Don Giovanni

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Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Libretto: Lorenzo Da Ponte

First Produced: Prague, 1787

Present Company: The Royal Opera, 2008

Director: Francesca Zambello

Sets & Costumes: Maria Björnson

Lighting: Paul Pyant

Film Director: Robin Lough

Royal Opera House Orchestra & Chorus

Conductor: Charles Mackerras



Don Giovanni: Simon Keenlyside

Leporello: Kyle Ketelson

Donna Anna: Marina Poplavskaya

Donna Elvira: Joyce DiDonato

Don Ottavio: Ramon Vargas

Zerlina: Miah Persson

Masetto: Robert Gleadow

Commandatore: Eric Halfvarson



Resolution: 1080i

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Disc size: BD-50

Opera: 58.68 GB

Bit Rate: High (36~40 Mbps)

Italian LPCM 5.1

Italian LPCM 2.0 stereo

Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish & Italian

Region: All

Opera runtime: 176 minutes

Opus Arte 2009



Conception & Staging: A

Costumes: A

Casting: A

Singing: A

Orchestra: A

Music Direction: A

Video Direction: A

Image: A+

Audio: B

Extras Features: C

Recommendation: A-



I probably have greater experience with Mozart’s Don Giovanni on the stage and LP than any other opera.  The 1959 Giulini EMI and 1955 Krips Decca are both supreme achievements on vinyl, but I have yet to find something remotely equivalent on stage.  When I began to investigate opera on Blu-ray I soon learned of rave reviews for this one from Covent Garden and rushed to get my copy.  I was pleased that Opus Arte chose to generously spread the opera over two discs (as they did for their Nozze di Figaro.)  But the moment the orchestra sounded that fateful d-minor chord, rich and portentous, my heart sank.  The surround was more exaggerated than any opera I heard on video to date.  I don’t get it.  Apparently other critics do, for I seem to be the only one who finds artificially processed surround unnerving.  To record surround properly when the source is the stage and the pit, the correct solution is to place the surround mikes out in the audience, possibly to the sides so as to be out of their line of sight.  It couldn’t be more obvious that this is not how this surround mix is recorded.



I tried to place my annoyance on hold until Leporello’s entrance, which, I am happy to report, charmed me right out of my foul mood. Alas, not for long.  Two problems: the orchestra is way too loud for the stage, and what with the surround, there is no escaping it.  Stereo was the only option.  Better balance front to back, though it sounded like I was listening to completely different orchestra.  Very odd indeed.  The second issue is the disastrous ensemble in the opening trio with Leporello, Giovanni and Donna Anna.  Twice – and at one of my favorite bits of contrapuntal writing!  The good news is that nothing remotely so jarring happens again for the remainder of the opera.  On the contrary, once footing was established and a temporal agreement reached, I felt a wave of confidence flow over me.


What’s so special about Don Giovanni?  To start with, in purely historical terms it is about as important to the development of opera as a serious dramatic medium as the moon landing was to space travel.  Prior to Don Giovanni drama was more or less confined to classical subjects – by “classical” I mean remote, as in Greek.  Their themes were metaphorical even if the emotional affect was not.  Two of dramatic strands of Don Giovanni – Love and Betrayal – had been treated before, but never with such complexity of character, and not only for the title character.



There is hardly a transparent single character. At one level or another, they all dissemble about love and loyalty.  Leporello, while complaining about the indignities he suffers at his master’s hand, secretly envies Giovanni’s conquests. He complains about trading identities to woo Donna Elvira, but we can tell he is enjoying the masquerade. Zerlina, on her wedding day, tries to play both ends against the middle.  Naïve she most certainly is, but she knows the reputation of nobles in respect to the lower classes like herself, and she is willing, if not exactly eager, to see how far she can go, and how far Giovanni will go, before being compromised; and she enjoys testing her lover’s faith in her - on her wedding day, no less!


Donna Anna is righteously indignant about Giovanni’s attempt to seduce and/or rape her in the middle of the night – and while our sympathies are enhanced and distracted by Giovanni’s subsequent killing of her father – we eventually learn that she mistook Giovanni for her fiancé Don Ottavio, another righteous fellow.  So, are we to believe her father would have approved of Ottavio’s sleeping with his daughter in his house.  She confesses this almost as a slip of the tongue, and I have to admit it was three or four times though the operas before I realized the import of her remark.



