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Indiana Loiterer III
Parterre Box, November 2009

Among the “auditions” that have come flooding in from the cher public are reviews of three very different productions of Don Giovanni. Your doyenne has taken the liberty of combining the three critiques into a single posting, but she urges you to remember, remember well the names of the authors of this troika of treatises.

Some scenes, like certain recipes, look so simple on the page yet turn out to be next to impossible to stage credibly. Take, for instance, the end of the first act of Don Giovanni. We all know what has happened; the Don has accused Leporello of assaulting Zerlina, but nobody is buying his story. Somehow or other the Don gets away scot-free at Leporello’s expense, as Leporello will complain at the beginning of the next act. But how? (This being the stretta of an opera buffa finale, there are no stage directions to guide us.)

Usually the Don strikes some dashing pose or other center stage while everyone else mills about aimlessly, which doesn’t get us from here to there. In the new DVD of Francesca Zambello’s Covent Garden production of Don Giovanni from Opus Arte, Simon Keenlyside as Don Giovanni, having casually disarmed his enemies of their swords and pistols during the stretta, makes his escape by climbing the wall on a red rope dangled by one of his red-clad servants. It gets us from here to there, after a fashion, but rather crudely; which kind of summed up my feelings about the production.

Red is a very important color in this production (sets and costumes, the latter fantastical late eighteenth-century, by Maria Bjornson). Don Giovanni is dressed all in red and reddish-brown, which flatters Keenlyside’s complexion rather nicely. The ballroom of the palace of the Act 1 finale is all in red, with matching lackeys. This contrasts with the virginal white of Donna Elvira’s Act 1 wedding gown and Zerlina’s shift (a very unflattering garment for poor Miah Persson). Clearly we are meant to liken Don Giovanni to the Devil.

There is plenty of fire in the final scene—none of it connected to the Commendatore, who rises from below looking just as he had when alive, and whose statue is represented by a hand-like structure made of blue lights at the back of the stage, scarcely visible at all in the previous graveyard scene, which moves to the front to the stage at last to cast the Don into hell. (Eric Halfvarson’s wobbly singing as the Commendatore didn’t help make him seem any more threatening.) But in a final touch, the last thing we see in the Epilogue is…Don Giovanni in hell holding a naked woman in his arms. What kind of punishment is this?

Under the circumstances, Keenlyside literally climbs the walls a lot—the first verse of “Deh vieni alla finestra” is sung while hanging with one hand off Donna Elvira’s garden wall—but piles on the soft legato charm with the ladies, achieving genuine vocal and physical elegance in “La ci darem la mano”. The Devil can be a gentleman, as goes the old saying; but he can also be a positive ruffian with the men, as “Meta da voi” revealed—the duel with the Commendatore is rendered as a mugging pure and simple (not even with Don Giovanni’s sword, but Leporello’s dagger!)

But this is a very violent production by traditional standards (props to fight director William Hobbs); even Donna Elvira in her opening scene brandishes a musket, though to no good use considering that just by pulling the trigger she could have dispatched Don Giovanni then and there. Also a very touchy-feely production; when during “Mi tradi” Zerlina and Donna Anna wander in and began taking things away from Donna Elvira, we seemed to have wandered into a group therapy session.

Of the three ladies, vocal honors go to Joyce DiDonato’s Donna Elvira. I was surprised at how large and how comfortable with the higher reaches of the music her voice seemed. What with her unremitting vocal and dramatic intensity throughout the first act, the notion that some misguided early-music conductor suggested the Fidelio Leonore to her seemed less crazy. (And having heard her in the Curtis Alcina, I marvel all the more that she can adjust her vocal approach from the delicate nuances of period-instrument Handel to the broader strokes of big-house Mozart.)

Persson, as Zerlina, has the sort of light lyric soprano that projects as solidly in its lower octave as it gleams above the staff; she was the most enthusiastic adder of ornaments among the cast. Marina Poplavskaya threw herself into Donna Anna’s plight with plenty of gumption, but the music doesn’t show her voice to advantage; declamatory passages too often came out dark and foggy, and anything above the staff thinned out.

Kyle Ketelsen, as Leporello, offered an exceptionally nuanced vocal performance matched to a smooth and ringing bass, without milking the audience’s attention even though he rather overdid the physical awkwardness shtick. (I especially enjoyed his handling of the multi-volume encyclopedia of Don Giovanni’s conquests—did I tell you this is a prop-heavy production?) Ramon Vargas, as Don Ottavio, has vastly improved his posture since I last saw him as Ramiro in the Met Cenerentola back in 1998. He played the role as a properly manly aristocrat rather than the stereotypical wimp, to the point of rather barging his way through “Dalla sua pace” so that you realized what a difficult aria it was (“O mio tesoro” fared well, though).

