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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Don Giovanni (1787)
Don Giovanni - Christopher Maltman (baritone); Leporello - Erwin Schrott (bass-baritone); Donna Anna - Annette Dasch (soprano); Donna Elvira - Dorothea Röschmann (soprano); Commendatore - Anatoli Kotscherga (bass); Don Ottavio - Matthew Polenzani (tenor); Zerlina - Ekaterina Siurina (soprano); Masetto - Alex Esposito (bass);
Vienna State Opera Chorus;
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Bertrand de Billy
Director: Claus Guth
rec. Salzburg Festival, Haus für Mozart, July-August, 2008. DTS.
Format NTSC 16:9. PCM Stereo, Dolby 5.0 and DTS 5.0. Region code 0 (worldwide).
Subtitles in Italian (original), English, French, German and Spanish.

Experience Classicsonline

I was hardly surprised to find second-hand copies of this 2008 Salzburg Festival recording already on offer on the web at knock-down prices: you will almost certainly judge it either a masterpiece or an outrageous failure. It’s far more controversial than Bertrand de Billy’s earlier DVD recording at the Gran Teatro del Liceo, which so much impressed Colin Clarke in 2006 (Opus Arte OA0921D, Recording of the Month – see review.) It wasn’t well-received at Salzburg and I was prepared to dislike it, with Claus Guth’s reputation for gloomy productions. Wasn’t Don Giovanni supposed to be a dramma giocoso? In the event, I was very pleasantly surprised in many respects.

I’ve seen the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s contribution described as mediocre – apparently most of the booing was directed at Bertrand de Billy and the orchestra – but they give a most satisfactory account of the overture. I’m not sure how many evenings’ performances were combined to obtain the best, but I was never aware of any inadequacies on their part and there was, indeed, no booing at the end of the DVD. I’m sure, however, that there’s always an element of ‘we can play Mozart in our sleep’ for the Vienna Phil, as there is with the music of the Strauss family on New Year’s Day.

As the overture progresses we see a cameo of the fight to come, between the Commendatore and the Don – in the Christian Schmidt designed pine forest which forms the setting of this performance. Giovanni is fatally wounded by a gunshot from the Commendatore as the latter lies dying from Don Giovanni’s blow. Thus it transpires that the opera covers the last three hours of the profligate’s life, with his life-blood visibly oozing away. It’s a good idea, but it doesn’t really work. Christopher Maltman’s Don is all too alive, both physically – not surprisingly, his impressive physique is commented on in the booklet – and in vocal terms. Occasional spasms of pain are seen to cross his face and he almost faints as early as Leporello’s catalogue aria, but he soon comes back to life as he invites the wedding party to his palace.

As Leporello sings Notte e giorno faticar, his bare-chested master is at his work of seduction in the background with Donna Anna, who doesn’t seem to be entirely seriously resisting him. So far, so good – the woods, which play such a large part in the Germanic psyche, may well seem a more likely setting for the attempted seduction than the usual opening in front of the Commendatore’s house in Seville. There’s plenty of realism too – when Donna Anna sings of avenging her father’s blood, there it is on her hands – and soon it’s smeared on Don Ottavio, too.

There’s plenty of blood around in the next scene as well, as Leporello tries to tend to his wounded and bleeding master – accompanied by drug-shooting. There’s more of this later, with beer cans and joints being handed around to Zerlina and Masetto, though hardly to the extent suggested by one reviewer of the original production, who typified the concept of the Don as an anaemic fixer and denier, anämischer Fixer und Neinsager, living in the forest solely to smoke pot and swill beer with Leporello – fiffen, fixen und saufen. Fin ch’han del vino, usually dubbed the ‘champagne aria’, becomes a lager-can Bierfest.

The scene now revolves to reveal Donna Elvira waiting in a corrugated-iron bus-shelter. Giovanni climbs on the roof as Leporello sings his catalogue aria. If Maltman’s Giovanni is physically impressive, Leporello is played by Erwin Schrott in a suitably picaresque manner, singing the catalogue aria in a throwaway manner which proves oddly effective.

Giovanni’s seduction aria Là ci darem la mano was the very first excerpt from this opera that I heard – sung on a 10-inch 78 rpm disc in German (Reich mir die Hand, mein Leben) so it’s become a crucial point for me in judging performances of the whole opera. I’m happy to say that Maltman and Ekaterina Siurina sing the duet to perfection. I’m not too sure about the subsequent arrival of Don Ottavio and Donna Anna on the scene by car – with the bonnet up and urgent calls to the repair services.

