this early reading is dynamic and occasionally hard-driven, sometimes also a bit heavy-handed. This was long before period performance practice had made its entrance. It was obviously a lavish production but it was criticized at the time because it took so long to change the scenes. This is nothing that the listener needs to worry about, and provided one can accept the mono sound and the shortcomings I have listed above there is a lot to enjoy. Zeffirelli-Solti had picked a cast that is among the best on any recorded performance.

Four of the singers are represented on ‘regular’ recordings of this opera. Cesare Siepi sang the title role twice for Decca under Josef Krips and Erich Leinsdorf. He was a great favourite, not least at the Metropolitan, both for his dashing stage appearance and for his superb singing and acting. He was a master at adapting his voice to the differing moods and attitudes of this many-faceted character. Listen for example to the recitative in the first act when he tries to ensnare Zerlina. In the duet La ci darem la mano his voice shivers with passion. Elsewhere he can be menacing, cynical, proud or just good-humoured. He sings a rousing Champagne aria. He is wheedling and sly in the scene where, disguised as Leporello, he coaxes Masetto to hand over his weapons. The serenade has been more honeyed in other versions. This Don Giovanni is so self-assured that he doesn’t need to be ingratiating. He sings it rather quickly and straightforwardly. Sometimes he and Geraint Evans’ Leporello deliver their lines in recitatives at machine-gun rattle speed, which may have been effective on stage but on record it tends to sound merely breathless. Geraint Evans – the knighthood lay in the future when this recording was made - set down this role for EMI under Barenboim in 1975. Alongside Figaro and Falstaff this was one of his signature roles. With his crystal clear enunciation and perfect Italian – Italians thought him Sicilian – he is ideal in the role. He makes the most of his solo scenes, wringing the last drop of meaning out of the catalogue aria. Mirella Freni, very early in her career, is a fresh, lyrical and lovely Zerlina, Batti, batti, o bel Masetto wonderfully nuanced. She also recorded it twice: for EMI with Klemperer in the mid-1960s and a decade later for Philips with Colin Davis. Philips also recorded the opera in conjunction with the Mozart celebrations in 1956 with Rudolf Moralt conducting and Sena Jurinac singing Donna Elvira. She catches to perfection the vacillating feelings of this unhappy character and the aria Ah, fuggi il traditor boils with anger, sorrow and frustration. Her voice seems to have hardened a little and acquired an edge, compared to the Philips recording but it is still a fine achievement. In the late 1950s she also recorded Donna Anna for DG under Fricsay, a role that was a size too big for her, even though she sang it with style. Solti’s Donna Anna is, however, superbly suited to the part and she is probably the main reason for acquiring this set. Turkish soprano Leyla Gencer was for many years regarded as one of the greatest singers of her generation but for some reason she was almost totally ignored by the record companies. Was her voice badly suited to the microphone? Judging from this recording it wasn’t at all. On the contrary hers is one of the most consummate readings ever, both interpretatively and vocally. She was often compared to Callas and she has the same identification, the same intensity but has none of the defects of Callas, no disfiguring vibrato, no shrillness and a better feeling for Mozartean style. Try her in the recitativo accompagnato and aria Don Ottavio, son morta! … Or sai chi l’onore (CD1 tr. 22-23) and I am sure you will be convinced of her greatness. At her side Richard Lewis’s Don Ottavio tends to pale, but on his own he is excellent: stylish, nuanced and with a fine legato. His Dalla sua pace (CD1 tr. 25) is on a par with Anton Dermota’s, which is praise indeed. Robert Savoie is a good Masetto and he sounds so miserable after he has been beaten up by Don Giovanni that one almost feels his pain. David Ward is a monumental Commendatore.

There are good notes by Patrick O’Connor and the booklet also has the full libretto with English translation, as is the rule with these issues in the Royal Opera House Heritage Series.

Not a first or only choice but a splendid complement to a recording in modern sound. First class singing by all hands and one of the best Donna Annas anywhere.

Göran Forsling 




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