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Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus: Don Giovanni (DVD) EMI/Zürich 2006

Mozart: Don Giovanni (DVD)


“Suave, sophisticated, Simon Keenlyside as Don Giovanni has it all” Classic FM magazine
“The incomparably charismatic Simon Keenlyside rules the proceedings in the title role. Faultless vocally, musically and textually…” Opera magazine, March 2008

Composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Conductor Franz Welser-Möst
Don Giovanni : Simon Keenlyside
Leporello : Anton Scharinger
Donna Anna : Eva Mei
Donna Elvira : Malin Hartelius
Don Ottavio : Piotr Beczala
Commendatore : Alfred muff
Zerlina : Martina Janková
Masetto : Reinhard Mayr
Orchestra and Choir of the Zurich Opera House (Choir Master: Ernst Raffelsberger)
Recorded live at the Zurich Opernhaus, 2006. Click for details and photos
Release date 24 September 2007 (UK)
Label EMI Classics

What the critics say

Rick Jones, Classic FM magazine, December 2007

Rating: Four out of five stars [Excellent]

Suave, sophisticated, Simon Keenlyside as Don Giovanni has it all

Keenlyside has everything. Voice, looks, acting. He makes a brilliant Don. He uses his baritone subtly, seductively and is at his sweetest in the mandolin serenade ‘Deh vieni’. With such singing as this even a cuckold would forgive him. There is one clumsy moment: he takes ‘Finch’han dal vino’ too fast while awkwardly holding a cocktail that changes colour with the editing. Naff. The support is mostly excellent: Anton Scharinger’s Leporello is funny and sleazy, though his voice lacks resonance, and Martina Jankova is a delicious Zerlina. However, Piotr Beczala’s Don Ottavio is drab and flat. The ensembles are beautifully balanced, Bechtolf’s direction is imaginative, and the design’s Art Deco flavour suits the piece’s decadence.

Dominic McHugh, MusicalCriticism

[Not good]

Amongst the dreariest, most nonsensical opera DVDs I’ve ever come across, this EMI recording of Zurich Opera’s production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni does no justice whatsoever to Simon Keenlyside’s renowned portrayal of the title role.

It’s a shame that no better vehicle could be found for him, nor a better supporting cast than the largely second-rate one which is represented here. The world’s greatest interpreter of one of opera’s most taxing and iconic roles deserves better treatment than this.

The main problem is Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s production, which was well received in the theatre but perversely modifies so many details of the plot that the opera sometimes scarcely resembles its usual self. Rarely have I seen an opera production which coheres so little with the text. The bungling and misunderstanding of nearly every aspect of the plot beggars belief, and it goes from start to finish. The opera seems to be set vaguely in a hotel foyer which has the ambience of the 1920s in its gold patterned walls but seems deliberately to range through the decades in terms of costume and other symbols. In theory, this might serve to mirror the codifying of the characters as representing the old (Donna Anna, Don Ottavio), current (Donna Elvira) and future (Zerlina), but in practice it actually removes any trace of identity of place.

There are Mafioso overtones through many of the scenes with the male characters, some of whom carry revolvers. In the opening scene, Donna Anna goes up to Don Giovanni and starts making love to him, running completely against the text of her aria where she says he attempted to rape her. Ottavio is given a violence which does not make sense of his character at all – his name ‘Ottavio’ is meant to signify that he is of the old order and not a man of action at all. Through mirrors and projections, the action is distractingly reflected on the back wall. The Commendatore’s statue is tiny and looks like something the Incas might have made; it’s roughly half Simon Keenlyside’s height, and it’s not at all clear what Don Giovanni dies of (apart from an unscripted nose-bleed, perhaps?). Several of the singers take their clothes off and put them back on again without any obvious motivation, though Keenlyside’s fans will presumably be happy about that. Stefano Giannetti provides choreography for many of the arias, so that the many intimate moments are witnessed by a multitude of people prancing about (and at one point, the dancers stab each other). Frankly, I don’t see the point or attraction of any of these things.

Musically, it’s pretty second-rate too. It looks to me as if Franz Welser-Möst had the orchestra pit raised and there are some signs of an attempt to play with an awareness of style, but many of the speeds are disastrously ill-judged. The most obvious is the Catalogue aria, which some of us think of as being in two contrasting movements (Allegro-Andante con moto) but is here played at the same sluggish speed in both sections. Similarly, a tempo change in the first-act finale is ignored, and in general I find many of the speeds extreme, most notably in the messy performance of the Champagne aria (Keenlyside struggling to maintain the tempo) and the beginning of the finale (which again finds a disparity between stage and pit at one point and Keenlyside has to compensate). It’s sad when such a fine opera is mauled about to this extent.

Goodness knows what chance the singers had in such conditions to perform well, but although Eva Mei (Donna Anna) and Malin Hartelius (Donna Elvira) sing their arias with flair, the former sounds very shrill and the latter is underpowered. Piotr Beczala is lavish casting as Don Ottavio but looks uncomfortable with the production (understandably so), perhaps affecting his singing at times; Anton Scharinger is a witty Leporello, but his voice is hollow and lacks any distinction. Martina Janková (Zerlina) and Alfred Muff (Commendatore) sing far better than any of these, though Muff is denied much stage time due to the strange direction of his statue scenes.

