Poker face: Mariusz Kwiecien as Don Giovanni.
Photo by Nick Heavican © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera.
Don Giovanni is unique: part rollocking sex farce and part morality play. Although the title character has slept with over two thousand women (1,003 in Spain alone, as detailed in the famous "catalog" aria) he never scores in the course of two acts. He meets his end at the hands of the Commendatore, the spirit of a man who he murdered in Act I, when the statue of the dead man comes to life and comes to dinner.
But this opera is more than a simple ghost story. The Don is a morally ambiguous hero, but there is something noble about his lust for life and refusal to knuckle under to the statue's orders to repent. This quality inspired the Romantic generation of writers and composers, even as the brilliant music pointed the way forward to Beethoven, Schubert and their successors. Its influence cannot be overstated.
Although this Don boasts a strong cast, with Mariusz Kweicien in the title role, all eyes will be on the podium. Y'see, these performances mark Metropolitan Opera music director James Levine's much-anticipated return to conducting, following five months of physical rehabilitation and rest for a recurring series of back and shoulder problems. Will Maestro Levine make a triumphant return? Or will there be another guest for dinner--this one in the pit?
Don Giovanni is one of the most frequently recorded Mozart operas, and many fine recordings are available. Here are three that I like.
Vienna Philharmonic cond. Josef Krips (Decca, 1955)
Don Giovanni: Cesare Siepi
Leporello: Fernando Corena
Donna Anna: Suzanne Danco
Donna Elvira: Lisa della Casa
Il Commendatore: Kurt Böhme
One of the first stereo recordings of this opera, the Krips recording captures singers of a different age in the fertile ground of Vienna, just a decade after the war. Siepi and Corena play the roles of master and servant with gusto, and the conducting is terrific.
Philharmonia Orchestra cond. Carlo Maria Giulini (EMI, 1959)
Don Giovanni: Eberhard Wächter
Leporello: Giuseppe Taddei
Donna Anna: Joan Sutherland
Donna Elvira: Elizabeth Schwarzkopf
Il Commendatore: Gottlob Frick
It's over 50 years old, and still the bench-mark. Carlo Maria Giulini is a brilliant conductor with the right blend of comic drive and high drama. The all-star cast (which also featurs Piero Cappucilli and Luigi Alva) was assembled by producer Walter Legge, a feat unimaginable today.
Chamber Orchestra of Europe cond. Claudio Abbado (DG, 1998)
Don Giovanni: Simon Keenlyside
Leporello: Bryn Terfel
Donna Anna Carmela Remigio
Donna Elvira: Soile Isokoski
Il Commendatore: Matti Salminen
This was Bryn Terfel's third recording of the opera, and his first as Leporello. (He was the Don for Solti's recording, and also recorded Masetto.) The Welsh baritone seems much more comfortable as the Don's slippery servant, and gives a great reading of this part. Abbado's conducting is spot on, as is Matti Salminen's terrifying Commendatore.