At first sight this set has the potential to be profoundly rewarding.
It is a recording of the 1957 revival of the Metropolitan Opera’s
production of Don Giovanni. It was a production which had
been new in 1956 with Karl Böhm as conductor both at the premiere
and on this recording. The production had debuted shortly after
Böhm’s problems at the Vienna State Opera. Böhm received excellent
reviews for the production.
The cast is headed
by the Don Giovanni du jour Cesare Siepi, supported by
the Leporello of Fernando Corena - despite his name he was Swiss-born
with a Turkish mother. The Don’s trio of ladies was Eleanor
Steber, Lisa Della Casa and Roberta Peters.
Listening to the
overture I was struck by two things, first the speed and fluidity
of Böhm’s reading, and second the awful boxiness of the sound.
Further listening did little to dispel these impressions.
Apart from one or
two slow passages, Böhm takes a quite modern view of the work
with speeds which would be quite acceptable nowadays - his is
certainly not a grand, monumental view. The fluency of the pace
is accentuated by the quite rapid speed at which Siepi and Corena
exchange dialogue in the recitative; something which might annoy
on further listening but which was probably exciting when heard
The boxiness of
the sound never really changed either and though my ears grew
accustomed to it, I felt that the sound quality did not do the
singers any favours. It does not help that the singers sound
a little recessed, to say nothing of the occasions when particular
singers go cantering off into the depths of the Met stage and
get even more distant.
On the plus side
this does sound like a real live performance, full of drama
and perfectly involving. Certainly none of the cast phoned in
their interpretations and the recitatives are full of fine interplay.
But a live performance
at the Met means that the audience applaud at the end of each
aria; they applaud once the singer has finished irrespective
of where there is a closing Ritornello. And the Zerlina, Roberta
Peters, must have been something of a house favourite as her
entrance got a round of applause as well. Some people might
not be put off by this, but I just know that I would be annoyed
on repeated listenings.
And what of the
singers? Well Siepi sings with a wonderfully dark voice, grainy
of texture but with a nice sense of line. However I can find
little of the seductive tones that I read about, neither the
Serenade nor La ci darem da mano would seduce me I’m
though fluent seems to sing the role without a smile in his
voice. The patter moments are all there and, judging by the
stage noise, there was a degree of stage business. But all this
seems to take place without humour or warmth in the voice.
Steber’s Donna Anna
rather surprised me. As displayed here, Steber did not have
the unyielding voice commonly associated with the role. She
opens with rather fluttery tones and continues in this mode
for most of the opera. There is no question that she sings quite
beautifully but it is not a version of Donna Anna that I am
By contrast Lisa
Della Casa can sounds rather steely as Donna Elvira. Della Casa
does not seem to have been having a good day. Her voice sounds
squeezed out and glutinous and at times at the top a certain
hardness enters her vocal palette. She, like many othera in
the cast, is less than ideal in the fioriture.
Jan Peerce makes
a slightly more robust Don Ottavio that we might expect today.
The down side of this is that in one or two places he sounds
a little effortful.
Roberta Peters does
impress as Zerlina. She has a bright, forward tone and captures
Zerlina’s flirtatious manner perfectly. Peters is the one singer
whom I could wholeheartedly admire on this recording. Theodor
Uppman makes a decent Masetto, though this is not a role by
which a performance of Don Giovanni can stand or fall.
Similarly Giorgio Tozzi impresses as the Commendatore.
Judging by the photographs
of the production, it is not one which would have aged well
and the large painted flats look excessively elaborate and dated,
as do the rather over-fancy costumes.
The CD booklet includes
reasonable background material on the production, the singers
and the opera along with the production photographs. There is
no synopsis and no libretto, people are presumably assumed to
know the opera well enough. The opera has to be spread over
three discs, with 12 minutes of Act 1 on the second CD and the
final 20 minutes of the opera on the third. I can’t help thinking
that they could have found a slightly better way of splitting
up the opera.
If you are particularly
interested in members of this cast then there are a number of
alternatives for you. Siepi occurs in a number of different
Don Giovanni discs, many of them live recordings. But
he also made a studio recording with Solti which is perhaps
the best way to hear him even though it was recorded later than
this live recording.
If you want to hear
Steber singing Mozart then you have to resort to one of these
live recordings. The current catalogue seems to have no trace
of any studio recordings she made. Böhm for one was very impressed
with her Mozart, though nowadays she is more associated with
the title role in Barber’s Vanessa. With Della Casa you
are on better ground as there are a number of studio recordings
of Mozart operas and quite a few live recordings from Vienna
besides the Metropolitan ones.
Apart from historical
curiosity, I cannot really see much reason for buying this disc.
If you are seriously interested in the singers involved, I would
advise investigating other sets available before committing yourself.