Don Giovanni

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Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Libretto: Lorenzo da Ponte

First Produced: Vienna, 1788

Present Company: Innsbruck Festival, Baden-Baden, 2006

Director: Vincent Boussard

Sets: Vincent Lemaire

Costumes: Christian Lacroix

Lighting: Alain Poisson

Video Director: Georg Wübbolt

Innsbruck Festival Chorus

Freiburger Barockorchester

Conductor: René Jacobs



Don Giovanni: Johannes Weisser

Leporello: Marcos Fink

Donna Anna: Malin Byström

Donna Elvira: Alexandrina Pendatchanska

Don Ottavio : Werner Güra

Zerlina: Sunhae Im

Masetto: Nikolay Borchev

Commendatore: Alessandro Guerzoni



Resolution: 1080i

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Disc size: BD-50

Opera: 35.92 GB

Bit Rate: Mod (19~25 Mbps)

Italian DTS-HD MA 5.1

Italian DTS-HD MA 2.0

Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish & Italian

Region: All

Opera runtime: 171 minutes

Harmonia Mundi 2008



Conception & Staging: B

Costumes: B

Casting: A

Singing: A

Orchestra: A+

Music Direction: A+

Video Direction: A-

Image: A-

Audio: A

Extras Features: A



Singer, conductor and musicologist René Jacobs is not one to dismiss just because his idea of Don Giovanni represents just about everything contrary to what most of us are used to: tempi and characterization of the protagonist, most obviously. For this reason you might be well advised to begin your acquaintance with this unusual, yet seductive and memorable production with his hour-long bonus feature "Looking for Don Giovanni."  An informative piece in its own right, you could learn a great deal about opera in general and Don Giovanni in particular from Mr. Jacobs, who is perfectly wiling to admit to its ambiguities as he is to assert his understanding of the creators’ intentions, both Mozart and da Ponte.



If you’ve had extensive experience with modern looks back at Baroque and Classical performance practice from the Concentus Musicus Wien (Nikolaus Harnoncourt), The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (Nicholas McGegan) or Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, then you understand their intention to time travel two, three and four centuries past and present for the modern listener what is sincerely believed to be the way their music ought to be played.  Some traditional (and here I mean largely nineteenth century) performance practice of older music dies hard, and perhaps may never be obliterated.  My feeling is that there is a place for all.  Otherwise how would we properly place the value of transcription or, just to take one composer’s invention: Stravinsky’s Pulcinella?



The challenge and the fascination I have always felt about Don Giovanni is its dual nature of drama and buffa.  Can one bring off both aspects convincingly in the same performance?  Then, of course, there is that natty problem of the ending, where everyone but Giovanni congenially addresses the audience right after the protagonist is sent to his just desserts.  Is it enough after three hours to be reminded of the opera’s complete title:  Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni - that is: The Rake Punished, or Don Giovanni.


Jacobs insists that Giovanni is a younger man than is traditionally characterized, so as to have given him plenty of time to have racked up sufficient conquests.  He cites his sources, and asks us to consider whether Giovanni really deserves to be sent to Hell after so brief a spell on Earth, despite the killing of Donna Anna’s father.  The answer to this question suggests one conception of the story or the other, but not both, which is why this production makes such an engaging companion piece to the Keenlyside/Zambello Royal Opera production.  In the latter, Giovanni relishes his kill; in the Jacobs version, he is somewhat appalled by the death of the old man, as if it were an accident, however inevitable.  Keenlyside is clearly a rapist; Weisser, merely a satyr.



Perhaps nowhere in the opera is the difference between drama and buffa better contrasted than in the scene where Giovanni lures Donna Elvira into a tryst with Leporello disguised as himself.  In the Zambello version, the center of attention is on Leporello who satirizes his boss in one goofy posture after another while Giovanni serenades Elvira, who is positioned a couple of stories above him. The scene is justly hysterical.  The similarity in the voices of Keenlyside and Ketelson allow us to believe in Elvira’s deception eve after Giovanni runs off to seduce her maid while Leporello takes over main duties.  What’s missing or ignored here is what is core to how Giovanni seduces his women - with his voice.  In the Zambello production, Keenlyside does a fairly convincing job vocally when he attempts to seduce Zerlino in the previous act, though he is not nearly as charming vocally as Weisser in the Boussard production.  But this is the difference between the two Dons: the one, a sociopath, the other, a lover, however careless - even calculating - with the affections of his women.



Now consider that same scene in the Jacobs/Boussard version with a much younger Giovanni - Johannes Weisser is only 29 here - and note where Boussard places Giovanni in relation to Elvira: just outside her window, so close that they are nearly touching, as if he is in her head.  When Leporello makes with his sardonic comments, she glances in his direction, making it clear that she perceives Giovanni’s voice to coming from Leporello when we know he is really inside her.  So convincing is Weisser, that it doesn’t matter that he is much younger, taller and somewhat lighter of voice than Marcos Fink’s Leporello.  When Elvira goes off with Leporello she takes Giovanni with her.  Giovanni, for his part, seems to actually believe he is in love with her, unlike the Zambello version where his Giovanni is just acting a part.  The camera moves in tightly on the pair to emphasize the point. In this often odd production, it’s hard not to have your throat catch at this point. This is not how this scene is usually played.



