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Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus: Don Giovanni (DVD) Opus Arte/ROH 2008

Don Giovanni (DVD)

Mozart Don Giovanni ROH DVD
BBC Music Magazine Choice, June 2009

Conductor: Charles Mackerras
Don Giovanni: Simon Keenlyside
Leporello: Kyle Ketelsen
Commendatore: Eric Halfvarson
Donna Anna: Marina Poplavskaya
Donna Elvira: Joyce DiDonato
Don Ottavio: Ramón Vargas
Zerlina: Miah Persson
Masetto: Robert Gleadow
The Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House
Stage Director: Francesca Zambello
Recorded live at the Royal Opera House, London, on 8 & 12 September 2008
Illustrated synopsis & cast gallery.
Into the Royal Opera House.
Backstage Tour.
Catalogue No: OA1009D
Format: All Formats
Regons: All Regions
Picture format: 16:9
Sound: 5.1 DTS Surround / PCM Stereo
Subtitles: EN/FR/DE/ES/IT
Released: 1 April 2009
No of discs: 2
ASIN: B001U5V03U

Don Giovanni is one of the timeless classics of all opera. Mozart’s music, and the words of his great collaborator Da Ponte, are brought to life in Francesca Zambello’s engrossing production from 2002 with its rich and colourful designs by Maria Bjornson. The music is memorable, dramatic and enjoyable: from the seductive solo voices of the famous ‘La ci darem la mano’ to the fabulous ensemble as Don Giovanni’s infatuated conquests, vengeful victims and their outraged relatives join forces for justice. And retribution does finally come to Don Giovanni, a serial womanizer and a murderer, with the searing flames of Hell ready to engulf him. Simon Keenlyside heads the outstanding cast, conducted by renowned Mozart expert Charles Mackerras.

Photo Gallery

What the critics say

BBC Music Choice

Hilary Finch, BBC Music magazine, June 2009

A truly blazing Don

Hilary Finch relishes a superb cast for Don Giovanni

We see and hear Don Giovanni’s end in his beginning here: as flames rage over the opening cast credits, Sir Charles Mackerras conducts an incandescent Overture which kindles the brilliance, clarity and indefatigable energy of his musical direction throughout. This film powerfully captures the fiery essence of Francesco Zambello’s production for the Royal Opera. Striking lighting and fearless camera angles highlight the best elements of Maria Bjornson’s design, with its revolving arc of a double-sided wall, and its costumes of flame red and midnight blue.

And, consistently strongly cast, it’s as good for the ear as for the eye. Zambello makes Simon Keenlyside’s harsh and diabolical Don Giovanni and Kyle Ketelsen’s embittered Leporello a double-act of deadly dependency. This contrasts tellingly with the mutual support and solidarity of three feisty and independent women:

Marina Poplavskaya’s noble, almost other-worldly Donna Anna, Joyce DiDonato’s thrillingly anguished, gleamingly voiced Donna Elvira, and Miah Persson’s sturdy but sensuous country lass of a Zerlina. When symbols of unliberated womanhood – spinning wheels, cradles, laundry tubs – are raised high as the peasants enter, the point is made somewhat didactically. But the dramatic momentum of Zambello’s production carries all before it, with Keenlyside’s ravaged, cynically exploitative Don, Ketelsen’s dark-etched Leporello, Ramon Vargas’s refreshingly robust Don Ottavio, and Robert Gleadow’s personable Masetto all worked to their considerable limits.

Excellent liner notes by David Nice, clear track navigation, and generous if unremarkable and over-promotional extras, complete this irresistible package.

John Terauds, The Toronto Star.com, 26 May 2009

It is a thrill to watch this two-disc Blu-ray recording of Mozart’s ever-popular Don Giovanni, performed last fall at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The high-def experience often feels more vivid than sitting in the auditorium itself. It is a pleasure to watch great performances like these on a big screen in the comfort of home.

The first-rate cast, crisp orchestral direction of veteran Mozart master Charles Mackerras and unfussy staging by Francesca Zambello add up to terrific opera. It would be a four-star performance, but for a slight lack of energy from some members of the cast.

Young Toronto bass-baritone Robert Gleadow, a familiar face at the COC, is a solid Mazetto. Simon Keenlyside is a bit bland in the title role and Kyle Ketelsen lacks the ideal comic touch to create a memorable Leporello, but both are in excellent voice. Marina Poplavskaya is okay as Donna Anna, while Joyce DiDonato blows everyone off the stage whenever she appears as Donna Elvira.

This production, first seen in 2002, is wearing well and if you’re considering trying opera on Blu-ray, this is a great place to start (this title is available on DVD as well). There are several extras, including a backstage tour and very short interviews with Mackerras and Zambello. The booklet comes with a pompous introductory essay on the Don Juan dramas.

