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It’s interesting to remember that Don Giovanni’s libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte was described as a “dramma giocosa”: and sure enough, the 1787 opera veers from the serious to the hilarious in ways that remain startling even today. One can easily be fooled by the stark opening of the overture, the ultimate damnation of the anti-hero/villain (depending on your point of view) and many nastinesses along the way, which range from attempted rape to the emotional cruelty of abandonment. The best Don Giovannis, though, are poised between the story’s awe-inspiring moral judgment from beyond the grave and its comedy of mistaken identities, manipulated minds and sardonic servants, and Solti’s account here, recorded live at the Royal Opera House in 1962, nails the balance spot-on.
The cast is wonderfully believable. Leyla Gencer’s Donna Anna is tremendous – dramatic without hysteria, a big, shining voice that dominates the stage whenever she is there. Sena Jurinac is a radiant-voiced, dignified Donna Elvira, less a victim on the brink of madness (as she is maybe too often portrayed today) than a confident woman whose pain justifies her many interventions. As Zerlina, the young Mirella Freni has a gorgeous openness and warmth to her sound, with Roberto Savoie as her tetchy fiancé Masetto. Richard Lewis makes the most of Don Ottavio’s arias, which are beautifully phrased. And delivering the fatal pronouncement, David Ward is a Commendatore you would not like to meet in a graveyard on a dark night.
Cesare Siepi’s Don Giovanni is possibly a weaker link: he is smooth-toned and suave, though at times one might want to sense the extra-sinister edge that can let us feel he deserves his fate. He is regularly upstaged by his sensational Leporello, Sir Geraint Evans, no less, whose characterisation – lively comic timing and a wealth of snarling, smiling and snarking – is a good reason on its own to snap up this recording.
Solti’s conducting is thrill-a-minute stuff, full of tension and drive yet never short on lyricism; he is sensitive to the ebb and flow of the ensembles and creates bespoke atmospheres that shudder, shimmer and leer, with lively yet lyrical tempi that I personally wouldn’t want changed by even a notch. The recording has all the excitement of its live performance, complete with noises off – which if anything contributes to the fact that it’s riveting from start to finish.
Jessica Duchen’s music journalism has appeared in The Independent, The Guardian and The Sunday Times. She is the author of a number of novels (most recently Ghost Variations, published in 2016), biographies and plays. Current projects include an opera libretto for composer Roxanna Panufnik (for Garsington Opera 2017). Her popular blog JDCMB has run since 2004.
Rating: Performance: four stars Sound: three stars
Mozart: Don Giovanni Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House/Sir Georg Solti Leyla Gencer (Donna Anna), Sena Jurinac (Donna Elvira), Mirella Freni (Zerlina), Cesare Siepi (Don Giovanni), Geraint Evans (Leporello), David Ward (Commendatore), Richard Lewis (Don Ottavio), Roberto Savoie (Masetto) Opus Arte/Royal Opera House
There is little doubt that Currentzis has strived to make Mozart’s ‘Da Ponte’ operas sound as fresh as possible. The conductor’s faith in Mozart’s music and its relevance, after all, is evident: ‘Mozart is always contemporary, always modern’.