There is so much I like about this production - René Jacobs’ characterful conducting; Zerlino and Mazetto’s first duet, so zesty, so unsuspecting; the singing of the entire cast, in fact; Weisser’s charm; the strikingly forward interplay between continuo and singers and the occasional cutting to the keyboard which in other productions I would decry - that the few things that put me off make it difficult to give it an entirely passing grade: There’s the altogether silly housecoat that Giovanni wears in his villa at the end of each of the two acts that makes him look less credible as a rake. More troublesome is the staging of Zerlina’s seduction.  I don’t see how it can work for this to be not off-stage so that Giovanni can believably accuse Leporello of the deed.  And I’m sure that some will find Leporello’s curtain pull in the final scene with the Commendatore more than a little much, seeing it primarily as a prop for the fires of Hell. But it is important to note that Leporello begins to grab for the curtain as soon as the Commendatore makes himself known, as if trying to hide in it, recollecting for us that he starts the opera by trying to find his way through the curtain to the proscenium; so at the end he is not only hiding and pulling the curtain on his master in a sort of hell fire and damnation metaphor, if you will, but also on Giovanni, the opera.  I’m not convinced it works very well in any case, but we shall see what a second run through makes of it.




Johannes Weisser’s Giovanni is having himself a great time, but he also seems to be unable to do otherwise – insatiable to be sure, but also kind of manic, if you will.  (This may explain the oddball outfits.)  His lighter voice, young age, and generally less demonic personality may be enough to put off those who want their Dons to clearly deserve a one-way ticket south.  Slovenian bass-baritone Marcos Fink is a master of sly, understated humor, unlike the broad comedy of Kyle Ketelson (which I liked very much, by the way).  It took me a moment to realize how comical was his contempt for his boss, while willing, with feigned reluctance, to catalogue Giovanni’s exploits to Donna Anna.  Still, I sometimes I wished for more pointed articulation.



As our Giovanni is young, so too are all of his supporting players, save Leporello, who is older than usually cast, but sensibly if you think about it.  Lovely Swedish soprano Malin Byström at times looks scarcely twenty but embodies the necessary intelligence and class to oppose the Don, and a big voice to match.  I like that she is dressed in what passes for a negligee in her first scene where Giovanni must have just surprised her in bed.


Korean soprano Sunhae Im’s Zerlina (even though 30) looks and acts positively adolescent. Her intended, Mazetto, is sung by a lighter voice than I usually expect, more of a lyric baritone: Nikolay Borche is from Belarus and only 26.  The German tenor Werner Güra is our Don Ottavio. Forty-two at the time of this performance, he is the oldest of the supporting players, yet sings with a youthful, yet mature lyricism and an authority that works very well here.



Saving the best for last is Bulgarian soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska (“Alex Penda” to her fans), who not only completely convinced me of her Latin origins - I thought she might be the only person in the cast who might actually have genetic links to Seville - she has the most jaw-droppingly caressing ppp high notes since Montersat Caballé.  Her Elvira has plenty invective when required, though she lets on from the outset how easily her rage is undermined by her love for Giovanni.  She is also very easy on the eyes.  I give René Jacobs a rare A+ for a reading of the score that excites the imagination.  From the Overture forward, he reveals the underlying character of the players and not merely a suitable concert performance.


Vincent Lemaire’s sets are, I feel, hit and miss.  I very much liked the Moorish opening scene and the set for Zerlina and Mazetto, as well as the previously mentioned scenes in Act 2 with Elvira, Giovanni and Leporello. That Leporello comes out in Giovanni’s coat to start the opera is clever, making it into a kind of running gag.  On the other hand, you might find Alain Poisson’s blue faux night light to be a bit wearing.



Video & Audio

Despite that Harmonia Mundi - in their first go at this sort of thing - fits a 3-hour opera onto a single BD-50 with room left over for a nearly one-hour bonus feature in HD, the image quality is superb throughout.  We notice right off how natural and textured fabrics appear in all but the dimmest light.  Donna Anna’s initial entrance is through a wash of light behind her that threatens to blow out the projector lamp; once she steps fully into the stage the image accommodates her hysteria and the wildly dynamic blue lighting that lingers throughout much of this production.


Harmonia Mundi offers both the now common DTS-HD MA 5.1 and PCM 2.0 stereo choices, the latter maintaining a better richness of all the voices than is usual for these 2.0 opera mixes; the chorus comes off particularly well. Balance between stage and pit is excellent regardless of which you choose, though each is curiously different.  René Jacobs conducts an orchestra of period instruments with their characteristic lean timbres, wonderfully distinguished but always coherent and sensibly rendered.  The continuo parts and the occasional solo instrument achieve a perfect dialogue with the solo voices on stage.




In addition to the excellent “Looking for Don Giovanni” bonus feature, the enclosed booklet (loosely ensconced, so be careful not to misplace it) includes a synopsis and several essays.  Those by Florence Badol-Bertrand are only in French; but Andreas Friesenhagen’s essays are in German, French & English. One is aptly titled “Incorrigible Sinner or Demonic Seducer?” 


It may be that a second look will alter my feeling about some critical aspects of the staging, but for now I must give this Blu-ray only a cautious recommendation.  You should not see this as the definitive Don Giovanni but as a companion piece to your favorite more traditional outing, and if you have a few extra bucks to spare, you could do much worse with your time and money than a purchase.  (For some bizarre reason, at just this moment lists and sells this title at a hellish US$58, about double that of, £18.) Of no small importance is that the overall excellence of the singing and sound that makes it one of the best audio-only listens of this or any Blu-ray opera. Top it all off with the vivacious playing of the Freiburger Barockorchester, Alex Penda, and the bonus feature make the expense seductive.


Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

July 1, 2012

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