The best recordings of Mozart's Don Giovanni
As Mozart’s most famous anti-hero Don Giovanni goes on his trail of murder, seduction and inevitable self-destruction, George Hall embarks on a hunt of the finest recordings
The Opera of Operas’, as the writer and composer ETA Hoffmann described it 24 years after Mozart’s death, Don Giovanni has fascinated audiences ever since, generating a vast literature of commentary from writers, critics and philosophers as perceptions of its characters and their relationships have shifted over time.
So, too, have musical approaches to the piece during the recording era, with period instruments and historical information impacting on almost every facet of its interpretation.
Mozart composed Don Giovanni in 1787 for Prague, where he and his music (especially The Marriage of Figaro) had won immense success. Adapting it for Vienna a year later, he made some big changes, including adding Donna Elvira’s aria ‘Mi tradì’ and substituting Don Ottavio’s ‘Dalla sua pace’ for the more technically challenging ‘Il mio tesoro’. The tendency over the decades has been to conflate the two versions, but more recently some conductors have opted for either Prague or Vienna.
We named Don Giovanni one of the best operas of all time
The best recordings of Don Giovanni
Eberhard Wächter (Don Giovanni), Taddei, Schwarzkopf, Sutherland etc; Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra/Carlo Maria Giulini (1959)
EMI 966 7992
With its off-stage sexual assaults, on-stage death and final damnation, Mozart’s opera is surprisingly dark for an opera buffa (as Mozart called it in his catalogue); one might describe it as a comic opera with violent interruptions.
In appreciable sound for its time, Carlo Maria Giulini’s 1959 recording moves back and forth between these extremes with ease, uniting weight and solemnity on the one hand and vivacity and humour on the other.
Eberhard Wächter’s Giovanni understands the buffo essence of the character and can be the most charming of seducers where necessary, aided and abetted by Giuseppe Taddei’s Leporello, who savours every syllable of the Italian text. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf offers a tense, almost neurotic Elvira, Joan Sutherland a Donna Anna of ample scale with an unusual level of dramatic and textual engagement.
In the tricky role of Don Ottavio – who can come over as a wimp, however well sung – Luigi Alva impresses as a gentleman, though one whose vocal gracefulness is always firmly grounded dramatically, and never mere bel canto display. Graziella Sciutti’s Zerlina is a definite charmer, with her partner Masetto an amiable bruiser in the hands of Piero Cappuccilli. Gottlob Frick is an indomitable Commendatore.
The Philharmonia was at its peak here, and despite this recording preceding the period-instrument revival, it comes close to the centre of the interpretative mystery that is this complex, inscrutable work.
Sherrill Milnes, Berry, Tomowa-Sintow,Zylis-Gara etc; Vienna State Opera Chorus,
Vienna Philharmonic/Karl Böhm (1977)
DG 477 5655
Karl Böhm was considered by many a master-Mozartian, and while he was near the end of his career when his live account was recorded at the 1977 Salzburg Festival – he turned 83 not long after conducting this performance – his experience with the score and rapport with the Vienna Philharmonic pay dividends in this traditional, lavishly cast interpretation.
There’s certainly no quarrel with the quality of the voices: Sherrill Milnes offers a vividly forthright Giovanni with Walter Berry a keenly etched Leporello. Anna Tomowa-Sintow supplies a creamy-toned Donna Anna, with Teresa Zylis-Gara’s soprano sounding similarly warm and enriched as Elvira, even if Peter Schreier’s Ottavio is a little dry.
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Rodney Gilfry, D’Arcangelo, Margiono, Orgoná≥ova etc; Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner (1994)
Archiv 445 8702
In terms of texture and pacing, John Eliot Gardiner recording benefits from his period performance insights, and his approach – light on its feet, yet accentuating the tension when in demonic/dramatic mode – summons clean, vigorous playing from the orchestra. Rodney Gilfry’s aggressively virile Giovanni encompasses charm where needed, while Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s Leporello is firmly characterised and vividly sung.
Luba Orgonášova is an exciting Donna Anna, complemented by Christoph Prégardien’s tensile Don Ottavio. Eirian James’s Zerlina and Andrea Silvestrelli’s Commendatore are also assets; but it’s the overall vitality that makes this version memorable.
Bo Skovhus, Corbelli, Lott, Brewer etc; Scottish Chamber Orchestra & Chorus/Sir Charles Mackerras (1995)
Mackerras’s 1995 Edinburgh Festival performance with the SCO combines high standards of orchestral playing with a historically-informed view of the piece the conductor had been building up over many years; as always with Mackerras you never feel that theory takes priority over musicianly practice.
A strong set of principals includes three Italians, among whom Alessandro Corbelli’s vivid Leporello – a masterpiece of buffo characterisation – is exceptional. Christine Brewer is well up to the heavy demands of Donna Anna while Felicity Lott explores Elvira’s emotional complexity and Jerry Hadley’s vocal dignity saves his Ottavio from insipidity. As Giovanni, Bo Skovhus’s assertive masculinity and suavity makes him one of the most appealing protagonists on CD.
A playlist of the best recordings of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni.
We've put together a playlist of tracks from some of the recordings that feature in our must-have list of recordings – from Karl Böhm's 1977 version with the Vienna Philharmonic to Carlo Maria Giulini's recording from 1959 with the Philharmonia.
And if you're a fan of Mozart's epic work, we've also put together a list of six other operas from the period that you might enjoyable, from Cherubini's Médée to Gazzaniga's Don Giovanni Tenorio – one of the operas which may have inspired Mozart to write his own version of the legend. Listen to tracks from these and many more in our Building a Library Spotify playlist.