John Steane, Gramophone, July 2009

Fine singing and watchable production but Mackerras is the true star

This is eminently listenable and surprisingly viewable “surprisingly” because complaints were commonly heard concerning the production. It’s not particularly edifying to see so much of Simon Keenlyside’s torso or to have Giovanni taking his last supper in shorts, but by modern standards it’s almost tasteful. And the singing is almost uniformly fine. If one of the cast is to be named above the rest, that should be Joyce DiDonato, an outstandingly accomplished Elvira, brilliantly projected, interestingly conceived, her singing concentrated in tone. Marina Poplavskaya’s Anna is both dignified and sympathetic, and she too has remarkable command of the necessary technique. Yet the voice itself doesn’t serve quite as well as one might have hoped, wanting more heft in “Or sai chi l’onore” and more ease of passage in “Non mi dir”. Miah Persson is an adorable Zerlina, and I liked what she and others were encouraged to do by way of vocal ornamentation. Of the men, Giovanni is the least tested vocally though it’s all to the good if he can turn a serenade as ingratiatingly as Keenlyside does. Ramon Vargas hardly looks a suitable lover for this Donna Anna but he sings both arias like the admirably reliable and gifted artist he is and has been for a good many years now. The Masetto looks rather too like the Leporello but that hardly matters and both deserve their applause. The Commendatore’s uneven voice production does matter in spite of his sonorous bass notes and imposing stage presence. Mackerras at the helm is such a reassuringly familiar and well loved figure that we may be tempted to take him for granted. Happily the Covent Garden audience shows every sign of appreciation and the final curtain-call is deservedly his.

Jeffrey Kauffman, DVDTalk.com, 27 May 2009

If patience is a virtue, I must be about the most virtuous opera Blu-ray reviewer out there. After suffering the slings and arrows of some pretty rotten rotten product over the past several months (many of them from either Opus Arte or Art Haus Musik), I’m happy to report that keeping my head from exploding has evidently finally paid off, because this wonderful new BD of Mozart’s Don Giovanni is practically perfect in every way. For once we don’t have a director slathering his (actually in this case, her) “vision” over the proceedings like melted Crisco (and usually about as appetizing), and instead are given a “straight,” though compelling and visually and aurally satisfying, reading of this piece that offers only one “cheat”–a very brief comic coda “sight gag” that some purists will take exception to, but which actually caps the night off swimmingly and at the very least brings the piece squarely into the opera buffa mode that Mozart himself ascribed to the piece.

Don Giovanni, one of countless retellings in various artistic genres of the Don Juan legend, has long been held up as a timeless masterpiece. Seamlessly blending dramatic, comedic and even supernatural elements, the opera offers Mozart at his most scintillating, with luscious melodies literally spilling from the mouths of the main characters, and an at times surprisingly rhythmically facile orchestra accompanying it all. The title character is perhaps opera’s first anti-hero, albeit a strangely likable one. Don Juan is, after all, nothing more or less than a rake, a gigolo who burns his way through the amorous longings of every female with whom he comes into contact.

The opera focuses on a series of Don Juan’s failed attempts, starting with an aborted rape that leads to murder, following up with a woman whom the lothario has abandoned but who has not given up carrying the torch for him, and the third a simple peasant girl Don Juan attempts to lure away from her betrothed. By the end of Act I, the walls are literally closing in on Don Juan. Director Francesca Zambello crafts a wonderful trompe d’oeil moment in the finale to the act when the masquerade ball hall starts folding in on itself and Don Juan and his semi-faithful servant Leporello search in vain for an escape from the vengeful hands of three women.

Act II traverses a tightrope that flirts with both farce (Leperello and Don Juan trade places, as it were) and tragedy (the Commendatore, the man murdered in Act I, returns as a ghost to demand Don Juan’s repentance). The fascinating thing about these rather wide stylistic variances in the libretto is the homogeneity of Mozart’s music. This is fluid melody and harmony pouring out from one inspired source, and whether we have Don Juan making a rather repulsive pass at a poor hapless lass, or Leporello acting the buffoon, Mozart’s music is remarkably cohesive and self-referential. Any professional musician who’s weathered a college level composition or theory class knows that the ghost scene that caps Act II is a favorite score for professors to foist on their students for analysis purposes, and that’s for a good reason. The marriage of music to drama in this scene is absolutely miraculous.

What really sets Don Giovanni apart in the opera world is its rather relentlessly dour vision for its putative hero. Again and again throughout the two acts of the piece, Don Juan is cajoled, begged and even exhorted to repent of his evil ways. And yet he refuses. He seems to actually get a kick out of the drama he causes. This is played magnificently by Simon Keenlyside, in an almost Nietzschian interpretation. Look, for example, how he sidles up to the Commendatore after he’s stabbed him. It’s almost like a lover moving in on a conquest (and how apt is that?), until Don Juan suddenly laughs. It’s obviously all just a game to him.

