Mozart: Don Giovanni

COMPOSERS: Mozart
LABELS: DG
ALBUM TITLE: Mozart
WORKS: Don Giovanni
PERFORMER: Salzburg Festival/Wilhelm Furtwangler; dir. Paul Czinner/Herbert Graf
CATALOGUE NO: 073 019-9
It’s amazing to chink it’s now over quarter of a century since Patrice Chereau’s famous — or infamous, according to taste — staging of Wagner’s RING cycle first appeared at Bayreuth for the work’s centenary in 1976. It is also difficult to remember now the stir it created at the time, as one of the first post-Wieland Wagner productions to move away from mythical and unspecific time and place to a very particular setting, the industrialised modern age, getting to grips with the political readings of the plot by Shaw and others. It spawned imitations elsewhere, but the conflict between nature and materialism that underlies Wagner’s drama has rarely been explored with such potent insight. And it has barely dated in the 20 years since it was filmed and shown on television across the world. From its opening, with the Rhinemaidens as tarts plying their trade around a hydroelectric dam on the Rhine, through the massive steam hammer that helps Siegfried forge Nothung, to the final scene where the downtrodden masses witness the destruction of the old order, the images created on stage arc as arresting as ever. But perhaps what comes across most vividly in the video, especially with the clarity of the new DVD transfer, is Chereau’s direction of the singers as real actors; no surprise that he has since become one of the most celebrated filmmakers in France.

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One can quibble about some of the singing- Manfred Jung’s vocally ineffectual Siegfried being its biggest liability (he’s outsung by Heinz Zednik’s Mime in Siegfried), though one can argue that he suits Chereati’s anti-heroic interpretation. Donald Mclntyre is a towering bully of a Wotan, a frock-coated industrial magnate with an insatiable lust for power and wealth. Gwyneth Jones always had her vocal ups and downs, but her Brunnhilde as recorded here is a stirring dramatic interpretation for which one can forgive the occasional squalliness. Peter Hofmann (Siegmund), Jcanninc Altmeyer (Sieglinde, Gutrune), Matti Salminen (Fasolt, Hunding), Hermann Becht (Alberich) and Fritz Hiibncr (Fafner, Hagen) add stalwart support. Boulez’s way with the score was often criticised for smoothing out its dramatic high points and for its excessive speed, but it’s difficult to uphold that hearing it again in its theatrical context, which in digital 5.1 sound has all the impact needed.

From one of the first large-scale opera productions to be recorded on video to a pioneering opera film. Months before he died in 1954, Wilhelm Furtwangler was persuaded to allow cameras to record his Salzburg Festival performance of Mozart’s DON GIOVANNI in the Fclsenrcitschulc. It may be a valuable historic document, with singers such as Cesare Siepi, Lisa Delia Casa and Otto Edelmann caught in signature roles, but the primitive film-work and editing frustrate more than entice and the mono sound frequently shifts focus between arias and recitative.

Also from Salzburg, but 30 years later, comes a high-powered DER ROSENKAVALIER directed and conducted by Karajan with a cast similar to that of his second, DC recording of the same period. If it’s hard to take the then 40-year-old Allies Baltsa as the teenage Octavian seriously, the production is nonetheless vocally well cast, with Anna Tomowa-Sintowas a rich-toned Marschallin and Kurt Moll a surprisingly subtle Baron Ochs. At the time, the studio recording was compared unfavourably with Karajan’s early EMI classic, and he perhaps injected more dramatic bite in 1956, but the sumptuous visuals of the stage performance match die greater suavity of his later way with the score.

Back to a more Wagnerian sound-world and Humperdinck’s HANSEL AND CRETEL, in a charming staging for Ziirich Opera by Frank Corsaro, designed by children’s writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak. It begins well and Liliana Nikiteanu and Malin Hartclius make an affecting pair of miscreant children, but the last act is compromised by a feeble dragged-up Witch (Volker Vogel), and the cathartic family reunion of the ending flounders.

In recent years, the Chatelet Theatre in Pans has been providing a serious challenge to the French capital’s Opera National. Three productions from this city-run (as opposed to national-run) house have arrived simultaneously on DVD. The earliest is John Eliot Gardiner’s 1993 travelling FIGARO, a performance with the period instruments of the English Baroque Soloists that also made it on to CD at that time after performances around Europe. ‘I he excellent cast, including Bryn Terfel’s Figaro, Alison Hagley’s Susanna and Rodney Gilfry’s Count, compensates for a rather frugal staging and what I detect as a hint of over-dubbing in the filming.

Following hot on the heels of their well-received CD releases (see December) come films of two major Chatelet productions from last season, Offenbach’s LA BELLE HELENE and the world premiere of John Adams’s EL NINO. Laurent Pelly’s Offenbach staging will soften the hearts of the severest operetta-phobe, presenting the composer’s frothy satire on Second Empire high society as the fantasy of a bored and sex-starved modern-day housewife who dreams she is the most desirable woman in the world. The culture clash between ancient Greece and contemporary Paris is wittily presented and Felicity Lott gives the performance of her career in die nymphomaniac title role.

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The problem with Peter Sellars’s staging of El ninio, Adams’s Hispanic retelling of the Nativity, was his tell-tale multi-layering of parallel visual events making it difficult to know what one should be watching at a given moment. The advantage of the DVD is that the film director, in this case Peter Maniura, has made the decisions for you, focusing at appropriate times on the otherwise continuous film, the singer-actors or the dancers. Certainly the close-ups on the singers — Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Dawn Upshaw, Willard White and the three countertenors of the Theatre of Voices – bring compelling immediacy to Adams’s exceptional vocal settings.