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Joe Banno
The Classical Review, May 2011

MOZART, W.A.: Don Giovanni (Salzburg Festival, 2008) (NTSC) 2072548
MOZART, W.A.: Don Giovanni (Salzburg Festival, 2008) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 2072544

For the 250th Mozart birthday celebrations in 2006, stage director Claus Guth devised a revelatory production of Le nozze di Figaro for the Salzburg Festival (issued shortly afterwards on Deutsche Grammophon DVD and Blu-ray).

Creating a pre-war, upstairs/downstairs mise-en-scène for the piece—with most of the assignations and sotto voce conspiracies confined to the landings of a stark stairwell in the Almaviva townhouse—Guth mined Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto for all its illicit sexuality and introspective self-torture, almost as if seen through the lens of Ingmar Bergman. Mozartian fundamentalists seeking the manicured surfaces and merely implied adulteries that a literal reading would have offered no doubt greeted the production with stony silence. But Guth tapped the work’s dark-night-of-the-soul undercurrents more arrestingly than any other production in recent memory.

Guth returned to Salzburg to complete his Mozart/Da Ponte trilogy in 2008 with Don Giovanni, and in 2009, with Così fan tutte—productions that have recently been issued on DVD and Blu-ray by EuroArts and Unitel Classica.

If neither reading quite exhibits the power and theatrical cohesion of his Figaro, they’re nevertheless full of interesting ideas and terrific performances. Once again, Guth has yet to meet a subtext he doesn’t like. Donna Anna is fully complicit in her sexual escapade with Giovanni, and spends the opera manufacturing lies to throw Ottavio off the scent. Giovanni, for his part, spends the opera strung-out on heroin and appears to be in the agonizing thrall of an even stronger sexual addiction.

Donald Feldman
American Record Guide, May 2011

I never tire of listening to the Vienna Philharmonic…Bertrand de Billy brings forth an exciting blend of dynamics, instrumental color, and pacing.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, December 2010

MOZART, W.A.: Don Giovanni (Salzburg Festival, 2008) (NTSC) 2072548
MOZART, W.A.: Don Giovanni (Salzburg Festival, 2008) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 2072544

I was hardly surprised to find second-hand copies of this 2008 Salzburg Festival recording already on offer on the web at knock-down prices: you will almost certainly judge it either a masterpiece or an outrageous failure. It’s far more controversial than Bertrand de Billy’s earlier DVD recording at the Gran Teatro del Liceo, which so much impressed Colin Clarke in 2006 (Opus Arte OA0921D, Recording of the Month—see review.) It wasn’t well-received at Salzburg and I was prepared to dislike it, with Claus Guth’s reputation for gloomy productions. Wasn’t Don Giovanni supposed to be a dramma giocoso? In the event, I was very pleasantly surprised in many respects.

I’ve seen the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s contribution described as mediocre—apparently most of the booing was directed at Bertrand de Billy and the orchestra—but they give a most satisfactory account of the overture. I’m not sure how many evenings’ performances were combined to obtain the best, but I was never aware of any inadequacies on their part and there was, indeed, no booing at the end of the DVD. I’m sure, however, that there’s always an element of ‘we can play Mozart in our sleep’ for the Vienna Phil, as there is with the music of the Strauss family on New Year’s Day.

As the overture progresses we see a cameo of the fight to come, between the Commendatore and the Don—in the Christian Schmidt designed pine forest which forms the setting of this performance. Giovanni is fatally wounded by a gunshot from the Commendatore as the latter lies dying from Don Giovanni’s blow. Thus it transpires that the opera covers the last three hours of the profligate’s life, with his life-blood visibly oozing away. It’s a good idea, but it doesn’t really work. Christopher Maltman’s Don is all too alive, both physically—not surprisingly, his impressive physique is commented on in the booklet—and in vocal terms. Occasional spasms of pain are seen to cross his face and he almost faints as early as Leporello’s catalogue aria, but he soon comes back to life as he invites the wedding party to his palace.

As Leporello sings Notte e giorno faticar, his bare-chested master is at his work of seduction in the background with Donna Anna, who doesn’t seem to be entirely seriously resisting him. So far, so good—the woods, which play such a large part in the Germanic psyche, may well seem a more likely setting for the attempted seduction than the usual opening in front of the Commendatore’s house in Seville. There’s plenty of realism too—when Donna Anna sings of avenging her father’s blood, there it is on her hands—and soon it’s smeared on Don Ottavio, too.