So it’s left to Keenlyside to carry the show. For me, the special quality he’s brought to the role in other productions is an aristocratic edge which reminds us that although he’s a scoundrel, the Don is also educated and even respectable in a sense. Because this Zurich production doesn’t allow that to come through, I feel Keenlyside isn’t quite at his best, though his singing is always beautiful and he is as charismatic as ever. (Incidentally, the accompanying booklet is cheap and useless: no track list, no synopsis, no information about the production.) Therefore, this DVD is for die-hard Keenlyside fans only – and they’re welcome to it.

John Steane, Gramophone, December 2007

A Desperate Don that cannot survive even the best life-saving efforts

The Don Ottavio, Piotr Beczala, sings both of his arias uncommonly well, the first with apt ornamentation at the reprise, the second with fine command especially of the held note and run on the word “cercate”. Simon Keenlyside sings a neat, slightly underpowered Giovanni. Malin Hartelius, as Elvira, sings with fresh, appealing tone and deals with most of the technical difficulties as a well trained singer should.

Martina Jankova brings an attractively tight vibrato to her youthful-sounding Zerlina. The orchestra play well under their too often listless conductor Franz Welser-Most.

That is the best that can be said on the musical side in favour of this as a performance worth preserving in one form or another. But this is a DVD, and on the visual side I find next to nothing. The production has many of the faults of the modern schools. It falsifies the setting in time, place and character, gaining nothing of value and forfeiting credibility. With one exception (Elvira’s “Mi tradi”) it introduce constant visual distractions during solos. It resorts to juvenile salaciousness (such as removal of shirts and frocks). It gives life to silly ideas which should have been strangled at birth (for example, placing the men of the chorus in rows with their backs to us and nothing to do in the opening scene of Act 2) And it’s hard work to watch, because everybody is so obviously working desperately to make a success of a production that has the kiss of death over it. And to revert to the musical element in a last gasp of disaffection, the Donna Anna is a disaster. She is Eva Mei, whose voice never had the nobility for this part and who now is heard with vibrations loosened to an extent that makes it hard to avoid the dreaded word “wobble”.

Roger Pines, Opera magazine, March 2008

Zurich’s 2006 Don Giovanni is played within Rolf Glittenberg ‘s enormous rectangular arches, their surface adorned with what looks like plastic, formed in a wavy, ridge-like motif. A few airport-style banquettes are strewn about the set, which in several scenes boasts a bar done in stylish I 940s deco. Through most of the performance one misses little of this opera’s traditional stage picture, although it would have been nice to have something resembling a balcony for the second-act trio.

With the gentlemen mainly in formal wear and the ladies sporting full-skirted frocks of early 1950s vintage, the cast seems entirely comfortable in the staging by the German actor-director Sven-Eric Bechtolf. He interferes with the piece less than one might have expected, given the visual scheme. The volatile master-servant relationship emerges marvellously, with Giovanni changing with unnerving quickness from near-brotherly affection to scary dominance. Anna is consistently steely and seldom sympathetic, opposite an unaffectedly sweet, open-hearted, refreshingly normal Elvira. Masetto is fairly rough, Zerlina rather randy in Act 2. One can accept Bechtolf’s production willingly, except for a certain little wooden statue: seen initially in ‘Mi tradi’ , then at the graveyard, it’s draped in a bloodstained white dinner jacket and carried onstage by Leporello in the banquet scene-a wretchedly inadequate alternative to the Stone Guest.

The incomparably charismatic Simon Keenlyside rules the proceedings in the title role. Faultless vocally, musically and textually, he exudes joie de vivre, genuinely enjoys each seduction, and is not incapable of tenderness. As a result, the more aggressive moments (especially his luring Zerlina away in the party scene, and later his nasty treatment of Masetto) are doubly disturbing. The portrayal amply demonstrates Keenlyside’s unlimited abilities in stage movement, hence one’s surprise that Bechtolf has given him nothing to do in the Champagne Aria, sung in basic ‘stand-and-deliver’ mode.

Piotr Beczala sings Ottavio with strong, notably firm tone, comporting himself with the role’s essential dignity. Leporello is both nimbly and robustly delivered by the mellow-toned Anton Scharinger, very Terfel-like in appearance. Reinhard Mayr’s Masetto has less distinction, but Alfred Muff is a mighty Commendatore, making doubly regrettable our being deprived of his presence onstage for the final confrontation.

The ladies are vocally somewhat undercast. Eva Mei’s timbre loses colour significantly under pressure, although her icy Anna impresses in the florid section of ‘Non mi dir’. Malin Hartelius’s Elvira brings exceptional musicality and sincerity to each of her scenes. Martina Jankova, perky but not obnoxiously so, is unembarrassed by the stripteasing required of her in Zerlina’s ‘Vedrai carino’ , but her featherweight instrument sounds disappointingly generic.

Welser-Möst’s musicians play with a bite more often heard from original instrument ensembles. The conductor’s polished musical preparation of cast and orchestra is constantly evident, and he finely balances intimacy with a never-excessive grandeur.

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