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A survey of some major recordings of Mozart’s Don Giovanni
By Ralph Moore

I must first issue a disclaimer by making it clear that not only is this survey very limited in scope but the outcome for my top recommendations has already been decided and posted in the “Too many to choose from” section of my previous “Untouchable” and ”Most Recommendable” Opera Recordings, in which I wrote of Josef Krips 1955 account , “Around 200 recordings attest to the popularity and allure of an opera which surely approaches perfection…I rate highly the recordings conducted by Giulini and Davis, but ultimately favour above all this vintage set.”

Let me begin, however, by adumbrating my three essential criteria for selecting a great performance of Don Giovanni:

First, the opera’s full title is “Il dissoluto punito ossia il Don Giovanni – Dramma giocoso in due atti” (The Rake Punished or Don Giovanni – comic drama in two Acts). The Italian word “giocoso” is not easily translatable into English; we have the rather antiquated “jocose” and “jocular” which mean “playful” or “humorous” but the Italian original also carries overtones of “facetious”, “ironic” and even “light-hearted”, especially when it is used in a literary context, all of which clearly indicates that although at its climax the wicked reprobate is condemned to eternal damnation, it is nonetheless primarily a comedy and we are not to consider the punishment of a serial abuser, liar and fornicator as tragic. Recordings which drive too hard and present a relentlessly grim, humourless Giovanni of the kind both Fischer-Dieskau and Tito Gobbi – two very different singers – impersonate, are missing a necessary dimension – although Gobbi compensates via his ability to suggest a suave charm which eludes the hectoring Fischer-Dieskau. As I said in my previous survey, the opera “gains an extra and very modern edginess via its moral ambiguity in placing an anti-hero centre-stage”, so Don Giovanni may be a moral degenerate but he must also be a complex, intermittently seductive figure whose sexual magnetism is as apparent to the audience as it is to the women he entices. Remember, too, that Mozart and Da Ponte knew what they were doing and what they wanted to do when, to conclude the opera, they provided the moralising chorus in a cheerful D major. It so jarred and outraged those who staged its premiere in Prague that the final ensemble was cut and for a century was omitted in performance; now producers and audiences know better and we understand its function in the dramaturgy.

Secondly, Don Giovanni is decidedly a Grand Opera requiring large, flexible voices and sizeable forces; scrawny period performances with oratorio-sized resources and small-voiced singers giving “intimate”, small-scale accounts will not do. If those blasted D minor chords opening the overture do not pin back the listener’s ears or the stentorian demonic chorus accompanying Giovanni’s descent into hell does not chill the blood, then all is lost. For that reason, I discount the most recent studio recording from René Jacobs – which was, in fact, made as long ago as 2006 – and Roger Norrington’s 1992 effort.

Finally, it may be a foible, but for me a Don Giovanni without a truly imposing Commendatore is equally flawed. The casting of that role forms the only arguable weakness in both Krips’ and Furtwängler's recordings, where Kurt Böhme and "Cave Man” Josef Greindl respectively have at least the size and weight, but not the line, of a great Commendatore;  for the ideal representation of that part, vocally and visually, turn to the YouTube clip of Kurt Moll, mightily scary and complete with a rumbling low D. That is a live performance with a fine cast conducted by Levine available only on DVD; unfortunately, the demons there are far too recessed and Moll’s only studio recording under Solti has some weaknesses (see below).

For some, the question of the voice-type in the casting of Don Giovanni is important, insisting that either a baritone, a bass-baritone or even a true bass is required. I am less fastidious, in that I think there are successful assumptions of the role from singers spanning all three categories. A bass must avoid sounding too avuncular or lugubrious but a baritone needs to have sufficient weight and bite to sound menacing. Soft-grained baritones such as Thomas Hampson for Harnoncourt cannot do justice to the role and some of that voice type resort to too much barking in attempt to sound virile and predatory. On the other hand, some basses sound too hieratic; we cannot have Sarastro getting frisky. To cite successful assumptions from each of those three voice categories, all of which succeed for different reasons, I can point to baritone Eberhard Wächter, bass-baritone George London and bass Cesare Siepi. Whereas Zerlina is much more straightforwardly for a light, lyric soprano and Elvira can be sung by either a mezzo or a soprano, there is a similar issue with the role of Donna Anna, where we sometimes encounter problems with gusty, big-voiced dramatic sopranos struggling with Donna Anna where a coloratura facility is required as well as power. The role of Don Ottavio is hardly a gift in that he is a terrible stuffed shirt who must win us over by beauty of voice. The greatest tenor in that role was John McCormack but he never made a complete recording; in my judgement, subsequent exponents who come nearest to his quality are Stuart Burrows and Cesare Valletti who both fortunately feature in several accounts.

I find it interesting that several pre-eminent “Big Beast” conductors did not enjoy any great success with their solitary studio recordings. I would include in that category Klemperer, Karajan, Böhm and Solti. I look to other conductors for my own favourite versions. There have, in fact been remarkably few studio recordings over the last fifty years and I would say that most were weakly cast.

I consider here twenty-one recordings – a mere fraction – barely 10%! - of the total in the catalogue and obviously they are necessarily only those with which I happen to be familiar. Most I like, but I include a few reviews which serve as caveats. I have included quite a few historical and mono recordings, some for their exceptional quality or because they occupy a special place in operatic history, such as the first two featuring Pinza.

Bruno Walter – 1942 (live; mono) Naxos
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus
Don Giovanni - Ezio Pinza
Donna Anna - Rose Bampton
Don Ottavio - Charles Kullman
Donna Elvira - Jarmila Novotná
Leoporello - Alexander Kipnis
Il Commendatore - Norman Cordon
Masetto - Mack Harrell
Zerlina - Bidù Sayão

This portrayal of Don Giovanni by Ezio Pinza is for many the definitive but the potential buyer must be alerted that despite Naxos's expert clean-up of the original 78's, the sound is still fuzzy and congested. Individual voices emerge best from the orchestral soup and we can hear the allure of Pinza's suave and saturnine seducer. Walter is big-scale conductor who pushes hard without much subtlety but he certainly generates tension and drama. For example, the sestet "Mille orbidi pensieri" is thrilling in its headlong pace.

Mention has been elsewhere of the surprising success of casting Kipnis as Leporello despite his Slavic Italian and he keeps up with Pinza in their quick - very quick - fire exchanges. I like Rose Bampton's large, powerful and highly expressive Donna Anna who is completely on top of the fearsome demands of "Or sai che l'onore". Charles Kuhlmann is fine if nothing special as Ottavio and his tenor is more virile than it was to become in the 50's but he only just hangs on to the line in the trickier parts of "Il mio tesoro". Sayão is a delightful, pert, pure-voiced Zerlina, the best on record, I think. Novotna is a faintly tremulous but impassioned and fiery Elvira, slightly lacking in her lower register. Mack Harrell makes more of Masetto than some of his successors and he has more than enough voice for a part which is too often under-cast. Norman Cordon is not the biggest, blackest Commendatore but, again, is more than adequate and has enough volume and steady intensity to chill the listener.

Pinza himself, of course, had the smoothest, darkest and most flexible of basses, easily able to encompass the vocal demands of the role while always suggesting the wit and charm without which Don Giovanni is a detestable thug. Tito Gobbi's beautifully vocalised Giovanni comes, for some, perilously close to being a hard, snarling villain whereas the lilt and twinkle in Pinza's manner is always beguiling, suggestive of his humour and animal magnetism. He was, by all accounts, as enthusiastic a seducer in real life as the character he plays here.

Above all, this performance gels as an ensemble piece which successfully captures the febrile pace and momentum of this opera as primarily a piece of drama rather than just a display of accomplished singing. I can well understand why, despite its sonic limitations, for many it continues to put subsequent recordings in the shade.