Robert Gleadow, the Masetto, sounded right, but he could have restrained his temper a little—or at least directed it to some object other than Zerlina—to dramatic advantage. Sir Charles Mackerras, in the pit, conducted with his usual energy; few of his patented added ornaments made it into this performance, but appoggiaturas abounded.

So should you buy this performance? It’s not one for the ages. There are better traditional Don Giovanni productions on DVD out there. Still, it’s pretty well sung and conducted; it may not be worth preserving on DVD, but it would I imagine be an enjoyable evening in the theater.

Paul Turok
Turok’s Choice, November 2009

TC has reviewed seven DVD versions of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (Issues 115,137, 179, Arthaus; 160, 186, Opus Arte; 173, TDK; 197, EMI), but the eighth, from the Royal Opera (Covent Garden) in 2008, is the only production that treats the work as a tragedy with comic moments, according to the work’s designation as a “dramma giocoso” (1009 D, two discs). The singing is terrific; Simon Keenlyside (Don Giovanni), Kyle Ketelsen (Leporello), Marina Poplayskaya (Donna Anna), Joyce DiDonato (Donna Elvira), Miah Persson (Zerlina). In addition, Ramón Vargas brings star-quality singing to the usually colorless role of Don Ottavio. Charles Mackerras leads the excellent orchestra in one of his most dynamic performances. All three female leads look their roles; the Don certainly would find them attractive, which is not always the case in performances of the opera. High definition video and great sound in all three formats. Several short bonus interviews are provided.

Peter J. Rabinowitz
Fanfare, November 2009

…Ketelsen, who looks enough like Keenlyside to make the identity-switch credible, is a perversely sympathetic Leporello, and Ramón Vargas (vocally at least) makes Don Ottavio a plausible suitor, strong-willed and passionate. Better still are the sweet-toned, finely controlled, and musically flexible peasants, Robert Gleadow and Miah Persson. Superbly matched singers, they have the kind of relationship—and the kind of underlying purity—that make you think Masetto and Zerlina could grow up to become Figaro and Susanna. Best of all, though, is the fiery DiDonato…

Mackerras conducts with his accustomed clarity, although I found that the energy level tended to drop here and there, especially in the first half of the second act. The orchestra, as we’ve come to expect, plays magnificently. © 2009 Fanfare Read complete review

John Yohalem
Opera News, September 2009

This Don Giovanni was filmed at Covent Garden in September 2008 for the house’s first-ever live broadcast to movie theaters. In one of the interviews taped for viewing during intermission and included here as bonus material, conductor Charles Mackerras shows that he, at least, gets it: “How could a person of such aristocracy behave in this dreadful way?” Don Giovanni belongs to the noble class that makes and enforces the rules, but he never cares to rule his own whims. In this Francesca Zambello production, as too often nowadays, there is nothing noble about him. There is nothing shocking in the way he treats women, as he never behaves in any other way to anyone. “Là ci darem” is no seduction, it’s rape. (A bed, for no discernible reason, has been introduced to the middle of the public street for this very purpose.) He is costumed in crimson, the other aristocrats in blue or black, and the peasants wear off-whites, but only his brutishness sets him apart. Why, then, should society, or the supernatural, be upset?

The curved unit set is handsome and wittily deployed. On the outside, metal grating and mirrored glass form a church, a rampart or a narrow street; on the inside, it’s Donna Elvira’s garden, a cemetery (the chorus is frozen as statuary) or, with painted flats, a rococo ballroom. A gap in the wall becomes the gates of hell or Donna Anna’s window, and Don Giovanni hangs by his fingertips outside it, trying to kick her loose.

But Donna Elvira is depicted as a maddened Miss Havisham, roaming Spain in her ragged wedding dress and packing a rifle. Too much is made of this prop, and she never does fire it. Zerlina spends her wedding day in her nightshift—don’t people dress up to be married? The Commendatore does not become a statue—he adopts a metallic gloved hand, as if he’d become a pop star.

For its venture into the movie houses, Covent Garden chose first-rate actors of attractive physicality. Vocally, while there are no glaring weaknesses, there is little to delight in. Two happy exceptions are Miah Persson’s Zerlina and Joyce DiDonato’s Donna Elvira. Persson’s cool, ardent “Vedrai, carino” is twice as sensuous as anything Giovanni sings; she even ornaments the line, pointedly, as Mozart surely expected his singers to do. DiDonato’s Elvira is a heart awakened but self-deluded, exhibiting a perfect balance of crazed behavior and suave, skillful musicianship. Marina Poplavskaya’s Donna Anna is dignified but less appealing, her upper register detached and shrill.