The rest of the cast is just as remarkable, including one of the best Donna Annas I’ve heard, Marina Poplavskaya. Kyle Ketelson as Leporello walks just the right fine line between the comedic and dramatic aspects of his character, and Joyce diDonato’s Donna Elvira is suitably the moral center of the piece. If Zerlina (Miah Persson) and Musetta (Robert Gleadow) suffer just a bit by comparison, with Musetta especially seeming a bit on the petulant side, they still deliver the goods overall. The Commendatore is sung heroically by Eric Halfvarson, who makes the most of the climactic final showdown with Don Giovanni.

This beautiful Covent Garden presentation is aces in both production design and especially orchestral accompaniment. All I can say to Zambello and her team is thank you, thank you, thank you. For once, no radical “reimagining” has taken place, and we instead get a very distinctive, utilitarian set that features a weird columnar structure that assumes different uses throughout the opera. That’s balanced against the ballroom scene, described above, and the incredible final scene, where we get everything from literal hell fires to a sort of Baron Munchhausen-esque flaming giant hand which is pointing the way to the nether regions where Don Giovanni is relegating himself by not agreeing to repent. Costumes are incredibly colorful without needlessly drawing attention to themselves.

I’ve long been a fan of conductor Sir Charles Mackerras. In fact his period instrument recreations of the original performances of Brahms’ four symphonies remain some of my favorite versions of what are easily my most personally beloved 19th century symphonic works. Mackerras brings his calm assurance to the entire project, harvesting his orchestral forces easily and transparently. (I did have to wonder about his sometimes strange jaw movements – could Sir Charlie actually be chewing gum while he conducts?)

This is stellar opera performed just about as well as it can be, with a sterling physical production and unmatched orchestral accompaniment. (There are some very brief timing issues with the trio in the opening scene which I attribute either to nerves or perhaps to some monitor issues that were quickly resolved). Opus Arte has finally hit one out of the ballpark and even those not particularly enamored of this art form may find themselves unusually engaged by this Don Giovanni.

The Blu-ray Video:

With an AVC codec and 1.78:1 OAR, Don Giovanni, despite being 1080i, offers a wonderfully crisp and lusciously well saturated image. There are gorgeous colors galore in this production, from deep cobalt blues to fiery reds, and they are all rendered here flawlessly. Contrast and black levels are consistent and top notch. My only caveat is that the actual television direction is a bit spotty at times – when one person is singing, we occasionally are forced to look at another character. But the image itself is wonderful.

Again, the uncompressed PCM 5.1 and 2.0 mixes are both excellent, though the 5.1 offers greater fullness, if not that much more separation. Mozart’s orchestral lines are wonderfully transparent, especially in the winds and reeds, and the singers all sound marvelous. There were one or two very brief moments when I wished individual singers had been mixed a little higher, but these were extremely few and far between.

As usual with these Opus Arte releases, a nice illustrated booklet is included in the insert. Disc 1 of this two BD set also offers the standard illustrated synopsis as well as a really fun backstage tour of the Royal Opera House, interviews with Mackerras and Zambello (though I wished the interviewer would have just shut up after a while and let the interviewees talk for a change), and a cast gallery.

Final Thoughts:
To segue into pop music for a moment, hopefully Etta James won’t come after me like she did with Beyonce when I say, “At last!” A brilliant opera, performed brilliantly, with none of the “EuroTrash” bells and whistles that are so annoying in so many modern reinterpretations of classic works. For any opera lover, this is easily a DVD Talk Collector Series title. For the public at large–take a chance on upping your cultural quotient and check out this beautiful production of Don Giovanni.

Highly recommended.

RF Opera Now, July-August 2009

Francesca Zambello’s 2002 production for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, opened the 2008 season with tickets available only to Sun readers (the Sun being famous for its Page 3 topless models). The production has not always won universal praise. Indeed there are moments when you’re left wondering quite what is going on. But most of the doubts are swept away by the ability of the camera to involve us with the happenings on stage.

Zambello’s vision is bleak. Simon Keenlyside’s Giovanni, in a vocally rather subdued performance, has no redeeming features, although the slapstick routines between him and Kyle Ketelsen as Leporello get plenty of laughs. The singing is generally first-class with a touching Zerlina from Miah Persson, a forthright Don Ottavio from Ramon Vargas and Joyce DiDonato quite outstanding as Donna Elvira. This DVD is worth getting for her alone, but add Charles Mackerras’s sublime conducting and it becomes unmissable.


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