Paul Breisach – 1943 (live extended excerpts; mono) Guild
Metropolitan Opera & Chorus
Don Giovanni - Ezio Pinza
Donna Anna - Zinka Milanov
Don Ottavio - James Melton
Donna Elvira - Jarmila Novotná
Leoporello - Salvatore Baccaloni
Il Commendatore - Norman Cordon
Masetto - Mack Harrell
Zerlina - Bidù Sayão

I am a great fan of many of the Guild "Immortal Performances", admiring the sedulousness with which Richard Caniell struggles to remedy and patch in order to give us the best possible chance of recapturing a vanished listening experience.

However, despite my acknowledging Ezio Pinza as the greatest 20C Don Giovanni and being able to hear the supremacy of his subtle, smooth, suave, seductive and saturnine seducer (I am currently into alliteration), not a great deal else about this radio broadcast recording seduces the Zerlina in my feminine side.

First, the sound remains dry and dim, transferred from very noisy 78's or dragging tape with even the singers often being very much in the background; Novotna in particular suffering presumably from upstage placement from the microphones, as we know - and can almost hear - that she was a famous Elvira. The conducting is alternately lethargic and scrambled; everything is either very slow or hectic and as a result I don't find it generates much drama or tension. I've never heard of the conductor and now I know why. Both sound and conducting deteriorate in the last, crucial scene so that the finale is almost inaudible in practical terms; it's a wall of confused noise. I continue to get into trouble with her fans for not being a Milanov devotee and saying so; here, she is constantly and hysterically over-singing. Maybe that's good characterisation for the hyper-sensitive Donna Anna but it doesn't make for pleasant listening. She's best in "Non mi dir" but there are still the issues of uncertain pitch and a wobbly vibrato. As the notes point out, despite being a very celebrated Leporello, Baccaloni is not in good voice, singing flat in "Madamina" and too often resorting to a kind of gruff, "fruffly" parlando. Furthermore, ignoramuses in the audience applaud half way through that aria.

Sayão is OK as Zerlina but rather "Minnie Mouse" in tone. James Melton sings sturdily without much variation or imagination and rightfully earns applause for his arias - but there is a jump in the middle of "Il mio tesoro", which is in any case cut -presumably, despite the wrath directed towards Guild by a previous reviewer, this was the case in performance and not Guild's fault. The Masetto veers between adequate and sub-par blubbing.

So what, apart from Pinza's Don Giovanni, is so good about this seventy-two-year-old recording? The quick-fire exchanges in the dialogue between master and servant by two native Italians. Norman Cordon's imposing Commendatore. The Trio which concludes Act One; how I love that music.

Otherwise, what's the fuss about? To hear Pinza at his best with a superior cast and conductor, go the Met performance from the previous year, still in poor sound but certainly preferable to this one.

Wilhelm Furtwängler – 1950 (live; mono) EMI; Archipel; Opera d’Oro
Orchestra - Wiener Philharmoniker
Chorus - Wiener Staatsoper
Don Giovanni - Tito Gobbi
Donna Anna - Ljuba Welitsch
Don Ottavio - Anton Dermota
Donna Elvira - Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
Leoporello - Erich Kunz
Il Commendatore - Josef Greindl
Masetto - Alfred Poell
Zerlina - Irmgard Seefried

The greatest strength of this recording, despite the superlative conducting of Furtwängler and the warmth of the VPO, is the degree to which characters are differentiated vocally and dramatically.

The vocal personalities here are utterly apt and distinct: Gobbi, with his clean, high baritone and flickering vibrato, is incisive and seductive but with a distinctly sadistic side which many would consider wholly appropriate, as Don Giovanni is really not so alluring a personality behind his superficially impressive animal drive. Erich Kunz's slightly lumpen, rotund bass-baritone makes an excellent contrast with his suave employer; for once master and servant are instantly identifiable the moment they open their mouths. The real revelation for me here was Welitsch's noble, bright and fearless Donna Anna: her pitch is spot on and she brings some of Nilsson's steely, open assurance to her singing, suggesting a purity and naivety which are just right for the part. The voice sounds huge. By contrast, Schwarzkopf's Elvira is far warmer and earthier - febrile and hysterical as it should be - and as well sung as anything I've heard her do. Poell is bland but fine as Masetto; Seefried is pretty as Zerlina. Greindl is rough but imposing as the Commendatore. Dermota is sometimes short of breath but somehow so pleasing with his plangent tone and impeccable phrasing.

Ignore the odd blip and the plonking harpsichord; tolerate the limited but clean mono sound; revel in Furtwängler's sure command - and enjoy a collection of the finest voices to be found in Salzburg that summer - or in any season, era or location - performing a masterwork.

Max Rudolf – 1953 (studio; mono) Warner Fonit
RAI Torino Orchestra & Chorus
Don Giovanni - Giuseppe Taddei
Donna Anna - Maria Curtis Verna
Don Ottavio - Cesare Valletti
Donna Elvira - Carla Gavazzi
Leoporello - Italo Tajo
Il Commendatore - Antonio Zerbini
Masetto - Vito Susca
Zerlina - Elda Ribetti

Valletti's assumption of Ottavio here is a cut above, Taddei is at his characterful best and the mono sound is much more than acceptable for the era - but I think, too, that some of the casting here, especially in the three women, is dubious. Neither of the two big roles is in Mozartian style. I enjoy Maria/Mary Curtis Verna elsewhere (such as in her Cetra Aida or La Gioconda, both with Corelli), but here she is really labouring. Every top note is scooped with a kind of clumsy portamento through her wide vibrato, and her coloratura is at best approximate. She makes much of her elegant but impassioned music sound simply effortful and strained. Similarly, Gavazza - great in verismo roles - sounds as if she has strayed in from the wrong opera and the Zerlina, too, is undistinguished. The men are much better and it's good to hear Taddei as Don Giovanni rather than in his more celebrated role as Leporello (in the Giulini recording); his lilting, mezza-voce Serenade is a particular delight, but he can still, at times, sound bumpy. I find the Masetto simply inadequate, vocally: a dry, elderly sound. Zerbini is fair as the Commendatore but hardly spine-chilling. Chief pleasure - apart from Valletti's contribution - comes from hearing Tajo and Taddei strike sparks off each other in the recitativo and their quickfire exchanges in the duets; only Italians can handle the language like that - but again, vocally I find Tajo ordinary. And, finally, the piano accompaniment to the recitative, although standard at the time, sounds really incongruous to modern ears.

The conducting is efficient, the sound excellent and it's not a bad way to get to know this great work - but it's certainly not my favourite. If you want to hear a big soprano voice still effectively negotiate Mozart's vocal line, try Arroyo on the splendid Davis set. I really wanted to like this issue but ultimately find that it has too many flaws to make it the version to live with.

Josef Krips – 1955 (studio; stereo) Decca; Membran
Orchestra - Wiener Philharmoniker
Chorus - Wiener Staatsoper
Don Giovanni - Cesare Siepi
Donna Anna - Suzanne Danco
Don Ottavio - Anton Dermota
Donna Elvira - Lisa Della Casa
Leporello - Fernando Corena
Il Commendatore - Kurt Böhme
Masetto - Walter Berry
Zerlina - Hilde Güden

This has long been considered a classic recording and is unlikely ever to be surpassed now; a bonus is the fact that it is recorded in very early and very acceptable stereo sound, clean, crisp and beautifully balanced. This enshrines arguably the greatest exponent of the eponymous role alongside Ezio Pinza in Cesare Siepi’s suave, saturnine Giovanni. His big, warm voice - a proper basso cantante – was ideally suited to portraying the libidinous Giovanni in that he could sound both seductive and menacing. I like the way his boundless over-confidence points towards his defiant downfall.

