MOZART: Don Giovanni.
Eberhard Wächter (Don Giovanni); Joan Sutherland (Donna Anna); Luigi Alva (Don Ottavio); Gottlob Frick (Il Commendatore); Elizabeth Schwarzkopf (Donna Elvira); Giuseppe Taddei (Leporello); Piero Cappuccilli (Masetto); Graziella Sciutti (Zerlina); Heinrich Schmidt (harpsichord); Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra/Carlo Maria Giulini.
Pristine Audio PACO 077A/B TT: 162:00
(3 CDs).

Perfection isn't possible, but this recording comes close. George Bernard Shaw, supremely confident in his genius and in his opinions, famously dismissed Shakespeare's mind as inferior to his own. On the other hand, he venerated Mozart without reservation and especially Don Giovanni, allusions to which he incorporated in his play and satyr play, Man and Superman and "Don Juan in Hell." I think it invidious to compare Mozart at his greatest to himself at his greatest, so rating Giovanni over Figaro or Zauberflöte partakes of the same idiocy as trying to determine the Greatest Shakespeare Play. "Favorite," of course, is another matter, especially when my favorite usually switches to whichever Mozart opera I've heard last.

Don Giovanni sunk its hooks deep into the Nineteenth Century. The pianist-virtuosi churned out one fantasia after another on its themes. Beethoven quotes Leporello's opening aria in the twenty-second Diabelli variation. E. T. A. Hoffmann wrote a short story with Donna Anna as a main character, while Offenbach has the opera as the background to the opening action in Les contes d'Hoffmann. Various painters, including Fragonard (a detail from his painting of Don Giovanni seized by the Commendatore provides the CDs cover art), illustrated scenes. This fascination has continued to the present, with Ingmar Bergman's The Devil's Eye and Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Don John along the way.

The opera has provided a starring role for baritones who can act, in a field where most juicy male roles go to the tenor. Furthermore, we have had several great Giovannis, including Ezio Pinza, Cesare Siepi, Donald Gramm, and Simon Keenlyside. However, a great Don doesn't necessarily translate into a great Don Giovanni. Like Shakespeare's plays, Mozart's mature operas need a great director, cast, orchestra, and conductor as well as your fanny in a theater seat to make their full effect. The production that satisfied me the most -- Sellars's (I find myself in a perverse minority) -- actually cast identical twins as the Don, and what are the odds of finding twins who sing well enough? Usually, that kind of directorial meddling sends me up the wall, but I have to admit that Sellars's take fascinated me and seemed psychologically and dramatically right, given the rest of the evening. At any rate, for me opera is drama rather than a bunch of voice jocks impressing the rubes with a high C or whatever, and I look for recordings which make dramatic sense to me.

The Giulini recording won raves from critics when it first came out in 1961 and seems to have remained in the top five on almost everybody's list. Walter Legge, a world-class nitpicker, assembled probably the best cast and his own Philharmonia, technically one of the two best orchestras in Britain as the band. He tried to get Beecham to conduct, but that deal fell through. He settled on Giulini, then at the beginning of his career. For a fellow who left little to chance, Legge lucked out. The orchestra catches the ambiguity of Mozart's comedy-drama. It bounces and skips at the Don's frivolity, seduces when the Don goes on the make, rages and grieves with Donna Anna, Don Ottavio, and Donna Elvira, and spooks the jibber-jabbers out of you when the Commendatore's statue comes to call. In short, Giulini allows Mozart's orchestra to become a dramatic instrument. This is not generic Fluffy Mozart playing.

Legge also assembled a cast in their vocal primes. There are some surprises here: Schwarzkopf before a glassy quality completely overtook her tone; Sutherland when she still knew that languages had consonants. Then, of course, one finds singers with strong, established identities: Luigi Alva's ringing Don Ottavio; Gottlob Frick's cavernous Commendatore (Wotan seemed like a natural next step). The one weakness -- if you can call it that -- lies in the three baritone roles: Don Giovanni, Leporello, and Masetto. I once read a George Bernard Shaw essay on the opera in which he distinguished among the vocal types of baritones by comparing them to a labor meeting: Giovanni was the Oxbridge intellectual speaker, Leporello the union organizer, and Masetto the genuine prole. I've been looking for a cast that realized that insight for a long time and haven't found it yet. Make no mistake: Wächter, Taddei, and Cappuccilli sing very, very well and two of them can act. But to me Wächter and Taddei should have switched roles, Wächter having a rougher edge to his voice.

The recording itself moves like gangbusters -- a close attention to dramatic pacing, not only from Giulini, but from recitative harpsichordist Heinrich Schmidt as well -- so vivid that you easily picture the stage action.

Pristine's Andrew Rose works his usual white magic on his originals. These CDs sound better than the EMI LPs did on my cruddy hi-fi system back in the Sixties -- fuller, with a less constricted high end. A winner of a set.

S.G.S. (April 2014)