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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791)
Don Giovanni K527 (1787)
Roger Soyer (bass) – Don Giovanni; Antigone Sgourda (soprano) – Donna Anna; Luigi Alva (tenor) – Don Ottavio; Peter Lagger (bass) – Commendatore; Heather Harper (soprano) – Donna Elvira; Sir Geraint Evans (baritone) – Leporello; Alberto Rinaldi (baritone) – Masetto; Helen Donath (soprano) – Zerlina
Scottish Opera Chorus, English Chamber Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
rec. dates and venue unknown. Published 1975
CLASSICS FOR PLEASURE 0946 3 93256 2 7 [77:33 + 79:13]


A complete Don Giovanni squeezed into two compact discs and at budget price – what a bargain! It may seem so but there are some drawbacks.

It is complete as far as the music goes; it is performed here in the (original) Prague version with the two arias that Mozart wrote for the Vienna premiere added as an appendix. That is all to the good. However, to accommodate the opera on two brimful discs quite a lot of the  recitative has been omitted. In the second act not a single recitativo secco is retained until the one with Don Ottavio and Donna Anna that leads seamlessly into Donna Anna’s recitativo accompagnato: Crudele? Ah no, mio bene and her aria Non mi dir. We also get Don Ottavio’s few bars of recitative after the aria. And then the finale begins so we do get approximately the last half-hour unbroken. Otherwise the impression left is that one is listening to a highlights disc. The fact is that a lot of important information and action is in the recitatives. When shorn of this element one loses continuity. ‘But I hate those recitatives!’ I can hear some readers exclaim. People who are very close to me feel exactly the same, but opera is also theatre and without the recitatives there many musical numbers lose their sense and setting. Take for instance the scene in act two when Don Giovanni and Leporello change clothes so that Leporello can entice Donna Elvira away while Don Giovanni pays court to her chambermaid. The scene after the trio, when Leporello tries to imitate his master and gradually comes to enjoy the theatre while Elvira is again infatuated, is lovely comedy. Then Don Giovanni frightens them away and, when alone, he sings his serenade. Here the trio and the serenade succeed each other and immediately after the serenade Don Giovanni sings the aria where he instructs Masetto how to find Don Giovanni. It makes no sense if we don’t know the situation: that Masetto and his friends have encountered Don Giovanni and told him that they are going to catch the crook and hang him. And after the aria Don Giovanni beats up Masetto and leaves him groaning on the ground. Then Zerlina comes and soothes her poor fiancé, singing the aria Vedrai carino. Here we know nothing of this – we hear just a pretty aria. I could go on with more examples but I think this gives a clue as to what is missing.

Shouldn’t those who insist that recitatives are dull and that it is the music that counts jump at this offer? Scanning the cast-list, readers who have memories of the sixties, seventies, even the eighties, will recognize several famous names. The conductor is Daniel Barenboim and he is one of the most important today. I am afraid, though, that he is the one who lets this recording down most of all. With the excellent English Chamber Orchestra in the pit – no, they are of course in a studio – I would have expected a light and springy performance. Sadly it is, by and large, plodding and long-winded. Just recently I reviewed a re-issue of another Don Giovanni from the EMI back catalogue: Riccardo Muti’s with the Vienna Philharmonic. He was rather on the fast side and played very much on extremes of dynamic and sometimes of speed. This reading is quite the opposite. Take the sextet in the third act, one of the great ensembles in the history of opera: Muti keeps things moving all the time and catches the nervousness, the suspicion, the anger, the hatred. We feel the quick movements, the heartbeats; Barenboim’s singers get a lot more time to express their feelings but there is no thrill, rather a sense of boredom. The tempo marking is andante which can be interpreted in different ways, but Barenboim is closer to largo. In the last section of the ensemble, marked molto allegro he is at least close to that. Zerlina’s two arias usually make their mark; here they fail and it is not Helen Donath’s fault or at least not in the main. This young and fresh peasant girl sounds as though she has been partying the previous night when she sings Vedrai carino.

Not everything is so wayward, several numbers are well paced and well shaped but the general feeling is like the morning after the day before. With singers of this calibre there is however still a lot to admire. Helen Donath isn’t exactly glittering but her slightly fluttery light soprano is in good shape – if uninspired. Heather Harper is a strong and dramatic Donna Elvira, maybe too strong: one listens in vain for the vulnerability and the duality that is inherent in this unhappy character. Antigone Sgourda is the great surprise here. She creates a Donna Anna with the dramatic ring that the part requires but most of all she shows deep insight and sings with great sensitivity. Her angelic pianissimos go directly to the heart. She exposes the duality that is missing in Donna Elvira. Why she isn’t better known is an enigma. Googling resulted in 1580 hits but of the first 40 or so practically everyone referred to this recording.

On the male side there is a strong and expressive Masetto in the shape of Alberto Rinaldi, who has been a reliable singing actor for several decades. Peter Lagger is unfortunately a weak Commendatore and the impact of the finale is sadly diminished by the absence of a thundering Stone Guest. Luigi Alva, always elegant and stylish, sang Don Ottavio fifteen years earlier in the legendary Giulini recording. Having, just a couple of days ago, listened to his first Count Almaviva (1957) in Il barbiere di Siviglia – his signature role – it was obvious that the intervening eighteen years had left their mark on his voice. The musicality is still there and so is his honeyed pianissimo but the tone has hardened. His vibrato at forte is slightly annoying and in Il mio tesoro he is shaky on sustained notes though his runs are fluent enough.

We need to turn to Don Giovanni himself and his man servant. Roger Soyer is given as bass and Geraint Evans as baritone but both sound like bass-baritones. Without a libretto or a score it isn’t always clear who is singing what. Soyer has the more rounded voice and his is a strong but not particularly penetrating reading. He sings his serenade with liquid tone. The second stanza is honeyed and in the aria sung before beating up Masetto he has face. Geraint Evans has face in abundance. This is after all one of his signature roles. I have recently listened to a live Falstaff from 1957 and his Leporello from Covent Garden in 1962. I expected him to be rather dry of voice at this late stage, but I was wrong. Naturally it has aged from 1962 but so has his interpretation and the voice is slightly darker. His timing and expressivity is admirable and without any element of caricature he draws a very vivid portrait of the pitiable Leporello. The best reason for acquiring this set is certainly Geraint Evans and a rare opportunity to hear Antigone Sgourda.

In the inlay there is a photo of most of the ensemble in the control room. There are no texts and translations but a synopsis where the omitted recitatives are related in brackets. Thus it is possible to get some idea about the story. For those who feel they can live happily without recitative this may be the best of two worlds. If they sense that the quality of the singing and playing are to their liking, investing in this cheap twin-pack might be a good idea. Others are advised to look elsewhere. The aforementioned Muti set, albeit on three discs, is one suggestion. For a really quick performance there’s the highly recommendable Arnold Östman on Decca - also on two discs but with recitatives! The Naxos set under Halasz and with Bo Skovhus as a splendid Don, is a good middle-of-the-road version. I could easily list another half dozen.

There’s some good singing here but the recording is let down by lethargic tempos and the omission of most of the recitative.

Göran Forsling




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