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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791)
Don Giovanni K527 (1787)
William Shimell (baritone) – Don Giovanni; Samuel Ramey (bass) – Leporello; Cheryl Studer (soprano) – Donna Anna; Carol Vaness (soprano) – Donna Elvira; Frank Lopardo (tenor) – Don Ottavio; Susanne Mentzer (mezzo) – Zerlina; Natale de Carolis (bass-baritone) – Masetto; Jan-Hendrik Rootering (bass) – Commendatore
Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor
Wiener Philharmoniker/Riccardo Muti
rec. 3–11 September 1990, Musikverein, Vienna
EMI CLASSICS 5008502 [3 CDs: 64:28 + 58:39 + 48:11]

EMI can boast a great number of excellent recordings of Don Giovanni. Back in the 1930s Fritz Busch made the first complete recording with his Glyndebourne forces. After that it took more than twenty years before a new version appeared, conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini and with Eberhard Wächter, Giuseppe Taddei, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Joan Sutherland among the soloists. This set, at present available in the GROC series, is regarded by many as the definitive recording. Klemperer recorded it in the mid-1960s with Nicolai Ghiaurov in the title role and a decade later Barenboim set it down with Roger Soyer as Don Giovanni and Geraint Evans as Leporello. In the 1980s EMI returned to Glyndebourne and took down Bernard Haitink’s view of this eternally fascinating masterpiece – Thomas Allen and Richard Van Allan were the Don and his servant. Finally, published in 1991 to coincide with the Mozart celebrations, Riccardo Muti’s Vienna recording, now returns at mid-price. It is very much Muti’s Don Giovanni, since he so distinctly sets his seal on the performance.
The overture becomes his calling card, at once revealing his approach. It is energetic, dramatic, brisk and dark. It almost always is – Mozart wrote it that way – but with Muti it is that much more, and that is typical of the whole performance. Speeds are generally on the fast side. It is a very dynamic reading and there are great contrasts. It may be a simplified analysis but Muti works with extremes: when Mozart writes ff Muti adds another f, when Mozart indicates a fermata, Muti prolongs it a bit further. Scenes where intimacy is called for are very hushed. The result can be bombastic or thrilling, depending on the listener’s preferences. Wherever our attitudes are we are definitely more than a half century forward in time and, considering that Muti first made his mark – at least as a recording conductor – as a Verdian this seems wholly relevant. One can like it or detest it but he is never indifferent.
From what I have written so far it might be easy to draw the conclusion that this is a hard-driven and insensitive reading, but it isn’t. Yes, there are places where one would have liked a little more consideration. The chorus with peasants, when we first encounter Zerlina and Masetto, is relentlessly fast and rushed, the end of the sextet is sung at breakneck speed and were it not that Samuel Ramey is such a virtuoso singer it would have been well-nigh incomprehensible. At the other extreme he conducts some of the accompanied recitatives with something close to lethargy. In quali eccessi is marked allegro assai in the score. It’s nowhere near – rather it comes to a stand-still – but it is definitely expressive. I wonder what Mozart would have thought. The finale, with the Commendatore arriving at the party, has rarely been so thrilling. Here the Italian conductor reaps laurels with his Viennese orchestra obviously adoring playing their heads off for their maestro.
With recorded sound that enhances the dynamic extremes this set needs to be played at a fairly high level, otherwise the more intimate passages and quite a lot of the recitatives, sung with pianoforte accompaniment, are too recessed.
Muti has chosen voices that correspond to his general view. The two Donne, Anna and Elvira, are sung by leading dramatic sopranos of the day: Cheryl Studer, possibly the most versatile singer since the days of Lily Lehmann, is a superb Donna Anna, regal and heroic and with all the coloratura notes of Non mi dir perfectly executed. Carol Vaness is actually another Donna Anna - this is probably the most high-strung Donna Elvira ever. The vulnerability of this unfortunate character is in a way glossed over. She has an uncommonly bright edge to her voice that isn’t inappropriate but robs her of the warmth that should be part of her character.
The third female character, the peasant girl Zerlina, is delightfully sung by the young Susanne Mentzer, who has all the innocence and warmth that the role requires. Her husband-to-be, Masetto, is splendidly sung and acted by the likewise young Natale de Carolis. This role has been a springboard to more central parts. This singer has certainly lived up to the promises made in this recording. There is a good Commendatore from the ever-reliable Jan-Hendrik Rootering. Frank Lopardo is one of the best Don Ottavios on disc, mellifluous but with a bite that makes him a character to reckon with, far more than the meek creatures one often hears in this role.
Readers may wonder why I left the protagonist and his servant to the last. Certainly not for lack of quality. William Shimell is definitely an important Don Giovanni. He is honeyed and seductive in the scene with Zerlina. His serenade would no doubt have made Elvira’s maid climb down and his aria where he disarms Masetto is powerful and expressive. On the other hand he tends to press on too much at times, notably in the trio with Elvira and Leporello early in act 2. There he is sorely strained. In the main though this is a very good reading of the role. Few if any singers have sung Leporello’s role with such ease and musicality as Samuel Ramey, but he doesn’t make much of the character. Yes, in the finale, when the Commendatore appears at Don Giovanni’s supper, he shows real fear, but otherwise he is content to sing the role with a beauty of sound and elegance that is probably unsurpassed.
I can’t believe that any serious opera lover will be satisfied with just one recording of this opera. I have listed a number of EMI recordings and there are good versions on Decca (Krips), Philips (Davis), DG (Fricsay – which was my introduction to this work almost 45 years ago) and others as well. However Muti is worth considering for an excellent cast and for his distinct – though to my mind erratic – reading that belongs in a period much later than Mozart. As usual in this series there are no texts and translations, not even a synopsis, but George Hall’s analysis is a good read, even for those who think they know the work.
Göran Forsling


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