Royal Opera House Heritage Series – Don Giovanni

0 of 5 stars

Don Giovanni, K527 – Dramma giocoso in two acts to a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte

Don Giovanni – Cesare Siepi
Leporello – Geraint Evans
Donna Anna – Leyla Gencer
Donna Elvira – Sena Jurinac
Zerlina – Mirella Freni
Don Ottavio – Richard Lewis
Masetto – Robert Savoie
Il Commendatore – David Ward

The Covent Garden Opera Chorus
The Covent Garden Orchestra
Sir Georg Solti

Franco Zefferelli – Production, Scenery & Costumes

Recorded on 19 February 1962 at the Royal Opera House, London

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: August 2007
ROHS007 (3 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 53 minutes

Here is another marvellous slice of historical performance from the Royal Opera House, released to mark the 10th-anniversary of the death of Sir Georg Solti and in celebration of his tenure as Music Director at the house from 1961-1971.

Knowing that opera-house schedules were, even then, planned several years in advance, it might have been an engagement that was on the books before he actually took over the helm. Certainly, in his later years, Solti’s Mozart performances often divided opinion – some finding them rather charm-less and over-driven, and in the light of the period-instrument movement, decidedly ‘old-fashioned’.

What this performance reveals, with all the bumps and lumps of a live performance captured in occasionally muddy and boxy sound, is indeed one of those ‘old-fashioned’ interpretations dating from the time when they were the standard, and in Solti’s case a sure musicality put at the service of theatrical flair. It’s very excitingly paced generally, and for the most part extremely well played.

The recording is not taken from the BBC’s broadcast tapes, which have long been lost, but from an unknown enthusiast’s taping of it. Some of the detail inevitably gets lost in a mush, such as the early sections of the florid cello accompaniment to Zerlina’s ‘Batti, batti’, but as a whole the sound is remarkably clear for a private recording from nearly half-a-century ago. The recitative continuo comes over well. What also comes over well is the sense of audience involvement in the presentation. Without the aid of surtitles the audience seems very alert to the text and are not afraid to express their enjoyment of the humour – Leporello’s disguised duping of Donna Elvira at the start of the second act being one instance in point.

However, for opera enthusiasts it will not really be Solti who will be the draw of this recording. It is the singers – and oh – what singers and what singing! It is hard not to gush unattractively.

Cesare Siepi’s Don Giovanni was a celebrated interpretation and one hears why immediately. The voice is warm, has an appropriate bass quality to the baritone sound and a wonderful sense of line. Being Italian his words are naturally sung, but also inflected, coloured and caressed with scrupulous care to meaning and drama. He captures the magnetism and nobility of the character well, and also his arrogance and danger. The ‘Serenade’ is smooth and alluring, and the ‘Champagne aria’ exhilarating – the tempo is not quite as fast as is customary today which helps enormously. He interacts well with his Leporello, Geraint Evans, who starts a little roughly but then settles down to deliver a performance that is the perfect counterfoil to Siepi’s in its earthiness. He is a singer I expect this “Heritage Series” is going to present to us often, and we will be able to chart his development as a famous singing-actor over his entire career. The master-servant interaction is well played.

The remaining men are also strongly cast. David Ward is an imposing and black-voiced Commendatore, and makes a strong impression in his ‘return’ in Act Two. His death in Act One is sung nobly, even at Solti’s rather expansive tempo. Robert Savoie is a characterful and solid, if occasionally blustery, Masetto. Richard Lewis is a noble and mellifluously masculine Don Ottavio, and his arias are true highlights sung as they are with delicacy, finesse, and exemplary breath control, especially in ‘Il mio Tesoro’.

The names of the singers portraying the three ladies read like a soprano “Who’s Who”. Three very different vocal and histrionic personalities emerge, and as they are all top-notch singers it works. Mirella Freni is today (2007) in the twilight of her long and very distinguished career. Here she is caught at the outset of it and the lightness and delicacy of her singing catch the ear immediately, but one also, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, hears dark overtones in the voice too that make one realise why her career took the path it did. Her Zerlina is nicely innocent.

Sena Jurinac’s Donna Elvira is better known on disc, and she also recorded Donna Anna under Fricsay. Here she is taped live and in her prime. It’s impressive Mozart singing by the standards of any age. Her ‘Mi tradi’, taken at a sprightly pace, is wonderfully articulated and characterful. Her Donna Elvira is not the ditzy character of many of today’s productions, but that of a betrayed young aristocratic woman – surely what the composer and librettist actually intended. She is great in the recitatives.

The under-recorded Turkish soprano Leyla Gencer sings Donna Anna. She was another of the exciting singing actresses of her day, but was to some extent overshadowed by the parallel careers of others such as Callas. This distraught Donna Anna is quite something else. It is sung with a solid technique, sure dynamic control and with bags of temperament. From the start her every appearance seems audibly to drive up the dramatic tension somewhat – curious for a character who externally at least is pretty passive. She must have been pretty compelling on stage.

For anyone with an interest in the history of opera-performance this is an invaluable record of Mozart in the 1960s, and one that it hugely enjoyable to boot. Solti’s contribution is hard to assess here. To have got a performance of such power and variety must have taken more than just a sure hand. One rarely feels he is driving the performance relentlessly as he often did in his later recordings and performances, and how much better the result.

As one has come to expect of the “Heritage Series” there is an excellent booklet, full of fun black-and-white pictures of Zeffirelli’s lavish production, and written commentary. As a bonus on the final CD there is a tribute to Bruno Walter, who had died a few days previously, delivered by Sir David Webster, followed by a moving orchestral tribute – ‘March of the Priests’ from “Die Zauberflöte” – for which the audience was invited to stand.

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