The gentlemen are less winning. Kyle Ketelsen makes a brisk, comic Leporello, but he seems vocally lightweight for it. Ramón Vargas is fully in charge of Ottavio’s music, but his tone is less than golden. Eric Halfvarson’s Commendatore is afflicted with an unlovely wobble.

Simon Keenlyside’s Giovanni is athletic: he can swing his dance partners and then climb the walls of the ballroom. His singing, however, has little character: seductive, rapacious, annoyed, it is all one loutish emotional affect. His desire for women is mechanical, the serenade self-satisfied and cold. He neither fears death nor welcomes it, undergoing no change of heart in the face of heaven’s wrath—though there is enough onstage fire for the end of a Ring.

The musician who inspires ovations here is Mackerras, leading a brisk, thrilling performance, each melodic movement given proper weight and subtlety, gracious and vivid even when the staging is obtuse.

Janos Gardonyi
The WholeNote, September 2009

Francesca Zambello’s brilliant production of 2002 has stood the test of time and this eagerly anticipated film was well worth the wait.

Such a pleasure to see a modern production of the complete score without the current trend of Euro-trash modernization, updating and inserting outrageous “new ideas” that pass for inventiveness. This performance is traditional in a sense, but full of imagination and inspiration. A revolving stage is simple and versatile with a curved wall that acts as a trompe l’oeil forming a false perspective of a magnificent renaissance hall for the first act finale. Generally the stage direction aims to clarify the sometimes confusing story and to show the hero in an unsympathetic light while the women are treated with compassion.

Apart from being a visual triumph it is also a wonderful musical performance. This opera requires eight soloists of the highest order, not always possible but here pretty well achieved. Simon Keenlyside is an outrageous and irreverent Don in fine voice and with his sidekick Kyle Ketelsen (Leporello) accentuates the comedy with an excellent vocal and dramatic performance. Among the ladies, all of them memorable, perhaps Joyce DiDonato (Donna Elvira), a highly accomplished singer, stands out the most. Ramon Vargas here is tested as Don Ottavio with splendid results. Robert Gleadow of the COC makes an effective Masetto with his fine deep baritone voice.

But the real success is Sir Charles Mackerras. Now in his 80’s, he is a great conductor and scholar whose achievements are too many to mention, an advocate of period instruments and Mozart specialist (how can we forget his series of Mozart symphonies on Telarc). We can only admire how he springs his orchestra into life with a beautifully detailed, well paced and crisp sounding performance.

Frank Swietek
Video Librarian, September 2009

Mozart’s 1787 opera about legendary womanizer Don Juan is called a dramma giocoso, a term that suggests a careful balance must be maintained between the comic and dramatic. Filmed in 2008 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, director Francesca Zambello’s production not only features rather unimaginative sets and costumes by Maria Björnson, and also makes some inexplicable miscalculations in the second act finale (including having Don Giovanni strip down to his shorts). But the real virtues of this presentation…are musical. Particular praise is due to conductor Charles Mackerras, who may be in his 80s, but his reading of the score is nevertheless fleet and vital, while his sense of classical style remains peerless. And the vocalism is generally fine: although both Ramón Vargas (Ottavio) and Marina Poplavskaya (Donna Anna) struggle a bit, Simon Keenlyside is a virile, full-throated Giovanni, and Kyle Ketelsen makes for an amusing Leporello. But the best singing springs from Joyce DiDonato, who brings both passion and precision to the role of the jilted Donna Elvira. Presented with DTS surround and LPCM stereo options, DVD extras include an illustrated synopsis, cast gallery, conductor Antonio Pappano’s brief conversations with Mackerras and Zambello, and two featurettes on the Royal Opera House. Highly recommended.

Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, June 2009

During the overture the characters and their interpreters are presented against a backdrop of violent flames, almost all the characters showing stern or grim faces and we draw the conclusion that in this production hell is the unavoidable end from the outset and that librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte’s billing ‘dramma giocoso’ was more apt than Mozart’s plain ‘opera buffa’. No valid production of this work is played as downright ‘opera buffa’ however, since there is so much of serious ‘dramma’ as well as a fair share of the supernatural. It isn’t even correct to divide the characters in comic and serious categories. Leporello, who on the face of it is the typical stock buffo bass, shows such an array of honest human feelings that every viewer can identify with him. The role is broadly comic but with serious undertones. Don Giovanni, on the other hand, is neither fish nor fowl. What his true feelings are is almost impossible to decipher. He is cruel, egotistic, horny, scheming, false and when he talks of feelings he mostly mocks them in the next sentence. He is unfaithful to his conquests simply because it would be cruel to all the others if he adored just one. The only truth about him, which is confirmed in the final confrontation with the Stone Guest, is that he is no coward. He refuses to give in even though he knows the consequences. Masetto is a hothead, not too bright, I believe, and Don Ottavio is just a mealy-mouthed nobleman. One easily understands that Donna Anna in the epilogue wants another year to think things over and if there would be a sequel to the opera I am sure that she would walk out on him. She is a true tragic character, rather self-absorbed while Donna Elvira is more abstruse. She is a victim, suffering greatly from having been let down by Don Giovanni, maybe even a bit mad, but she also has zest and one doesn’t believe in her when she in the epilogue states that she is going to spend her remaining days in a convent. In this production Joyce DiDonato clearly shows that this is blether. The really warm and kind-hearted character—in this production—is Zerlina. She seems able and willing to care about each and everyone. She tends her Masetto lovingly when he has been beaten by Don Giovanni, she understands her female colleagues’ predicament, she bothers about Don Ottavio and she even finds time to comfort Leporello in the epilogue. In her white chemise she wanders about like a Florence Nightingale, supervising everyone’s wellbeing.

A very serious and little buffa-like concept in other words? Far from it. In fact this is, parallel with the serious elements, one of the most joyous productions of the opera I have seen. Stage director Francesca Zambello hasn’t missed an opportunity to make something enjoyable out of every comic point and there is a freshness and vitality about the whole performance that is infectious. There are oddities as well, but they pale in significance compared to the many strokes of genius that gild the production. Donna Elvira’s first entrance, being carried on a palanquin and armed with a large-bored rifle is a bit contradictive, and Don Giovanni is—in line with his strong ego—a bit too exhibitionistic, stripped to the waist most of act II and in the finale receiving his visitor(s) only dressed in red city-shorts. That he humiliates Donna Elvira, on her last attempt to convert him, by throwing red wine on her white dress is of course only a belated symbol of the real humiliation that had taken place before the opera started.

The cast have responded wholeheartedly to the direction and besides Simon Keenlyside, who has become one of the leading exponents of the title role, American bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen makes a superb Leporello. The mercurial and charming Miah Persson is the Zerlina to the life and Joyce DiDonato is a wholly believable Donna Elvira. All four are also vocally on top and Ms DiDonato is a wonder of vocal beauty and expressivity. But there isn’t a weak member in the cast, even though the monumental Eric Halfvarson no longer is ideally steady. Ramon Vargas may not be the liveliest of actors—on the other hand: what is there to do with this stuffed shirt?—but he delivers his two arias with elegance and style and Il mio tesoro is superbly sung.

Sir Charles Mackerras is a renowned Mozartean and he paces the performance to perfection. The video direction is cleverly observant and when something extraordinary happens the cameras are there.

All in all a fresh and vital performance—far superior as a production to the two most recent Don Giovanni DVDs that have come my way: Ingo Metzmacher and Franz Welzer-Möst, the latter also featuring Simon Keenlyside—and the singing is a pleasure throughout.

John Terauds
Toronto Star, May 2009

It is a thrill to watch this two-disc Blu-ray recording of Mozart’s ever-popular Don Giovanni, performed last fall at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The high-def experience often feels more vivid than sitting in the auditorium itself. It is a pleasure to watch great performances like these on a big screen in the comfort of home.

The first-rate cast, crisp orchestral direction of veteran Mozart master Charles Mackerras and unfussy staging by Francesca Zambello add up to terrific opera. It would be a four-star performance, but for a slight lack of energy from some members of the cast.

Young Toronto bass-baritone Robert Gleadow, a familiar face at the COC, is a solid Mazetto. Simon Keenlyside is a bit bland in the title role and Kyle Ketelsen lacks the ideal comic touch to create a memorable Leporello, but both are in excellent voice. Marina Poplavskaya is okay as Donna Anna, while Joyce DiDonato blows everyone off the stage whenever she appears as Donna Elvira.

This production, first seen in 2002, is wearing well and if you’re considering trying opera on Blu-ray, this is a great place to start (this title is available on DVD as well). There are several extras, including a backstage tour and very short interviews with Mackerras and Zambello. The booklet comes with a pompous introductory essay on the Don Juan dramas.

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