His co-singers include some of the most refined and elegant artists ever to grace a stage, including Anton Dermota, who, with a very different but in some ways equally seductive, reedy tenor not so different tonally from Schipa’s, follows John McCormack and demonstrates his breath control by delivering the long phrase of "cercate" in "Il mio tesoro" without break. You could not name two more agile, precise, silvery Mozartians than Suzanne Danco and Lisa Della Casa and Hilde Güden’s pert Zerlina completes an ideal soprano trio. Corena’s knowing Leporello is steadily sung with sustained, resonant tone and it’s a pleasure to hear how cleanly he enunciates his words in his lively interactions with Siepi; we are free of the Germanic Italian which afflicts some contemporary accounts. A young Walter Berry is ideal as Masetto – who can be a bit of a bore if the buffo “peasant” style is overdone. A minor weakness resides in Kurt Böhme’s Commendatore which could be steadier and more imposing of tone in the manner of Frick, Moll or Crass, but he will do. All the participants blend to make a wonderful ensemble. I would like a little more spring and momentum in the overture, but after that and Krips’ conducting, lyrical and exuberant by turns but essentially non-interventionist, ensures sparkling playing from a great orchestra as he simply lets the music flow at the right pace.

Rudolf Moralt – 1955 (studio; stereo) Decca Eloquence
Orchestra - Wiener Symphoniker
Chorus - Wiener Kammerchor
Don Giovanni - George London
Donna Anna - Hilde Zadek
Don Ottavio - Léopold Simoneau
Donna Elvira - Sena Jurinac
Leoporello - Walter Berry
Il Commendatore - Ludwig Weber
Masetto - Eberhard Wächter (Waechter)
Zerlina - Graziella Sciutti

I reviewed this in 2016:

I part company with my esteemed MusicWeb colleague Göran Forsling regarding the merits of the eponymous anti-hero of this 1955 recording, released the following year as part of the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. In his review of the Preiser issue of this performance, he finds George London’s Don Giovanni to be generally “blustery and unlovable” and his singing “rather crude and unrelenting”, with a champagne aria which is “breathless and badly articulated”, but concedes that George London does on occasion “soften his tone” and produce some “honeyed phrases” in the canzonetta.

To some degree one’s reaction depends on how likeable one wants a Don Giovanni to be; the Gobbi school of Don Giovannis snarls and bites as well as purrs, whereas the Siepi-Wächter type of Don is more elegant and seductive. All those singers have superb voices, so this is a question of characterisation and, for me, a more dangerous Don Giovanni works. London has a big, burly voice, perhaps ultimately better suited to Wagner and villains, but my preferred Don Giovanni is more of the latter type and I don’t mind the bully-boy affect. London does indeed often sing quietly, as in a mellifluous “Là ci darem la mano”, nor do I agree that the champagne aria is poorly sung; it is certainly taken very fast but London keeps up and his Italian is always pellucid; he was a first-rate linguist.

That one difference apart, we are mostly in agreement over the merits of this set, although I find Ludwig Weber’s cavernous-voiced Commendatore to be a bit unwieldy. However, I find the ghostly distancing of his almost murmured imprecation of Don Giovanni in the churchyard to be chillingly effective, different from the usual thunderous denunciation. I also agree that “the little recorded” Hilde Zadek’s Donna Anna is “intensely dramatic though slightly squally at times” and concur that “Non mi dir” is “superb and [that] she sings with steady tone and fine legato.” Her intonation is spot on and her vibrant, occasionally shrill soprano is not inapt for the distraught and even hysterical Donna Anna, although the edge in the sound is not ideal for the high tessitura of “Or sai chi l’onore”. Léopold Simoneau’s Don Ottavio is a dream: he, too, has perfect Mozartian legato and is invariably sweet of voice without sounding wimpish. Equally fine is Sena Jurinac’s Donna Elvira, making much of a beast of a role. Rather than the “firebrand” or “wildcat” type of Elvira presented by Schwarzkopf in the same era, hers is a powerful but creamy-voiced assumption, more in the young Te Kanawa style, with flawless technique in the coloratura passages and totally even tone throughout her range. Graziella Sciutti is not as meltingly charming as Mirella Freni as Zerlina but she is still very good: pert, pretty and agile. The duo of young baritones singing Leporello and Masetto acquit themselves magnificently: Berry is humorous, sardonic and clean-voiced, as he was in Klemperer’s studio recording eleven years later, his tone well differentiated from London’s fruitier sound; Wächter is fresh and precise, not one of those “fruffly”, ageing bass-baritones too often cast in what should be a youthful part.

Rudolf Moralt was a stalwart of the VSO and will be known to some collectors as the conductor of an excellent, complete, studio “Ring” from 1948-49. To call his conducting “unobtrusive” might be to damn it with faint praise, but everything he does is apt and right; he paces the progression towards the climax of the opera perfectly and some key moments, such as the trio “Protegga il giusto ciel” (misprinted as “Pretegga” in the booklet) in the ball scene, are sublime. The orchestra is fleet and neat, the chorus excellent. The mono sound is very acceptable: slightly tubby but full and clean, at times almost fooling the ear to sound like early stereo. The harpsichord accompagnato is rather too prominent, however. A bonus is the fact that the whole cast sings in excellent Italian rather than the “qvesto-qvi” Teutonic variety too often encountered in recordings of this period; the exchanges between Don Giovanni and Leporello sparkle.

The notes provide track listings, a cast list, a plot synopsis and a historical-biographical essay; no libretto, of course.

I reviewed the following two recordings comparatively back in 2008; we no longer use the side-by-side review format at Music Web but I reproduce that review, slightly modified, beneath the two recordings here:
 
Wilhelm Furtwängler – 1953 (live; mono) Music & Arts
Salzburg Festival Orchestra and Chorus
Don Giovanni - Cesare Siepi
Donna Anna - Elisabeth Grümmer
Don Ottavio - Anton Dermota
Donna Elvira - Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
Leoporello - Otto Edelmann
Il Commendatore - Raffaele Ariè
Masetto - Walter Berry
Zerlina - Erna Berger

Karl Böhm – 1957 (live; mono) Andromeda; Music & Arts; West Hill Radio Archives
Metropolitan Opera & Chorus
Don Giovanni - Cesare Siepi
Donna Anna - Eleanor Steber
Don Ottavio - Jan Peerce
Donna Elvira - Lisa Della Casa
Leoporello - Fernando Corena
Il Commendatore - Giorgio Tozzi
Masetto - Theodor Uppman
Zerlina - Roberta Peters

Comparison between these two sets is illuminating as both of these 1950s live recordings feature Cesare Siepi in probably his most celebrated role. Each production is representative of a golden age for their respective houses.

It is initially tempting to fall into glib generalisations about each conductor: Fürtwängler will be grand, magisterial, monolithic; Böhm, fleet, alert, more alive to dramatic nuance. Comparison of the overtures seems to reinforce that impression: a timing of 6:54 for Fürtwängler confirms his preference for “grandiose solemnity”, while Böhm, at 5:35, opts for a lither, more sprung pace, the strings scampering breathlessly. Yet ultimately Fürtwängler’s apparent slowness results in a performance a mere three minutes slower than Böhm overall, so that first impression is clearly deceptive. Nonetheless, Böhm’s interpretation conforms to what might be termed an American stereotype: direct, immediate, and unpretentious, whereas Fürtwängler’s prevailing tone is essentially that of an epic morality play: stern and Germanic. Neither is especially redolent of the “dramma giocoso” Mozart and Da Ponte apparently had in mind, but perhaps that was just an ironic false trail. In any case, both interpretations are successful, convincing and balanced. Despite his essential seriousness, Fürtwängler achieves considerable lightness of touch in more comical scenes, such as the serenade and his exchanges with Leporello, and conversely there is no lack of weight in Böhm’s handling of the darker moments. Böhm creates more of the sense of an integrated musical drama; Fürtwängler is more authoritative but also a little enervated; his Don Giovanni has more of the mood of Fidelio about it and is more static in quality.

Sound might be an issue for the collector but both sets have been expertly restored and are eminently listenable. The Salzburg performance conveys more sense of the stage; the voices have much more space around them than those at the Metropolitan, and are more often distant, a little muffled and off-mike. This ambience accords with Fürtwängler’s darker, more mysterious interpretation but the echo blurs individual lines in ensembles. The Metropolitan radio broadcast features clearer, brighter, slightly edgier sound which, again, suits the conductor’s approach but is marginally less atmospheric and theatrical, with the singers more immediate and present.