Donna Elvira is certainly the most engaging character in respect to the matter of betrayal, and the most complex: She comes on at first wearing her outrage on her sleeve – of how Giovanni seduced her, stole her love and abandoned her; but we soon learn that she is so much in love with this rake of rakes that she allows herself to be taken in by Leporello, who simply wears his master’s cloak and hat as disguise.  Talk about Betrayal!


All this just scratches the surface of Da Ponte’s libretto and we haven’t come remotely close to the question of the Commandatore, Donna Anna’s father, whose ghost in the form of his graveyard statue, comes to life long enough to desire Giovanni’s repentance, or else. . .



OK, so we can see that Da Ponte had written a story with flesh and blood characters, of seriousness and comedy.  This wasn’t exactly new in 1786. What was new, and had never been thought to be possible before then, was to write music for each character that embodied that character, yet was still of a piece with the entire opera.  Before Mozart, composers were satisfied with stock affects to convey Love, Rage, Fear and so on, but the music written out of these affects was more or less interchangeable with any other character expressing the same affect.  Not so with Mozart.  You would never mistake Figaro’s challenge to Cherubino Non più andrai to make a man of himself with Giovanni’s "Fin ch'han dal vino"; nor would you confuse this aria with his serenade to Elvira’s maid Deh vieni alla finestra", yet both are unmistakably Giovanni and no one else – not even Leporello, who is also a bass-baritone and who must, for a short time, be taken for Giovanni.



The three sopranos: Donna Elvira, Donna Anna and Zerlina all sing about betrayal but their arias are very different from each other.  In Mozart’s day this was enough of a feat to be applauded. Beyond this, Mozart creates a fabric of music that taking into account all the different arias and the connecting recitatives and chatter that can only be Don Giovanni and not Figaro nor Cosi nor Magic Flute and certainly not Idomeno.  Beethoven gave up after just one crack at opera.  Rossini and Donizetti, popular as they were thirty to fifty years after Mozart, could not begin to duplicate his abilities at either characterization or coherence.  Rossini’s 1828 William Tell – in the French version, not the Italian – came close. Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor has some unforgettable moments of high drama, but that was in 1835, after three decades and some forty operas. Berlioz pulled it off in 1858 with Les Troyens.  Once mere mortals could be seen to do Mozart’s hat trick, if only occasionally, others followed suit from Verdi to Richard Strauss to Alban Berg (BTW, as melodious as is Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus, I don’t think he can write two tunes in character.)


Staging & Performance

Words fail in my admiration for Maria Björnson’s sets (she also did the excellent costumes) and Paul Pyant’s lighting design, save one aspect that neither myself nor my guest that evening could make any sense of until the end - namely the strange construction (of which the audience sees only a small portion) that stood in for the apparition of the Commandatore’s statue in Act 2.  By the end of the act we realized it was intended to be his gloved hand, but we both felt it was too late in coming and I thought it couldn’t signify for Giovanni, let alone Leporello, who would have been too dim to make the connection and be frightened by it.  But enough carping, the rest of the opera is stunning to look at.  As I say words fail - and I mean that literally, as I have never been very good at description in words.  I trust my screencaps tantalize.


Stage director Francesca Zambello asks for and gets from Simon Keenlyside a particularly edgy Giovanni: He is relentlessly in pursuit of women and steams over anything or anyone who he sees as a threat or an interruption. He even relishes killing if it becomes necessary, though he doesn’t seek it. His murder of Donna Anna’s father, which in another production might seem like just deserts for an old man who foolishly places honor above good sense, here is vicious and bordering on erotic.  Giovanni can be turned on by the running of blood as he does the juices of love making or its pursuit.  Keenlyside makes us believe in Giovanni’s unwillingness to repent even with the threat of  the final solution.  We do not regret his end. . . which, of course, makes the light touch that Mozart brings to Da Ponte’s moralizing epilogue that much more problematic.  Zambello’s last second touch, I think, will amuse and satisfy.