There’s plenty of blood around in the next scene as well, as Leporello tries to tend to his wounded and bleeding master—accompanied by drug-shooting. There’s more of this later, with beer cans and joints being handed around to Zerlina and Masetto, though hardly to the extent suggested by one reviewer of the original production, who typified the concept of the Don as an anaemic fixer and denier, anämischer Fixer und Neinsager, living in the forest solely to smoke pot and swill beer with Leporello—fiffen, fixen und saufen. Fin ch’han del vino, usually dubbed the ‘champagne aria’, becomes a lager-can Bierfest.

The scene now revolves to reveal Donna Elvira waiting in a corrugated-iron bus-shelter. Giovanni climbs on the roof as Leporello sings his catalogue aria. If Maltman’s Giovanni is physically impressive, Leporello is played by Erwin Schrott in a suitably picaresque manner, singing the catalogue aria in a throwaway manner which proves oddly effective.

Giovanni’s seduction aria Là ci darem la mano was the very first excerpt from this opera that I heard—sung on a 10-inch 78 rpm disc in German (Reich mir die Hand, mein Leben) so it’s become a crucial point for me in judging performances of the whole opera. I’m happy to say that Maltman and Ekaterina Siurina sing the duet to perfection. I’m not too sure about the subsequent arrival of Don Ottavio and Donna Anna on the scene by car—with the bonnet up and urgent calls to the repair services.

Some aspects of the romp-in-the-woods scenery don’t work at all: it’s hard to imagine Giovanni summoning Donna Elvira’s servant from beneath her window on such a set—where is the finestra to which he bids her come?—and the final banquet has to take place largely in the drink-and-drug-induced imaginations of Giovanni and Leporello. There’s no Commendatore statue—merely a storm-broken tree—and the banquet takes place with the table cloth over a tree stump. Giovanni wears a Burger King paper crown and the fine wine which he praises again becomes a can of lager.

This Donna Anna takes off her shoes and outer garments and walks calmly into the woods with pistol in hand, evidently determined to end it all, with Ottavio undecided what to do about it, which I felt out of sync with the more positive view of his role projected earlier in the production. It wouldn’t work at all, of course, if the final ensemble had not been omitted.

The singing is pretty good from all concerned. Excellently as Annette Dasch sings the part of Donna Anna, her diction is not always ideal. I see that Svetlana Doneva stepped into the role on certain nights when Dasch was indisposed, which perhaps explains why her diction was not of the best on the nights when she did perform. Perhaps, too, it explains the slight sense of occasional strain at the top of her register and volume. I don’t want to make too much of my reservations: like all the other female singers, her performance went a long way to make up for some of the oddities of the production.

Dorothea Röschmann as Elvira does even more to win me over. Even those who detested the production mostly agreed that the singing made up for a great deal.

The men, too, sing extremely well. I’ve already mentioned the extent to which Maltman’s voice is as powerful as his physique, but he can do soft and gentle, too, when it’s appropriate. Schrott almost steals the show from him in acting terms and his singing is also one of the highlights of the performance—just don’t expect the mellifluous tones of Bryn Terfel. Even when fooling around, both sing very well. When master and servant exchange clothes and roles in Act II, Maltman effectively mimics Schrott’s spaced-out mannerisms.

Matthew Polenzani largely rescues Don Ottavio from the role of wimp to which he is often reduced, with Della sua pace receiving a round of applause, and Alex Esposito makes a convincing Masetto, vocally and dramatically, in a role which is not always easy to bring off. Inevitably, though, even he is down-staged and out-sung by Siurina as Zerlina and Polenzani is also overshadowed by Dasch’s Donna Anna. Anatoli Kotscherga sounds suitably commanding as the Commendatore.

Like the 1788 Viennese libretto, this production omits the final ensemble—after Giovanni’s descent to Hell, the rest is silence. Though this flies in the face of almost unanimous modern practice, I found it extremely effective.

The recording sounds good, even when played via television speakers—it’s even better when played through an AV receiver and large speakers.

The picture quality is very good throughout, even on DVD. With up-scaling from my player, I can’t imagine that the higher density version Blu-ray is much of an improvement on this occasion, apart from the kind of picture ‘noise’ from the grille of the car, which the newer format usually corrects. My copy suffered from one brief dropout near the end of the second DVD, which was a trifle annoying but not disastrous. I note that the Blu-ray is currently less expensive than the DVD from one supplier.