If you can accept a bass in the eponymous role, Siepi is without equal; smooth, dangerous and burnished of tone. He reproduces the same striking portrayal in both performances and is as seductive as one could wish: predatory yet oleaginously charming in his scenes with Zerlina; saturnine and violent when he despatches the Commendatore with a blood-curdling snarl. He is interpretation remains remarkably consistent between 1953 and 1957 and just as Fürtwängler’s conducting is closer to that of Klemperer, Siepi’s Don Giovanni most resembles that of Nicolai Ghiaurov. If you prefer a baritone in the role, look elsewhere; otherwise, this assumption approaches the ideal.

Both casts are as fine as could be mustered at that time – and that, it has to be said is very fine. The delight of the Metropolitan recording is Eleanor Steber in her prime: febrile, vibrant, and gloriously unhinged as Donna Anna. Elisabeth Grümmer shares those qualities with Steber but is marginally over-parted and the top of her voice can be a little shrill. Both are infinitely touching upon discovering their murdered father, but Steber exhibits a fundamentally richer, fuller tone than Grümmer can muster - and a hint of the Germanic “v” occasionally creeps in to Grümmer’s Italian in lines such as “Quello sangue”. Conversely, Della Casa’s beautifully vocalised but placid Elvira is wholly outclassed by Schwarzkopf’s febrile “grande dame”; Schwarzkopf brings real temperament to the role. Both Zerlinas are lovely little minxes, Berger being especially pleasing and sounding quite the faux-ingénue even at 53 years old. The Masettos are as pointedly characterised as one would wish (the young Walter Berry already shining) and there is little to choose between Corena and Edelmann as Leporello; both are splendid vocal actors although Edelmann is a little dour and has pitch problems in his “Madamina”. Both Commendatores are suitably terrifying and redoubtable, Tozzi more cutting and focused of tone, Arie providing a louder, coarser wall of sound. As for the Don Ottavio – a relatively small but crucial role, especially as he so often comes across as a real stuffed shirt – reactions to both tenors will be mixed. Dermota sings elegantly, if a little nasally, deploying his mezza voce tastefully but clearly lacking the breath to “do a McCormack” with his arias, whereas the under-rated and prodigiously versatile Jan Peerce demonstrates that he has the diaphragmatic control to tackle those fiendish runs in one long breath. The voice itself is a little large and effortful for Mozart but he has all the notes - including the low ones that Dermota lacks – and manages to infuse the milksop Ottavio with real virility. I find his characterisation to be a refreshing change – and clearly the audience loved it, too. However, it is only fair to point out that the applause of the Salzburg audience equally demonstrates its approval of Dermota’s refinement.

If you want Fürtwängler in Don Giovanni, this is the best of his three live recordings both in terms of sound and performance; otherwise, for me, the Metropolitan performance just has the edge - although I regret the absence of Schwarzkopf’s Elvira, despite my not usually being an admirer. If you are tolerant of mono sound, you cannot go wrong with either of the versions reviewed here.

Dimitri Mitropoulos – 1956 (live; mono) Sony
Orchestra - Wiener Philharmoniker
Chorus - Wiener Staatsoper
Don Giovanni - Cesare Siepi
Donna Anna - Elisabeth Grümmer
Don Ottavio - Léopold Simoneau
Donna Elvira - Lisa Della Casa
Leoporello - Fernando Corena
Il Commendatore - Gottlob Frick
Masetto - Walter Berry
Zerlina - Rita Streich

It is interesting that Sony have seen fit to issue this live, mono 1956 recording in their bargain "Sony Opera House" series, as at first glance its vintage status and sound would seem to exclude it from the company of more modern sets - but Sony was right to do so, as this is as good a performance as we could hope to hear.

The 1950's were something of a Golden Age for Don Giovanni, especially with the great Don Giovanni du jour Siepi ubiquitous and artists such as Gobbi standing in the wings if necessary. A roster of Mozartians including Schwarzkopf, Dermota, Della Casa, Frick, Gueden, Grümmer and on and on was available to the big houses and conductors such as Furtwängler, Krips and Mitropoulos all left us superb accounts, both live and studio readings, to choose from.

The main drawback here for the audiophile will be the mono sound but it is surprising clear and vivid, apart from the times when the recitativo is a bit too far back on stage. There is an element of pre-echo, a little coughing and thumping, intrusive applause and even the constant rustling of Donna Elvira's crinolines when she's on stage - but the latter tells you how immediate the sound actually is. We hear a big acoustic which recreates a theatrical atmosphere and for the most part I am too absorbed in the drama of the representation to fret about any sonic deficiencies.

Let me say straight away that I was struck by how completely this performance resolves the issues I found wanting in the much more recent Nézet-Séguin concert version from Baden-Baden. Here is the drama, the electricity in the air that I found so lacking in the Festspielhaus. The last scene is the best I know - thrilling in its intensity, sustaining a manic, febrile tension before resolving into the serene exchange between Donna Anna and Don Ottavio followed by the consolatory (but possibly slyly ironic) sextet which concludes the "dramma giocoso". First fun, then terror, then peace; Mitropoulos encompasses all the moods in masterly fashion.

His conducting is more extreme than Furtwängler's marmoreal conception, Krips' concentrated focus, or Böhm's fleet propulsion but to me he gets everything right; no messing about with tempi in the self-conscious manner of Nézet-Séguin, whose lugubrious "Deh vieni" is absurd. Under Mitropoulos, the score is constantly shifting, lilting and lifting when it should without losing momentum.

The cast is near perfect. The women have light, silvery voices but plenty of penetrative power. Elisabeth Grümmer's soprano burns with slender, steely, acetylene flame; della Casa is similarly impressive. Her Elvira is not the spitfire that Schwarzkopf gives us but is more poignant. She has real command over the fioriture of "Ah fuggi"; her soaring roulades and fluting top notes sail over the audience like flares. When she and Grümmer are joined by Simoneau's Ottavio in their trio "Protegga il giusto cielo" we are in Mozart heaven. Simoneau is sweet, elegant and long-breathed in the traditional "wimpish" Ottavio manner but beautifully sung; all the artists here are rightly applauded at length after their big arias.

Siepi gives us yet again the silkiest, smoothest Don Giovanni who is the epitome of saturnine seductiveness and there is always the necessary hint of menace in that dark tone. Corena's heavy bass is much better suited to Leporello than recent exponents such as Pisaroni whose voice is too light. Although he can be a mite clumsy, Corena is a proper buffo, funny and expressive in the Geraint Evans mode, contrasting well with Siepi's nobler sound. The young Walter Berry is fresh-voiced and agile as Masetto while his Zerlina is the excellent Rita Streich, pert, pretty, with a fast vibrato and real charm; "La ci darem la mano" is as beguiling as it should be. To round it all off, Gottlob Frick's Commendatore is one of the most chilling on record; his majestic black bass sets the right tone and pins back the ears in a manner that few basses today can emulate.

This recording will satisfy all but the ardent audiophile.

Carlo Maria Giulini – 1959 (studio; stereo) EMI; Pristine Audio
Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus
Don Giovanni - Eberhard Wächter
Donna Anna - Joan Sutherland
Don Ottavio - Luigi Alva
Donna Elvira - Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
Leoporello - Giuseppe Taddei
Il Commendatore - Gottlob Frick
Masetto - Piero Cappuccilli
Zerlina - Graziella Sciutti

I reviewed the Pristine issue of this classic recording back in 2012 and reproduce that review, slightly modified, here:

Although previous issues going back to 1987 are fine, EMI managed to botch its 2002 re-mastering of this famous recording in their Great Recordings of the Century series, which is muffled, with all the upper frequencies removed. I found a very acceptable alternative in an issue on the Alto label which retains a little background hiss but no more than I would expect from a 1959 recording transferred from LPs, the very occasional click being in evidence. However, this Pristine transfer from clean LPs is now easily the best option: some slight sharpness in the LPs has been corrected, all clicks removed and the now celebrated Pristine Audio XR re-mastering treatment by Andrew Rose has rendered it superlative: warm, clear and spacious. The original EMI engineering was in any case always very good indeed.

