The quest for the perfect Don Giovanni

by on January 23, 2006 at 7:46 am in Music | Permalink

I was first introduced to Don Giovanni circa 1982, by Christopher Weber.  Since then it has been my favorite opera...

It has comedy, drama, terror, and a sense of cosmic justice.  Freedom and dread are intermingled.  da Ponte’s libretto stands on its own; read Geoffrey Clive’s The Romantic Enlightenment for a good interpretation, or Kierkagaard’s Don Juan essay.  Leporello and the Don are among the most memorable characters of literature.  Don Giovanni might be the single most impressive, most magnificent, more comprehensive, and most complete piece of classical music (Bach’s Passions have a narrower emotional range, and no single Beethoven symphony compares).  You simply must buy it, if you don’t own it already.

Yet I cannot find the perfect recorded version.  Here are remarks on a few contenders:

1. Carlo Maria Giulini: This recording has splendid voices but the sound is muddy and the conducting is not always so sharp.  I much prefer his Figaro.

2. Otto Klemperer: I had high hopes, since his Magic Flute is the best performance of that opera.  But he is lugubrious with the Don and I find this one hard to get through.  Otto’s Beethoven (the mono, odd-numbered symphonies and his Fidelio) and his Bach remain pinnacles.

3. Colin Davis: Perhaps the most evenly rounded version.  More than adequate in every way.  But it is not a first choice along any particular dimension.  And I have never been a fan of Kiri Te Kanawa’s warbling.  But if you want modern sound, this may be your best bet.

4. Georg Solti: As usual, too muscular and too much whiplash.  His approach to the classics worked better live, and as the years recede, people will wonder what all the fuss was about.

5. von Karajan: Stiff, as was too often the case.  He is best for music which needs some additional stiffness, such as Richard Strauss or Sibelius.

6. Charles Mackerras: I’ve never heard this one, but this conductor has been getting better as he ages.  I might give it a shot someday.

7. Fritz Busch: It has the charm of age, but the performances are just not up to snuff.  It remains the sentimental favorite of some people, but not deservedly so.

8. Claudio Abbado: At the time most of the serious reviews declared it a disappointment, so I never bought it.  His recent Beethoven symphonies are gems.

9. Bernard Haitink: A good moderate pick, just as Davis is.  Haitink is one of the most reliable and "buyable" conductors.  Yet he has never developed a truly personal sound.  A good introduction to the opera nonetheless.

10. Ferenc Fricsay. Nope.

11. Erich Leinsdorf. Double nope, and I won’t even give you an Amazon link.

12. John Eliot Gardiner: Better than you might have expected.  It is short of first-rate vocalists, but the conductor’s musical intelligence elevates this.  Gardiner is almost always better than you think he will be, and I mean that as a compliment.

13. Dmitri Mitropoulos: Fiery; it grabs you by the balls and doesn’t let go.  Sloppy at times and not perfect.  So-so live sound from 1956.  At times this is my favorite Don.  Cesare Siepi sings the lead role with abandon.

14. Wilhelm Furtwangler: Do not neglect the differences between the 1950, 1953, and 1954 Salzburg versions by Furtwangler.  The link above is to the 1953 (only $18, plus you get part of Magic Flute).  I have a 1954 on EMI, but no Amazon link for that one.  Many people with better ears than I have prefer the 1953, which is supposed to be slightly more energetic.  Either way you get Cesare Siepi as the Don, passionate conducting, and a celestial feeling throughout.

Recommended, as they say.

How many Don Giovannis must one hear? 

Martin January 23, 2006 at 11:37 am

Tyler
Perhaps not too many of your readers share your passion for opera.
Age?
Politics?
Or maybe opera people just sleep later.
Would be interesting to know

Anyway, the Davis is the definitive version in my book of the definitive opera. Waechter may be one of the most under-appreciated singers of his era. As I recall, the LP had better sound than what appears to be a poorly remastered CD.

John P. January 23, 2006 at 12:18 pm

I think the Giulini is probably the best. But is it possible to have a perfect recording (or performance) of any opera?

Eliot W. January 23, 2006 at 1:59 pm

Very astute summaries. I agree that Solti’s recordings are generally regarded more highly than they should be.

John P. January 23, 2006 at 3:33 pm

I thought Te Kanawa was the best part of the Joseph Losey film of Don Giovanni.