Robert Croan
Opera News, December 2010

MOZART, W.A.: Don Giovanni (Salzburg Festival, 2008) (NTSC) 2072548
MOZART, W.A.: Don Giovanni (Salzburg Festival, 2008) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 2072544

For his personal vision of Don Giovanni, director Claus Guth has created a menacing, present-day Forest of Arden, in which Don Giovanni kills the Commendatore with a large fallen tree branch, while the old man gets to shoot his murderer (not fatally) with a pistol. In this production, recorded at the 2008 Salzburg Festival, the Don and Leporello are buff, handsome hoodlums who shoot up a lot and spend much of the opera high on heroin, but they don’t seem to get any pleasure from their escapades. By the end, a debauched Don is wearing a child’s Burger King crown, believing that beer is wine and succumbing to an overdose rather than the flames of Hell. The three women are, for the most part, willing participants, though Donna Anna—crushed and repentant—goes off to shoot herself after “Non mi dir.”

Guth’s concept will not be to every taste, but much of it works surprisingly well, in large part due to the superb cast and excellent musical realization under conductor Bertrand de Billy. This is not the Don Giovanni most opera-lovers know. De Billy uses Mozart’s 1788 Vienna revision, which means we lose Leporello’s “Ah, pietà, signori miei,” Don Ottavio’s “Il mio tesoro” and the entire epilogue—making the end abrupt and jarring. We do get a lovely “Dalla sua pace” from Matthew Polenzani’s nerdy Ottavio, a virtuoso vocalization of “Mi tradì” from Dorothea Röschmann’s sex-crazed Donna Elvira and a rarely included, thoroughly delightful buffo duet for Zerlina and Leporello.

Guth gives us a unique romp in the woods in Christian Schmidt’s limited unit set. Christopher Maltman’s cold-blooded Don is downright scary, the more so because he sings so seductively and exudes a primal sexuality. His serenade is irresistibly vocalized. Erwin Schrott’s manipulative Leporello is even more alluring than his master, vocally more resonant and dynamically subtle, though not so smooth or so accurate in musical details. His “Madamina,” staged in a shelter with both the Don and Elvira present, is masterful in fitting the music to the onstage situation.

The women are technically accomplished, each delineating a distinctly different personality by vocal color, to match the physical portrayal. As Donna Anna, Annette Dasch takes every opportunity to get another moment with Don Giovanni, her bright timbre suggesting both authority and vulnerability. She makes it clear by facial and vocal nuance that she is lying to Don Ottavio in her Act I narration and later in the recitative that precedes “Non mi dir.”

Röschmann brings a juicy, mezzo-ish sound to Donna Elvira’s music. She breaks the fioritura awkwardly in her entrance aria but sails easily through the long-breathed lines of “Mi tradì” (which is transposed down a half step). Ekaterina Siurina’s Zerlina is pure joy, in both sight and sound, a strong beauty who can obviously take care of herself and Masetto, too. When she threatens Schrott’s macho Leporello with a gun and then nearly succeeds in hanging him in their reinstated duet, we fear more for him than for her.

Polenzani, shorn of his character’s showiest moment, sings artistically but makes a bland impression. Alex Esposito is a believably ineffectual Masetto, while Anatoli Kotscherga is a persuasive Commendatore, more flesh and blood than stone.

Hugo Shirley, November 2010

MOZART, W.A.: Don Giovanni (Salzburg Festival, 2008) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 2072544
MOZART, W.A.: Così fan tutte (Salzburg Festival, 2009) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 2072534

These two new blu-ray discs give us the second and third parts of Claus Guth’s Mozart/Da Ponte cycle from the Salzburg Festival, due to be revived in its entirety at the 2011 festival. While the 2006 Figaro was released on Deutsche Grammophon DVD, this Don Giovanni and Così (filmed in 2008 and 2009 respectively) are released on Euroarts. Importantly, too, they appear on Blu-ray—a medium still overlooked by Decca and DG.

Of the two later productions, it is Don Giovanni that presents the most radical rethink and the most compelling viewing. Guth’s vision is unremittingly bleak but incredibly powerful in its terse realisation. It’s not new to portray the Don’s seductions in a modern, emotionless light, or to show drugs as playing an important role in dictating his distorted view of the world; but I’ve not seen such elements incorporated into so fiercely single-minded a view of the work before.

The action is set is a desolate forest, with a grim bus stop on one side. The whole revolves, helping to provide smooth cinematic transitions between scenes while referencing so many films where shallow graves in the glow of headlights—it’s a reference that ultimately informs Guth’s staging of the Commendatore scene.

Guth’s staging is most powerful in the way it not only reflects the most de-humanized aspects modern life so chillingly, but also allies it to the grand, tragedic readings of Mozart’s Dramma giocoso prevalent in the nineteenth century. There’s no place here for the final ensemble, then, which is cut, as Guth shirks the challenge of staging it effectively within his vision of the work. We end with the Don’s damnation, except in this case it is no such thing: this is a godless world, the demons he hears are deep within his own psyche. Rather than the dissolute punished, we simply have the dissolute destroyed. Guth’s achievement, however, is that he manages to jetison the metaphysical without undermining the tragedy. A great deal of the production’s success must also be put down to Christopher Maltman’s central performance, which mixes dangerous physical allure with an almost Wozzeck-like psychological intensity. His final scene is a powerful study in mental collapse, while ‘Dehvieni’ is performed as a pathetic, moving plea for meaningful love.

As Leporello, Erwin Schrott, is an edgy, unhinged presence. He is in a state of drug-induced twitchiness throughout and dependent,more psychologically than financially on his master, whose superiority is marked as much by an ability to maintain an air of sobriety than anything else. Neither Schrott nor Maltman turns in the most glamorous performance vocally, but it hardly seems to matter. There’s plenty of glamour in any case from Annette Dasch’s Donna Anna and Dorothea Röschmann’s Donna Elvira. Both provide compelling studies of emotional neediness, while we can quite understand Donna Anna’s dissatisfaction with Don Ottavio, portrayed here by Matthew Polenzani as a bland embodiment of modern professional success—the American tenor sings stylishly, although denied ‘Il mio tesoro’. Ekatarina Siurina is an unusually seductive Zerlina (who here gets her bondage duet with Leporello, composed for Vienna), while Alex Esposito is a suitably indignant Musetto. Anatoli Kotscherga is darkly implacable as the Commendatore. Bertrand de Billy conducts the score swiftly, on the whole, but with a fine sense of drama, while the Vienna Philharmonic play magnificently.

The updated staging inevitably brings a couple of jarring anachronisms, but in Guth’s Don Giovanni, the power of the conception renders these relatively inconsequential. There are probably just as many anachronisms in his Così, yet there they seem a great deal more worrying. And Guth’s approach in the final Da Ponte opera is less convincing, reflecting Così’s greater elusiveness. The production is smartly modern, and the cast, particularly the ladies, achingly glamorous. The direction is a great deal more stylized, however, with a fair amount of bizarre dancing, as well as ensembles delivered in a self-consciously stand-and-deliver manner.

On the whole Guth seems deeply uneasy with the work’s famously difficult mixture of comedy and pathos, warm emotion and calculated manipulation. In terms of the last of these, Don Alfonso is cast more clearly than usual as the ultra-cynical puppeteer, steering the course not just of the young lovers but also magically effecting scene changes. Unfortunately, however, there’s little comedy going on. If in studiously leaving out the dressing-up Guth deems it an unnecessary element of the plot, he fails to find anything to substitute it, which leaves something of a gap, both in terms of theatrical realism, which is emphasised elsewhere, and basic entertainment. While stripping the comedy from Don Giovanni can work, it’s a far riskier strategy in Così. Here the comedic burden is placed rather too heavily on Patricia Petibon, whose performance as Despina tries too hard—including some dubious vocal clowning. Things improve, however, as the emotional consequences of Don Alfonso’s game make themselves clear.

Guth references his own Don Giovanni by having the same forest impinge on the Così set in Act Two, but in doing so only underlines how it manages none of that production’s clear-sighted intensity. Without such a comparison, this Così would probably seem more successful, especially given the fine cast and playing—the Vienna Philharmonic this time conducted by Adam Fischer. Miah Persson is a feisty, well-sung Fiodiligi, while Isabel Leonard, combines catwalk looks with her rich, well-controlled mezzo to seductive effect. Topi Lehtipuu is an elegant Ferrando and Florian Boesch an intense Gugliemo, but neither man’s voice is well captured in the recorded sound. Bo Skovhus plays Don Alfonso with convincing cynicism, but his voice comes across rather fuzzily.

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8:22:52 PM, 31 August 2015
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