For all its fame and excellence, there are reasons to deny this account the epithet "perfect" - but a heck of a lot is very right indeed, starting with Giulini's magisterial direction, which is sprung, flexible and subtle, with none of the excessive leisureliness which sometimes afflicted his later conducting. The Philharmonia Orchestra is simply wonderful.

The cast is superb, though I have reservations about a couple of things, starting with Taddei's tendency to ham it up too much with some nasal affectations and barking to accentuate things that are already intrinsically funny and are better delivered in a sly rather than a histrionic manner. He also loses tonal quality too often, such as in an ugly sustained D on "maestosa". Nonetheless, he is a good foil to Wächter's silky Don Giovanni in their quick-fire exchanges, despite their voices being too similar in recitative if you are used to a bass such as Siepi or Ghiaurov as Giovanni. Wächter is aggressive, driven and able to signal that he is deliberately and cynically turning on the seductive charm to further his sex addiction. Many will welcome a baritone Don Giovanni as more appropriate both to the tessitura of the music and the character of opera’s favourite roué.

Sutherland's Donna Anna is a surprise and simply the best on record: agile, huge and gorgeous of tone and even well characterised in so far as it is possible to enliven such a starchy soul. The contrast with Schwarzkopf's febrile Elvira is telling; she had already been singing this role for a decade and it suited her voice and talents ideally. Luigi Alva sings with both more beauty of line and steel in his tone than I had remembered. Sciutti is average as Zerlina, Cappuccilli hectoring as Masetto and the great Gottlob Frick very unsteady indeed in the opening scene - but he warms up nicely for an appropriately chilling and sepulchral Commendatore in the crucial final showdown.

As is normally the case with Pristine, there is little in the booklet apart from the tracking cues, excerpts from a “Gramophone” review of a previous issue and a note from the engineer; otherwise, one may go online for full programme notes.

Erich Leinsdorf – 1959 (studio; stereo) Decca
Orchestra - Wiener Philharmoniker
Chorus - Wiener Staatsoper
Don Giovanni - Cesare Siepi
Donna Anna - Birgit Nilsson
Don Ottavio - Cesare Valletti
Donna Elvira - Leontyne Price
Leoporello - Fernando Corena
Il Commendatore - Arnold Van Mill
Masetto - Heinz Blankenburg
Zerlina - Eugenia Ratti

This is Grand Opera done in the grand style, very well recorded in first rate stereo sound with an orchestra which has the opera in its DNA under a conductor whose best work was always in opera and a cast comprised of the finest exponents of their roles as available in 1959.

Heading that cast is one of the two or three indisputably greatest Don Giovannis of the 20C, Cesare Siepi, the epitome of saturnine charm and leonine elegance. Cesare Valletti was an under-rated tenore di grazia who sounds a little weedy and tentative in his first entry but soon warms up to sing one of the most graceful, long-breathed Don Ottavios on record. Leontyne Price was at the at time alternating the role of Elvira with that of Donna Anna and if anything sounds more comfortable here in that slightly lower-lying part, her vibrant tone lending a welcome touch of hysteria to her characterisation. Fernando Corena is an old school "fruffly-wuffly", funny-voiced Leporello which for me borders on hamminess but he is wholly inside the role partnering his master expertly, commenting knowingly on proceedings. Heinz Blankenburg made a light, clean-voiced Figaro at Glyndebourne a few years later and is here an equally pleasing Masetto. Leinsdorf's tempi, phrasing and emphases seem entirely appropriate to me, without any excesses and the supper scene rocks, the momentum and tension mounting from the very opening whereas too many conductors go off the boil here.

Drawbacks? They range from the minor or negligible, such as Siepi's Milanesi, frenchified "r" which annoys some listeners - he tamed it as his career progressed - to the more pertinent. Arnold van Mill's Commendatore is a tad ordinary and urbane - he hardly chills the blood although the recording gives his voice some ghostly reverb - but he is admirably steady and serviceable and the demons really are scary; Eugenia Ratti is her usual squeaky, rather twittery self, making Zerlina more pert than charming but she's no blot on the set. The biggest debate centres on Birgit Nilsson's dubious suitability as Donna Anna; even at this early stage of her career the big voice was too unwieldy, hard and laser-like to negotiate the requisite Mozartian style but there is no doubting the commitment of her portrayal and the voice per se is impressive.

Reservations notwithstanding, I cannot withhold praise from such a starry, energised account, especially when too many more modern versions seem intent on miniaturising this darkest and most imposing of Classical period operas.

Herbert von Karajan – 1960 (live; mono) Myro; Forlane (box set of 3 Mozart operas)
Orchestra - Wiener Philharmoniker
Chorus - Wiener Staatsoper
Don Giovanni - Eberhard Wächter (Waechter)
Donna Anna - Leontyne Price
Don Ottavio - Cesare Valletti
Donna Elvira - Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
Leoporello - Walter Berry
Il Commendatore - Nicola Zaccaria
Masetto - Rolando Panerai
Zerlina - Graziella Sciutti

Some previous reviewers have been a tad generous about the quality of the radio broadcast mono sound here; it is fuzzy, crumbly and occasionally distorted in parts. Otherwise, this is a sparkling performance by a cast whose starriness is unmatchable today. If only the sound were better, this could easily be a first choice.

The young Leontyne Price sometimes sounds a little shrill and gusty but her otherwise grandly sung Donna Anna is extraordinarily compelling. Schwarzkopf delivers her familiar wild cat Elvira, singing with a slightly tremulous fervour that I find most apt ("La povera ragazza è pazza amici miei!") in an intense and vivid characterisation. Her Elvira is well represented on disc elsewhere but this is among her most lively accounts. Walter Berry is occasionally almost over-expressive such that his music becomes momentarily obscured by vocal effects and inflections but his striking portrayal of Leporello gives us a lovable scoundrel. He is smart and funny and the quickfire dialogue between master and servant sounds very Italianate - indeed there is very little of the Germanic "qvesto" problem here. Waechter is smooth and virile as he is for Giulini even if Ghiaurov, live for Karajan at Salzburg ten years later is more imposing. However, some will prefer a baritone to a bass, in which case Waechter is the man. The elegant Valletti really makes something both beautiful and believable of the usually wimpish Ottavio. Zaccaria is suitably cavernous and menacing as the Commendatore, Sciutti almost as charming as Freni and considerably more so than the merely competent Olivera Miljakovic in 1970. A young Panerai was in the same year already singing Amfortas for Gui at La Scala but is incandescent as Masetto, adapting easily here to portraying the blustery, wronged contadino and demonstrating that Karajan could command casting in depth.

Karajan invariably took Mozart fast in that period of his career and rushes his fences in an attempt to lay the ghost of Furtwängler, but his urgency is far preferable to his inert recording from 1985, which never takes off. Waechter has a hard time keeping up with him in the Champagne Aria and sounds rather rough there; otherwise, I find the sheer pell-mell pace of the overture, in which the VPO strings perform wonders keeping up with their conductor, truly exhilarating - and he knows when to relax, as you may hear in the tender moments.