Martin January 24, 2006 at 12:59 am

Meant “Giulini” not Davis. Obviously way off my game.

xenia January 25, 2006 at 9:54 pm

Two completely pointless tenor arias? Well, maybe if you’re only thinking about advancing the plot. But they are absolutely gorgeous music.

Donald Kelman July 29, 2006 at 12:27 pm

The most memorable performance of Don Giovanni I have ever seen was by the Prague National Opera Company. The opera was performed in quite good fashion by nobody famous in particular. Then, the rather anti-climatic final sextet began as usual. Suddenly, from backstge, came the Don. He ignored the 6 who continued singing while looking at him in amazement. As he strolled to the front stage, he was throwing an apple in the air and catching it. He sat down on the edge of the stage with his legs dangling down and took a bite of the apple, which he then flipped into the audience. He then stood up and walked back offstage. We were all delighted as the opera drew to a close. The Don is immortal.

David August 13, 2006 at 6:41 am

Try Oestman, is my favourite version. Otherwise Haitink would be my bet. Historical choice: Walter 1942.

David August 13, 2006 at 6:42 am

Try Oestman, is my favourite version. Otherwise Haitink would be my bet. Historical choice: Walter 1942.

Victoria December 9, 2006 at 1:03 pm

I like Solti’s Don Giovanni, though I don’t see what the fuss is about with this particular opera. It’s good but there are others that I like far better.

David Schechter January 31, 2008 at 1:47 pm

Don Giovanni is an opera incredibly rich in dramatic music, interspersed with comic moments.

I have two favorie recordings.

The Krips recording I find graced by the best female contingent. Suzanne Danco is the only Donna Anna I have heard who sounds alluring. The voice is youthful and passionate. She is no Bruennhilde in disguise. Hilde Gueden is the best Zerlina I have heard and is both wheedling and commanding. Della Casa is splendid as Donna Elvira, not one to be mocked.

For completeness and grandeur I would give the edge to Leinsdorf. He allows phrases to be heard to completion so that the menacing brass ring out. The eerie terror of the chromatic phrases associated with the statue are foreshadowings of the end of the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Siepi and Corena are unsurpassed as master and servant. Cesare Valletti is the best Don Ottavio I have heard (although Alfredo Kraus is excellent, too). The set features an outstanding Masetto in Heinz Blankenburg.

The weakness is Birgit Nilsson’s unalluring Donna Anna.

Arnold van Mill is outstanding as the Commendatore.

This recording includes every scrap of secco recitative (the most important being Donna Elvira’s reaction to the Catalog Aria).

I love the comic episode of the Leporello / Zerlina duet preceding the stark drama of the Cemetery scene.

This opera I find more Shakespearian than those that actually are based on Shakespeare.

Towering over this performance are the superb Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the wonderful chorus. Leinsdorf is especially adept in the first finale where he coordinates the pit orchestra and three on-stage bands.

These are my favorites, but I do enjoy Nicolai Ghiaurov’s recordings, especially the one from Turin with Giulini directing.

Tony Bayliss December 18, 2008 at 7:44 am

I am looking for the ultimate (digital) CD of Don G.

But for an older version how about the Phillips version – Rudolf Moralt & the Wiener Symphoniker, George London as the Don, Walter Berry as Leporello, Sena Jurinacs as Donna Elvira, etc. All great voices anda magnificent tone of the VSO. For me so far, the definitive version. Recorded round about 1956 for the 200th anniverary of Mozart’s birth.

Dave January 19, 2011 at 11:08 am

First off yes Don Giovanni is my favorite opera and such an incredible piece of music that it never ceases to amaze me.

Secondly, I echo the Kiri Te ‘how dare you’ comment. Elvira I don’t think is one of her best roles but she still has an incredibly expressive voice. I could listen to her sing the Countess in Figaro everyday and never tire of it.

Which brings me to, lets not neglect Mozart’s other operas. They are all so beautiful that the fact that when you’re thinking about picking one to listen to choosing between 4 masterpieces and 3 amazing works is like being in a candy shop. The pinnacle of beauty that I’ve found so far in this world.

The other thing is that just like its impossible to find a perfect recording of Giovanni, its also impossible to see a perfect production. What Mozart created is so technically demanding and so challenging to pull off convincingly it’s like Don Giovanni belongs to another world. I think that’s what makes it so mystical and brilliant. He created something that humans cannot possibly completely live up to. We’re always reaching closer and closer to it but its a very elusive piece of music.

Oh Mozart.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: