This week I watched the recent Salzburg DVD of this opera with Thomas Hampson as the Don. This interesting but flawed production made me want to revisit the superb 2001 Zurich production with Rodney Gilfry in the lead role. There is a superficial resemblance because both productions treat Mozart and da Ponti's dramma giocosa with deadly seriousness. They also use a minimum of scenery so that this episodic opera runs smoothly from scene to scene in a filmic manner.
However, this 2001 production is much more successful and a constant visual delight with a palette of bright colours against a predominantly black background. There is a high quality cast. Rodney Gilfrey, as the Don, is a plausible seducer with a rich baritone range. László Polgár is an interestingly lugubrious Leporello. Liliana Nikiteanu is a bright Zerlina, even when singing one of Mozarts less politically-correct numbers: "Batti, batti O bel Mazetto" (Beat me, beat me dear Mazetto). I have slight reservations about Cecilia Bartoli's performance as Donna Elvira. She is so over the top in her first aria that it sounds as though she is trying to do a bel canto mad scene. Fortunately, after this she settles down and has some typically tender moments in the second act.
Stage Director Jürgen Flimm and Film Director Brian Large have some nice touches. I particularly liked Donna Elvira going through Leporello's notebook during the catalogue aria and tearing out the page that contains her details. I also liked the Don's mockingly having a model of the Commendatore's statue for dinner and feeding it food and wine before the real statue arrives. The sound is closely miked which makes for optimum clarity in home viewing, bringing out nuances in the singing and in the playing of the Zurich Opera orchestra under Nikolaus Harnoncourt .
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Don Giovanni is one of my favourite operas especially for its title character and the Commendatore scene. The story is episodic in a sense but it is very dramatic, fun and complex as well. My favourite Don Giovannis are the 1979 Joseph Losey film and the 1987 production with Von Karajan conducting and Samuel Ramey in the title role.
This 2001 production is just superb. Handsome costumes and sets are definite things to like even if some scenes are a little too darkly lit, as are the magnificent music, the interesting staging particularly Giovanni's mocking of the Commendatore and the idea for Leporello to lighten his voice and Giovanni to darken his and the colourful characters right from the charming but devilish Giovanni, bumbling Leporello, spiteful Elvira, adorable Zerlina to the imposing Commendatore.
The orchestra are mostly brilliant, particularly in the Overture, Champagne Aria and Commendatore scene. The strings though are not quite always spot on, in the graveyard scene for instance they could have done with more urgency. Nicholas Harncourt's musical direction is excellent, all the pivotal scenes are done exceptionally well, the Champagne aria especially was electrifying!
The performances are excellent across the board. Starting with the women, I was really impressed with Cecilia Bartoli's Elvira. To start with, she is very spiteful and over-the-top, but I just loved it when she softens in the second act. Bartoli sings beautifully and her acting positively crackles. Isabel Rey is a lightweight yet memorable Donna Anna, and Liliana Nikiteanu manages to have a resonant voice as well being a fine actress. I have to say, although I am a big fan of the opera, that was one unforgettable Batti, Batti, one of the memorable renditions of that aria I've heard or seen recently.
As for the men, Roberto Sacco's interpretation of Don Ottavio is one I do appreciate. It is an interesting interpretation in that Don Ottavio struggles with his non-violent nature to satisfy his lover rather than the somewhat ineffectual sidekick I can find. Massetto is good, the great Finnish basso profundo Matti Salminen is terrifying as the Commendatore and Laszlo Polgar's Leporello especially in the facial expressions is a joy. Best of all is Rodney Gilfry's Don Giovanni. Although my favourites in the role are Ruggero Raimondi, Cesare Siepi, Ezio Pinza and Samuel Ramey, Gilfry really excels as this complex character. Not only is he very handsome and charismatic, but he has a voice that is rich and flexible, which I think is just the right voice needed for the Champagne aria.
All in all, a superb Don Giovanni. 10/10 Bethany Cox
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