Otto Klemperer – 1966 (studio; stereo) EMI
New Philharmonia Orchestra & Chorus
Don Giovanni - Nicolai Ghiaurov
Donna Anna - Claire Watson
Don Ottavio - Nicolai Gedda
Donna Elvira - Christa Ludwig
Leoporello - Walter Berry
Il Commendatore - Franz Crass
Masetto - Paolo Montarsolo
Zerlina - Mirella Freni

I have a residual affection for this recording as it was the means whereby I was introduced to this miraculous music, but even at this first exposure I was conscious of some issues here and time has only confirmed my objections. Of course, there are many fine things: a meltingly sweet Zerlina from Freni, Ludwig’s fiery, beautifully sung Elvira, Franz Crass’ dark, incisive Commendatore, and a typically humorous and agile Leporello from Walter Berry, but there are more entries on the debit side: some lumpen, trudging conducting from Klemperer, a whining, out-of-sorts Ottavio from Gedda, the lack of purity of tone in Claire Watson’s Anna and a clumsy, elderly-sounding Masetto from Montarsolo. The general gloom fostered by Klemperer’s heavy-handed direction is intensified by the casting of a true bass as Don Giovanni rather than a baritone or bass-baritone. This is not necessarily a problem with singers such as Siepi but Ghiaurov - great singer though he is – has a certain gravitas about his manner and playfulness is not his strong suit, so overall this emerges as a rather saturnine portrayal. He does much better for Karajan in Salzburg five years later, when his depiction of the arch-seducer has acquired rather more wit and allure.

In the end, the heaviness in manner and weaknesses in the casting rule this out for me.

The next two live recordings from 1970 are again compared side-by-side in my review from a decade ago:

Herbert von Karajan – 1970 (live; stereo) Opera d’Oro; Orfeo
Orchestra - Wiener Philharmoniker
Chorus - Wiener Staatsoper
Don Giovanni - Nicolai Ghiaurov
Donna Anna - Gundula Janowitz
Don Ottavio - Stuart Burrows
Donna Elvira - Teresa Zylis-Gara
Leoporello - Geraint Evans
Il Commendatore - Victor von Halem
Masetto - Rolando Panerai
Zerlina - Olivera Miljakovic

Carlo Maria Giulini – 1970 (live radio broadcast; stereo) Opera d’Oro; Hommage
RAI Roma Orchestra & Chorus
Don Giovanni - Nicolai Ghiaurov
Donna Anna - Gundula Janowitz
Don Ottavio - Alfredo Kraus
Donna Elvira - Sena Jurinac
Leoporello - Sesto Bruscantini
Il Commendatore - Dimiter Petkov
Masetto - Walter Monachesi
Zerlina - Olivera Miljakovic

There are two live performances were recorded within a couple of months of each other. Each has Nicolai Ghiaurov, commanding in the lead role, Gundula Janowitz thrilling as Donna Anna and the lesser-known Olivera Miliakovic competent but bland as Zerlina and occasionally out of tune. One is this broadcast by the RAI Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of Rome under Giulini before a quiet studio audience and the other is a Salzburg Festival performance under Karajan. As such, they cry out to be compared, featuring two major conductors and two celebrated singers in favourite roles.

First, the sonics: both are very listenable but the sound in the RAI broadcast is much sharper and wirier, with a fair amount of blare and distortion in concerted passages; the Salzburg recording is somewhat duller and more distant but easier on the ear.

The casts and forces assembled are both admirable: the Vienna Symphony Orchestra is undoubtedly smoother, keeps in tune better and is more refined than the intermittently untidy Italian orchestra but the latter is lithe and responsive under Giulini and remains very acceptable. Karajan is more animated than Giulini and better at generating tension at key dramatic moments. Although at times Giulini achieves a grandeur closer to Klemperer, ultimately the performance remains a little earth-bound.

Ghiaurov sings virtually identically in both: a big, smooth, rich bass, properly flexible and seductive if occasionally a little monotonous; not much wit or humour just a massive, testosterone-pumped confidence. Bruscantini has rather too neat, light and refined a baritone for the earthy Leporello and he sounds rather more like Don Giovanni’s uncle, but he delivers the Italian text with relish. Having said that, Geraint Evans’, bluffer, broader more blustery manner is more apt for depicting the aristocratic philanderer’s put-upon side-kick and Evans’ coarser way with the comedy isn’t necessarily out of place. To my ears, Stuart Burrows’ mellifluous yet powerful tenor for Karajan is far preferable to that of Alfredo Kraus, who, contrary to expectation, is rather acidulous of tone, snatching and yelping at some notes and unable to take “cercate a consolar” in one breath in “Il mio tesoro”. As much as I am a huge admirer of Sena Jurinac, I suggest that she isn’t quite comfortable or at her best as Elvira here; Giulini tries to ease her round the sharp corners of her arias but she is gusty at this stage of her career. Teresa Zylis-Gara for Karajan is finer, purer and more flexible. Giulini’s Commendatore is Slavic, weak and wobbly; Victor von Halem, by contrast for Karajan, is everything he should be: firm, brazen, huge-voiced and chilling. Janowitz is simply divine in both recordings, dominating the ensembles, agile and soaring in her solos. I love her fluty tone. Its rather virginal, disembodied character is perfect for the prim and proper Donna Anna.

The Karajan account emerges as the clear winner. However, if you want Giulini at his best, his famous, earlier EMI studio recording remains the first choice; it is tauter, more characterful and by and large better sung than this later performance.

The deluxe Opera d’Oro “Grand Tier” version of the Karajan offers a full libretto, synopsis, notes, photos and biographies. It is also available in the standard bargain issue with nothing but the briefest of synopses and cues. However, the Orfeo edition is in somewhat better sound.

Colin Davis – 1972 (studio; stereo) Philips; Lyrica
Covent Garden Orchestra & Chorus
Don Giovanni - Ingvar Wixell
Donna Anna - Martina Arroyo
Don Ottavio - Stuart Burrows
Donna Elvira - Kiri Te Kanawa
Leoporello - Wladimiro Ganzarolli
Il Commendatore - Luigi Roni
Masetto - Richard Van Allan
Zerlina - Mirella Freni

A knowledgeable friend is right when he claims that this recording might not be absolutely the best Don Giovanni available but is nonetheless very good indeed and one of those which is better than the sum of its parts. It is not as majestic as Karajan's live recording on Orfeo, as terrifying as Furtwängler with Gobbi or Siepi, or as elegant as Giulini's famous EMI recording but it offers virtually everything you want in a good recording, including highly energised conducting, a real sense of theatre and first-rate singing.

It is possible to quibble that Wixell has a rather grainy tone without the saturnine, bass quality - he was a true baritone - we hear in Siepi or Ghiaurov, but I find him to be more like Gobbi: highly responsive in the recitatives and capable of a really seductive, Italianate legato. This is surely one of his best, if not the best, of his recordings. Ganzarolli is at times decidedly a bit clumsy and lumpy vocally, but he is funny and wholly in character. Arroyo's mighty soprano soars beautifully; her huge, distinctively vibrant tone fills the long lines of "Or sai chi l'onore" effortlessly, without the scooping which occasionally marred her singing; she hits the big, top notes head on. Te Kanawa was never the firebrand of an Elvira we hear in Schwarzkopf's assumption but how superbly she sings. Mirella Freni makes Zerlina so much more than the cipher she can become when interpreted by a lesser singer; she is charming and seductive, well partnered by a bluff, strong-voiced Van Allan as Masetto. Luigi Roni is steady, imposing and sonorous as the Commendatore in a role which can too often disappoint and the slightly distanced, echoing engineering lends his interjections atmosphere (he was a good King in the excellent Muti Aida, too). The best singing as singing per se comes from Welsh tenor Stuart Burrows, always at his best in Mozart - try his Tito, Tamino and Ferrando, too; all stellar. His limpid tenor renders the stuffed shirt Ottavio sympathetic and noble.

The sound remains very good: bright, clear, well balanced with plenty of depth and Davis has not yet acquired his infuriating habit of vocalising while conducting. Incredibly, this 1972 recording is thus now 44 years old as I write yet can easily still be a first-choice studio version recommended alongside the even older Giulini classic.

Sir Georg Solti – 1978 (studio; stereo) Decca
London Philharmonic Orchestra
London Opera Chorus
Don Giovanni - Bernd Weikl
Donna Anna - Margaret Price
Don Ottavio - Stuart Burrows
Donna Elvira - Sylvia Sass
Leoporello - Gabriel Bacquier
Il Commendatore - Kurt Moll
Masetto - Alfred Sramek
Zerlina - Lucia Popp

This is a real mixed bag, insofar as some performances are truly delightful, while others are distinctly sub-par. As for Solti's conducting, he is by no means too aggressive but he certainly finds more drama and momentum in proceedings than, for example, Nézet-Séguin in his Baden-Baden concert recording. The crucial last scene is grand and steady, building inexorably to a suitably chilling climax.