Leporello is often as interesting and always as or more entertaining than Giovanni, and the American bass-baritone Kyle Ketelson is a perfect complement to Keenlyside’s rich Giovanni. There were moments where I could not tell them apart, nor was I supposed to.  It is of no small importance that their voices match, even if their physiques do not - though in this instance they do - since a good part of the deception devised by Giovanni in the second act depends on this.  It is clear in this production, thanks to Zambello’s direction, that it is Giovanni’s voice more than anything else that is the instrument of his seductive power.  It is no wonder that Leporello can pick up on his lead to nail the unsuspecting and smitten Elvira.

Poor Donna Anna, she herself sexually attacked, her father murdered, it’s no wonder that she can come off as a little shrill.  Marina Poplavskaya might be intense and even a bit grim, but she isn’t shrill and makes for a fine foil, if that’s the right word, for the lovesick Don Ottavio.  The Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas sings one of Mozart’s most tender love songs Dalla sua pace to an imagined Anna.  It doesn’t generally work to separate the two but it does here.


The American mezzo Joyce DiDonato, gets the plum role of Donna Elvira, who, as in many productions comes on full bore with her outrage, and only later - but not too much later, thank you - lets us in on the truth and breadth of her feeling for this monster whom she hunts with a blunderbuss and a sly smile.  I liked her, even more so as she went along.  Zambello engages in a magical bit of stage business in her second act aria In quali...Mi tradi quell'alma ingrata where the conflicted Elvira is about ready to cash in her chips.  Here he has Donna Anna and Zerlina literally take the knife from her hand.  The throat will catch, I can promise you.


The delightful Swedish soprano Miah Persson puts me in mind of Susan Alexander’s vocal teacher in Citizen Kane: “Round tones” he would constantly admonish her.  Miss Persson could never be guilty of flattening her vowels.  It’s a little amusing to watch her sing the same word next to Marina Poplavskaya, Miah, so round and open; Marina, so wide and flat (her mouth, not her pitch.)  Miah’s Zerlina is a joy - daring, coquettish, appealing but not provocative.  It’s no wonder she drives Masetto quite out of his skin. Canadian bass Robert Gleadow has his hands full.  And speaking of hands, we the video audience are treated to something even those in the first row can’t see, his to-die-for grey-blue eyes, which, thankfully, Zerlina doesn’t have to. . . die for, I mean.  Another American completes our cast: Eric Halfvarson whips up the necessary authority (it’s from God, after all) as the righteous Commandatore, who comes to life only after he is dead.




Opus Arte spreads this three hour opera plus a handful of brief bonus features across two BD50 discs (as they did for their Royal Opera production of Le Nozze di Figaro) and, while not making use of every byte of space, the opera is transferred at the highest bit rate I have yet encountered (on Disc 1 at least), solidly at 40 Mbps, and maybe a bit more!  Such care, together with the best video cameras available and generally spot-on exposures result in a knockout video presentation.  1080i be damned!  You would be hard put to find a sharper, more coherent and more colorful live action movie on video.  Control of dynamic range is necessarily limited by its being shot in HD video rather than film, but that said, the contrast range is excellent with deep noiseless blacks, wonderfully saturated primaries, and right-to-the-edge bright values.




Alas, as I mentioned at the top, the audio is not nearly in the same league.  Evidently the sound engineers felt they were doing us a favor by spreading orchestra matter throughout the surrounds, providing an immersive but unrealistic soundscape.  Moreover, the balance between pit and stage is wrong in 5.1, with vocals much too soft by comparison.  This is Mozart for heaven’s sake, not The Ride of the Valkyries.  The stereo works better in this regard, but while it may have truer timbres it lacks weight as well as dimension.  That said, taking the orchestra and vocals separately, as many listeners do, we find clarity of texture and generally a dynamic and nuanced presentation.




The 32-page booklet includes a welcome essay in three-languages "Before and After the Fall: Don Giovanni and Don Juan" by opera critic David Nice; and, on the disc, a backstage tour of the Royal Opera House (with Deborah Bull) with plenty of footage showing actors, dancers and stage workers in action, plus an interview with Musical Director Charles Mackerras and another with Stage Director Francesca Zambello.



Despite my reservations about the audio – and many will find my complaints not at all bothersome – the video quality, performances by singers and orchestra alike, and the staging all get such high marks that I cannot but endorse this Blu-ray entry by Opus Arte.  All this to say nothing of having on hand one of the greatest operas by the Beloved of God himself.


Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

June 21, 2012

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