The quest for the perfect Don Giovanni

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? 


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