Definite advantages are: the shimmering, impassioned Donna Anna of Margaret Price, who, despite some weakness in the lower reaches of the voice, makes light of the higher stretches of the role; Lucia Popp's pert, charming and sappy-voiced Zerlina - a role too often under-cast; Sylvia Sass as Donna Elvira who makes a really dramatic impact despite not being a natural Mozartian, with a voice somewhat too heavy and unwieldy for the part; Stuart Burrows yet again demonstrating that his plangent, liquid, long-breathed tenor is ideal in Mozart; and finally the black-voiced Kurt Moll bringing real menace and a very firm, beautiful line to his Commendatore.

The problems are with the Don Giovanni, Leporello and Masetto. Bacquier works so hard at inflecting every phrase with comic import that he forgets to sing - and indeed he seems at times to be virtually voiceless, crooning and patching over the notes with very little resonance in the tone. Similarly, Weikl works too hard on the text and omits to give us a seductive legato, resorting too often to throaty emphasis and displaying the beginnings of the bleat which began to obtrude until by the 90's his voice provided far less which is pleasing to the ear than we hear in, for example, his fine Eugene Onegin for Solti in 1974. Alfred Sramek - a singer unknown to me - is a woolly-voiced Masetto.

In other words, this is an inconsistently cast version which despite the excellence of individual singers has languished in the second-rank. You may hear Burrows singing just as well for Colin Davis in his studio recording or live for Karajan in Salzburg, Price, Popp and Moll are present in Sawallisch's live, 1973 Salzburg recording and there are countless sets with more satisfying master-servant duos, involving singers such as Siepi, Waechter, Ghiaurov and Berry, so this recording for all its virtues cannot be in the front rank.

Herbert von Karajan – 1985 (studio; digital) DG
Orchestra - Berliner Philharmoniker
Chorus - Deutsche Oper Berlin
Don Giovanni - Samuel Ramey
Donna Anna - Anna Tomowa-Sintow
Don Ottavio - Gösta Winbergh
Donna Elvira - Agnes Baltsa
Leoporello - Ferruccio Furlanetto
Il Commendatore - Paata Burchuladze
Masetto - Alexander Malta
Zerlina - Kathleen Battle

The overture sets the mood here: it is heavy, restrained, lacking the spring and bite Karajan brought to earlier, live performances and to my ears the unremastered sound is still ploggy and bass-heavy. This is a performance which resolutely refuses to catch fire, despite the plethora of talent on hand; individually, there are a lot of fine performances here and some superb playing at key points from the BPO but Karajan’s strange, sporadic bouts of languorousness are at the root of the problem; there is little sense of propulsion or forward motion which is fatal to this most driven of operas.

Ramey sings smoothly but conveys little sense of threat; his duets with the charming Zerlina of Kathleen Battle, for example, sound like a father taking his daughter for a stroll round the park rather than a sexually-charged encounter. Ramey makes light of the difficult "Fin ch'han dal vino", however and his serenade is sung in a honied mezza voce. Battle herself could not be more girlishly delightful. Agnes Baltsa, on the hand, gives us a rather formidable Elvira, with little sense of vulnerability and I feel that the role lies a shade high for her.

There are plenty of bright spots but equally some puzzling deficiencies: Burchuladze’s Commendatore is certainly massively chilling, although Karajan’s sluggish tempi do nothing to assist him. Singing at such a slow pace his vibrato starts to sound laboured and his Italian is swallowed. The moment when the Commendatore seizes Giovanni’s hand – “"Dammi la mano in pegno” - is a damp squib but the pace certainly picks up with the demons’ entry. Tomowa-Sintow is a little shrill and tremulous but she sings with great fire and attack. Gösta Winbergh sings sweetly yet makes Ottavio more manly than usual, even if he is not especially memorable. Furlanetto is a rather dry, percussive but characterful Leporello; at times I wish he would drop the constant vocal inflections and just sing more, as he keeps punctuating his vocal line with “funny business”. His exchanges with Ramey are among the fastest moving passages and the master-servant chemistry is convincing.

Ultimately, it is the inconsistency of this recording which compromises it - strange from a conductor whose approach to a work, once worked out, rarely varied.

Riccardo Muti – 1990 (studio; digital) EMI
Orchestra - Wiener Philharmoniker
Chorus - Wiener Staatsoper
Don Giovanni - William Shimell
Donna Anna - Cheryl Studer
Don Ottavio - Frank Lopardo
Donna Elvira - Carol Vaness
Leoporello - Samuel Ramey
Il Commendatore - Jan-Hendrik Rootering
Masetto - Natale de Carolis
Zerlina - Susan Mentzer

It is painfully amusing to read some of the encomiums elsewhere for this doomed set from listeners who seem inexplicably satisfied with what is, at best, a third-rate recording. Of course, Mozart's glorious music can stand a battering from inadequate performers but what need is there to settle for this when the catalogue is bursting with great and highly recommendable versions of this extraordinary opera? The playing of the Vienna Philharmonic is the most pleasing aspect of this lamentable account but Muti drives much so hard and humourlessly they scarcely have the chance to make their mark; at other points, Muti slows to a crawl without any discernible reason.

Otherwise, we must scratch about for crumbs of cold comfort. Starting with William Shimmell's deeply over-parted Don Giovanni, we hear a rough, hollow-voiced baritone without any allure or velvet in his tone - and one desperately trying too hard to compensate for his vocal deficiencies by barking, shouting and growling. Next on the block is Lopardo's hoarse, strangulated tenor; the epitome of what Italians call "ingolato": the voice never escapes from his tonsils. Another reviewer finds his singing exquisitely beautiful; I would guide him towards McCormack, Wunderlich, Simoneau, Burrows, Valletti - well, just about any other famous exponent of the role, really. Let's pass over the almost voiceless Masetto and briefly mention Ramey's blank, bland Leporello. I love Ramey's bass....in a suitable role; this isn't it and, in any case, he outsings his boss. Rootering blusters ineffectually as the Commendatore; he's usually better but must have been disheartened by the perfunctory conducting and singing around him.

The women are much better and at least have a clean tone but Vaness's Donna Anna sounds as if Tosca or a verismo heroine has blundered into the wrong show; there's too much flap and vibrancy and no slim, steely line. Studer sang a much better Salome in the same year for Sinopoli just before entering on the period of decline in her soprano; she, like Vaness, is sometimes gusty and unsteady and Mentzer is simply miscast as Zerlina; the voice is too plummy, although pretty in itself, and she under-characterises the pert little miss. All the ladies, I must ungallantly remark, sound too old by 1990 (although Studer was only 45) and Muti's relentless pushing stresses them further.

Small wonder, then, that this recording rarely features in the recommended lists and that it is available at knock-down prices.

Bertrand De Billy – 2002 (studio; digital) Arte Nova
Radio Symphonieorchester Wien; Chorus sine nomine
Don Giovanni - Kwangchui Youn
Donna Anna - Regina Schörg
Don Ottavio - Jeffrey Francis
Donna Elvira - Heidi Brunner
Leporello - Maurizio Muraro
Il Commendatore - Reinhard Hagen
Masetto - Reinhard Mayr
Zerlina - Brigid Steinberger

This was approvingly reviewed by Colin Clarke back in 2003; he concluded by saying, “Fascinating and rewarding, this is a most instructive, aware Giovanni that at the price should be a compulsory purchase for every opera-lover.” I am slightly less insistent upon its indispensability but it certainly holds genuine interest for Mozartians.

