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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Don Giovanni (1787) [175.26]
Don Giovanni – Cesare Siepi (bass)
Donna Anna – Eleanor Steber (soprano)
Don Ottavio – Jan Peerce (tenor)
Donna Elvira – Lisa Della Casa (soprano)
Leporello – Fernando Corena (bass)
Zerlina – Roberta Peters (soprano)
Masetto – Theodor Uppmann (baritone)
Commendatore – Giorgio Tozzi (bass)
Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera House/Karl Böhm
rec. live, 14 December 1957, Radio Broadcast from Metropolitan Opera House, New York
WEST HILL RADIO ARCHIVE WHRA6011 [3 CDs: 75.37 + 79.03 + 20.46]
Experience Classicsonline

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 live.

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 afraid.

Corena, similarly, 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 used to.

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.

Robert Hugill


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