Some aspects of the romp-in-the-woods scenery don’t work at all: it’s hard to imagine Giovanni summoning Donna Elvira’s servant from beneath her window on such a set – where is the finestra to which he bids her come? – and the final banquet has to take place largely in the drink-and-drug-induced imaginations of Giovanni and Leporello. There’s no Commendatore statue – merely a storm-broken tree – and the banquet takes place with the table cloth over a tree stump. Giovanni wears a Burger King paper crown and the fine wine which he praises again becomes a can of lager.

This Donna Anna takes off her shoes and outer garments and walks calmly into the woods with pistol in hand, evidently determined to end it all, with Ottavio undecided what to do about it, which I felt out of sync with the more positive view of his role projected earlier in the production. It wouldn’t work at all, of course, if the final ensemble had not been omitted.

All this is less annoying, however, than some of the distracting stage business that has appeared on some more recent opera DVDs. The same post brought me another Euroarts production which I suspect will be stronger medicine to swallow: the Stuttgart Opera’s Wagner Ring cycle, well conducted by Lothar Zagrosek, with a generally good team of singers, but controversially directed by four different producers. Act I of Siegfried set in the kitchen of Mime’s 1960s semi, a des res complete with forge in the corner, every Hausfrau’s dream, visited by a Wanderer with a very natty pair of designer shades instead of the usual eye-patch.

The singing is pretty good from all concerned. Excellently as Annette Dasch sings the part of Donna Anna, her diction is not always ideal. I see that Svetlana Doneva stepped into the role on certain nights when Dasch was indisposed, which perhaps explains why her diction was not of the best on the nights when she did perform. Perhaps, too, it explains the slight sense of occasional strain at the top of her register and volume. I don’t want to make too much of my reservations: like all the other female singers, her performance went a long way to make up for some of the oddities of the production.

Dorothea Röschmann as Elvira does even more to win me over. Even those who detested the production mostly agreed that the singing made up for a great deal.

The men, too, sing extremely well. I’ve already mentioned the extent to which Maltman’s voice is as powerful as his physique, but he can do soft and gentle, too, when it’s appropriate. Schrott almost steals the show from him in acting terms and his singing is also one of the highlights of the performance – just don’t expect the mellifluous tones of Bryn Terfel. Even when fooling around, both sing very well. When master and servant exchange clothes and roles in Act II, Maltman effectively mimics Schrott’s spaced-out mannerisms.

Matthew Polenzani largely rescues Don Ottavio from the role of wimp to which he is often reduced, with Della sua pace receiving a round of applause, and Alex Esposito makes a convincing Masetto, vocally and dramatically, in a role which is not always easy to bring off. Inevitably, though, even he is down-staged and out-sung by Siurina as Zerlina and Polenzani is also overshadowed by Dasch’s Donna Anna. Anatoli Kotscherga sounds suitably commanding as the Commendatore.

Like the 1788 Viennese libretto, this production omits the final ensemble – after Giovanni’s descent to Hell, the rest is silence. Though this flies in the face of almost unanimous modern practice, I found it extremely effective.

The recording sounds good, even when played via television speakers – it’s even better when played through an AV receiver and large speakers.

The picture quality is very good throughout, even on DVD. With up-scaling from my player, I can’t imagine that the higher density version Blu-ray is much of an improvement on this occasion, apart from the kind of picture ‘noise’ from the grille of the car, which the newer format usually corrects. My copy suffered from one brief dropout near the end of the second DVD, which was a trifle annoying but not disastrous. I note that the Blu-ray is currently less expensive than the DVD from one supplier.

As I close this review, I see that this set has already received a 5-star accolade from one reviewer. I wouldn’t go that far – I’d be hovering between 3 and 4 – but I shall keep these DVDs. They won’t be my first choice, but they will do very nicely as a supplement to Riccardo Muti’s 1999 DVD recording (TDK 205545 or DVW-OPDG or Arthaus 107101) and the classic audio recordings of Josef Krips (Decca Heritage 478 1389) and Carlo Maria Giulini (recently reissued on EMI Opera 9667992), both very reasonably priced.

Brian Wilson



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