The most striking aspect of this recording is the drive and attack of de Billy’s conducting and the responsivity of his orchestra here; he is not just speedy for the sake of it but really adds bite and tension to proceedings. The recitatives are sharp and pointed and the action fairly bowls along. The digital sound is excellent – very well balanced and perfectly clear and I like the production effect of putting reverberation around the Commendatore’s voice, particularly as it is not especially dark or imposing per se. Given that this is a bargain issue, the inclusion of a full booklet with notes with an Italian libretto translated into both German and English is a quite a bonus. To cap that comprehensiveness, the third, short CD is an appendix devoted to the additions Mozart wrote for the Vienna premiere in May 1788, the opera having received its world premiere the preceding October in Prague. These additions include some alternative recitativos, a different duet for Leporello and Zerlina, Don Ottavio’s supposedly easier aria “Dalla sua pace” and Elvira’s “Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata”; the latter two are of course now normally integrated into performances and recordings as superior music, even if their appropriateness to the dramaturgy is questionable.

The singing is less distinguished than the greatest versions but by no means poor, and the singers give a welcome nod towards authenticity with the inclusion of some appoggiatura ornamentation. Both leading ladies are very involved and demonstrative but sometimes vocally gusty with a pulsing production and squeezed phrases which disturb Mozart’s line. Having said that, Regina Schörg comes into best form for “Or sai che l’onore”. The most attractive female voice here is Brigid Steinberger’s neat, fleet, petite Zerlina and Jeffrey Francis’ light but sweet-toned Don Ottavio – he negotiates the runs in his aria expertly and sometimes reminds me of a paler-voiced Stuart Burrows, which is no mean compliment. All four main lower-voiced male roles are taken by basses and Don Giovanni, Leporello, Masetto and the Commendatore sound very similar – sometimes barely distinguishable, in fact; there is often too little distinction among them - although that adds credibility to the incidents when Leporello and Giovanni is each mistaken for the other. I do enjoy Kwangchui Youn’s Giovanni, however, even if his beautiful voice is rather grand and fruity – a bit stuffy and aristocratic for a rakish, lascivious predator. He copes well with “Fin ch’han dal vino” whose speed and demand for agility trip up many a Don Giovanni and delivers his recitativo adroitly; his exchanges with Leporello are decidedly lively. Maurizio Muraro is a bluff but varied and witty manservant. The intensity of de Billy’s direction and the slickness of ensemble make the climaxes of both acts especially gripping; too many recordings go off the boil there.

This might not be absolutely the best sung account but it offers a well-integrated cast and is very entertaining. It is certainly superior to that from Nézet-Séguin below.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin – 2011 (live concert; digital) DG
Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Vocalensemble Rastatt
Don Giovanni - Ildebrando D’Arcangelo
Donna Anna - Diana Damrau
Don Ottavio - Rolando Villazón
Donna Elvira - Joyce DiDonato
Leoporello - Luca Pisaroni
Il Commendatore - Vitalij Kowaljow
Masetto - Konstantin Wolff
Zerlina - Mojca Erdmann

I reviewed this back in 2013 and this is a modified version of that review. I will admit that I have since become much less enamoured of Joyce DiDonato as a singer and the renascence of Villazón does not seem to have been sustained:

This was the first in a planned series of seven recordings of concert performances of major Mozart operas in the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden. Recordings Don Giovanni were once more frequent but it is a good while since we had a new one of any real quality and many of us are abashed to confess that we return to versions forty, fifty and even sixty years old when we want to hear it.

Nonetheless, I find my reaction to this one to be very mixed indeed, a response most dictated by some anomalies and peculiarities in the conception, arising not least from the mismatch between Nézet-Séguin's direction and his singers' style. It is immediately apparent in the cleanly articulated overture that, in line with the modern fashion, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra is a reduced band that employs very little vibrato whereas the sopranos, especially Diana Damrau, all employ fruity vibrato verging on a wobble - perhaps not by choice but more because their voices cannot adapt to the smaller-scale idiom the conductor applies. This is a recording full of incongruities: even while he requires the strings to eschew vibrato, Nézet-Séguin frequently employs rubato; the result is more of an etiolated whine than is entirely pleasing. Nor is there much drive or excitement in this performance; I miss the febrile, even hysterical, quality that should characterise Don Giovanni's sex-obsession and the outraged responses it generates. "Deh vieni" is absurdly lugubrious, so slow and restrained that an incipient tremolo intrudes into D'Arcangelo's tone. Conversely, the Champagne Aria is taken so fast - as if the conductor vaguely sensed he needed to take to opportunity to inject some spark in the generally staid proceedings - that the singer can barely get his sizeable voice around the divisions. There is a general atmosphere of carefulness about the reading which is perhaps inevitable in a mere concert performance; it doesn't suggest the brio of a fully staged version.

A further oddity: the Don Giovanni has a much richer, basso-coloured tone than the Leporello who is essentially a light baritone without a hint of the buffo weight desirable in the role - although Pisaroni has a fleet and engaging way with the words and it is a pleasure to hear two Italians make so much of their exchanges, joshing one another idiomatically. We have enjoyed great chocolate-voiced Don Giovannis such as Siepi and Ghiaurov in previous celebrated recordings and there is certainly nothing inappropriate about D'Arcangelo's big, black, handsome-brute of a bass to portray the Giovanni's cocksure brutality. Yet for all that I very much appreciate D'Arcangelo's saturnine characterisation, for me the best singers in this recording are Villazon and DiDonato.

He is the surprise of the recording and a very welcome one, too, not just because we all want to hear such a lovely voice back in form after its vocal crises but also because he offers us something really different and convincing in his Don Ottavio. This is no wimpish pi-boy but an ardent flesh-and-blood lover who persuades us of his determination to defend and avenge the woman he loves. His dark, husky beauty of tone, fine gradations of dynamics and poised, virile top notes are all a delight, while his long-breathed "Il mio tesoro" may stand comparison for elegance and legato with any predecessor. It is to his Ottavio I shall return as a model of its kind.

The shock of Damrau's wobble when she joins Villazon in "Sola, sola, in buio loco" is really unpleasant. She squeezes and flaps, and the vocal security which marked her 2008 solo Mozart recital album has by this time mutated into a decidedly self-conscious struggle with the notes. The power in "Or sai" is still there but the basic tone is now strident and harsh - qualities accentuated by the beat - and that compromises her ability to make Donna Anna sound poignant and vulnerable; she is simply shrill. In the context of 110 years of recorded Donna Annas she isn't in the running.

Mojca Erdmann as Zerlina is similarly unimpressive: a very ordinary, thin-toned, rather charmless singer, again afflicted by an exaggerated vibrato and one who cannot stand comparison with previous exponents such as Freni, Sciutti, Gueden, Seefried et al. Her attempt to interpolate a high C in "Vedrai, carino" is ill-advised.

DiDonato by comparison is much more agreeable on the ear. She manages the awkward tessitura of Donna Elvira's music with ease; she is a rich-voiced spitfire in the Schwarzkopf mode, although her tremolo-vibrato sometimes bothers me. Whether she is the great singer many acclaim her as, I am not sure, but she is certainly impressive here.

The Masetto is perfectly adequate, the Commendatore somewhat given to - yes, you've guessed it - wobble and a slightly nasal, throttled vocal production - although he has a good low D - which doesn't command and chill in the manner of the most impressive Stone Guests; the final scene doesn't really catch fire.

All in all, a mixed bag: an admirable trio of singers in D'Arcangelo, DiDonato and Villazon but otherwise this is too low-key to stir the blood.

Recommendations
In the end, my choices are hardly original; if you want a fine recording in good modern sound, the studio options are surprisingly few and most of the live performances are mono and/or sonically compromised. For that reason, I offer recordings in four categories; I am well aware that my selections lean towards older recordings but at least my main recommendations are in good stereo.

Historical, live mono: Walter – 1942
Live mono: Furtwängler – 1950; Mitropoulos – 1956
Live stereo: Herbert von Karajan – 1970
Studio stereo: Krips – 1955*; Moralt – 1955; Davis – 1972
First choice*

Ralph Moore



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