Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni (1987)
Sony Music
Extras: Program Notes

In opera, if the second half of the 20th century were dominated by any single conductor, it would be Herbert Von Karajan. Principal conductor for life of the Berlin Philharmonic, Von Karajan was also a mainstay at both the Vienna State Opera and the Salzburg Music Festival, familiar as the venue for the Trapp family’s command performance before the Nazis. Von Karajan’s magisterial "Don Giovanni" is derived from performances recorded July 18-31, 1987 at Salzburg’s Festival Hall.

Salzburg was the birthplace and home of Mozart and it was a centenary performance of his "Don Giovanni" that initiated the Festival in 1889. Incredible as it might seem to us today, the opera had lain dormant in its original form since Mozart’s time. He’d died prematurely only two years after its premiere in 1789, a date more familiar as the French Revolution. The notion of a festival disappeared until 1917, in the very midst of the First World War then again in 1924 when the festival’s roots took hold. "Don Giovanni" has always held a unique place in its history.

’Don Juan’ is a saga of depravity and its consequence. It has been told in variation for centuries in every medium, including the movies. In the hands of Mozart and DaPonte, it is a tragedy founded upon farce. At a time when opera’s wordsmiths were honored as highly as their composers, Lorenzo da Ponte was the most superb dramatist around. This suited Mozart to a ’T’ since his music burst at the seams with fervor in the expression of humanity.

Don Giovanni is a dissolute whose whim it is to ruin as many lives as he can. "Don Giovanni" is as much as anything about social inequity, a theme common to all the mature works of the collaborators. Mozart proves himself easily equal to Da Ponte’s challenging libretto. Instances of irony abound, but the most heady I think comes as Don Giovanni welcomes some unexpected guests, casualties of an earlier cruelty, with "Viva la libertà!" Bearing in mind the time of the opera’s release, the Don’s corruption of the notion of freedom as unbridled licentiousness is shocking effrontery.

This final flowering of Von Karajan’s life-long association with "Don Giovanni" is the aggregate of his experience from his several prior productions of it for the festival. In realizing Von Karajan’s vision, stage director Michael Hampe and video director Claus Viller are both impeccably responsive to the words and music. If there were ever any doubt as to the brilliant marriage of talents, sample the celestial trio (Act I, 1:24:50). The camera zooms slowly to the three performers then fixes upon them stock still for the entire duration of their rumination in song.

To witness how sublime the execution is of the complex staging that this work demands, try the last of the extended finale to Act I, (from 1:28:53).

Von Karajan’s handling is a tapestry of expression in voice with instrumental foundation. The marriage of song and orchestral playing never wavers. Ensemble work is a dream. Not surprisingly, the cast here is uniformly musical. Samuel Ramey delivers on the infernal nature of "Don Giovanni", a man of evil who dares stand his ground, impenitent even unto death. Kathleen Battle is a stand-out as well as Zerlina, just one of Don Giovanni’s objects of conquest. Cast from strength in every role, the bent is toward the heroic voice, but not at the cost of lyric expression. Anna Tomowa-Sintow as Donna Anna is the sole member of the ensemble to lack a consistently focused tone, yet even she meets Von Karajan’s baton for otherwise superb integration within the overall sound.

The ’sleeper’ performance has to be Gösta Winbergh. The role of Don Ottavio is generally secondary, at least relative to most others in the suite of eight principals. Traditionally assumed by a lyric tenor, Don Ottavio rarely calls for or gets the kind of authority Winbergh brings to his portrayal. Winbergh’s voice is reminiscent of the ravishingly lyric Stuart Burrows, known for this role. But Winbergh offers even more prodigious breath control for seemingly effortless phrasing. "Il mio tesoro" (side 2, chapter 37) is only one highlight of Winbergh’s tour de force performance.

The sets are elegant and joyless. This effect is clearly intentional, what with the artistic choice of stark character lighting against skies of seaweed green and sickly orange. The bitter edge to humour certainly does little to lighten the load on the spectator. Obviously, a perkier handling might have been more engaging, but if Von Karajan is as sure and unstinting as he is in rendering his bleak vision, why should he compromise it?

This presentation has been fashioned from two or more performances to a whole of near-perfection. Only as video is it let down, marred technically by ’edge-ringing’ that is probably inherent in the original analog source. Scant color bleed occurs, but it’s there from time to time as well. A muted look is probably appropriate, but it’s doubtful that the less-than-optimal color saturation was the effect desired. On the plus side, there’s considerable image detail and while the tonal range does not extend to anywhere near pitch black, it is serviceable. The shadowy staging suffers surprisingly little from video noise.

The challenge represented by Von Karajan’s characteristically dark production tapped the limits the technology of 1987. It would be an injustice to hold director of photography Ernst Wild accountable for what we see-and DON’T see-in this video. His compositions are exquisite. Even within the near-murk, proper restoration could better articulate the action for a much more involving experience. Even as is, this "Don Giovanni" is as least more effective on disk than on broadcast television where it lacked the range of detail that DVD does deliver.

Not least amongst Von Karajan’s skills was his acoustical mastery. I only ever witnessed one opera conducted ’live’ by Von Karajan. There was a unique quality to his orchestral support of vocal performances the likes of which I never experienced before or since. It was a ravishing, transparent sound that seemed to float above the pit. The gossamer quality so typical of Von Karajan is present here, suggesting that the sound experienced ’live’ might well have had this attribute.

This DVD, in fact, offers two distinct versions of the soundtrack. The <$PCM,PCM> (the same recording standard as CDs) takes an intimate approach. Forward miking insures a pleasing intimacy lacking in most video soundtracks of this period. Moderate distortion marring several passages adds an overall icy treble to the sound (particularly during Chapter 24). An alternative Dolby four-channel discrete track affords a grandiose, immersive sound, presumably by wrapping the right and left extremes to the surround channels. Unfortunately, the frequent voice placement in rear channels is distracting.

"Don Giovanni’s" two acts fit neatly on two sides. What with one great set piece after another in its three-hours-plus, it would have been much more desirable all on one side.
After all, DVD offers opera one benefit over video in any other format: it allows us to jump freely to highlights throughout. This is an international edition and features optional subtitles selectable on-the-fly in English, German, French or the original Italian. Some tedious programme notes are the only extra, as such.

Presentation compromise here is a pity. This is the sort of performance that reminds you that genius puts all else in sharp relief. Let’s hope Sony takes another look at this treasure soon and serve it up again as it deserves. That said, this "Don Giovanni" is too top-heavy with excellence to fault it for less than optimal presentation, especially as its street price is more than reasonable.