This staging of the Mozart/da Ponte masterpiece took place in 1977, at the Glyndebourne Festival. Although the conductor is Dutch, and members of the cast come from Eastern Europe and the States, a more British performance would be hard to imagine.
The sets (or set, truthfully) and costumes evoke a Mid-Victorian setting, and the title character, a role that dominates the action, is performed by Benjamin Luxon, a tall, reasonably attractive English singer. His ample locks alone would serve to inform any survivor of the “Disco era” as to the time of filming.
Some may question how an opera of seething passion and sexuality such as Don Giovanni would work when presented in the supposedly conservative, tight-lipped world of Victoria and Albert.
Surprisingly well. This Don may look and move as if he were a proper gentleman, but his actions prove otherwise, and the disparity between appearances and reality makes for a most effective contrast. Luxon may not be a great Don, but for this production, he does very well. We don’t sympathize with him much, or truly comprehend the attraction that has allowed him to rack up such a list of conquests. However, we get a strong sense of da Ponte’s implied social criticism, and for once we can watch the furies drag the Don down to hell with something approaching approval.
Stafford Dean’s Leporello takes top honors as a total performance. A fresh, spontaneous actor, his rich baritone and comic timing enliven all his scenes. Leo Goeke cannot overcome the crippling blandness of Don Ottavio, and he is not helped by the director’s insistence on long close-ups. Goeke does manage to present his two big arias with some style, if not much beauty. Of the other men, John Rawnsley’s plump Masetto is right out of a British farm, and Pierre Thau has the command of the ominous low range of the Commendatore.
The females pose problems. Horiana Branisteanu, the Donna Anna, needs to warm up, and the shrillness in the first scene remains with one for a while. By the second act her voice has settled, and though by no means a sympathetic portrayal, she renders her last aria with dramatic detail.
Rachel Yakar’s Elvira makes it too clear why the Don moved on, but she also suggests the neurotic need of this woman for a man who clearly is not worthy of her. Elizabeth Gale is far from the most sensual of Zerlina’s, but her modest manner gives the role an interesting dimension, and mutes some of the less appealing aspects of the words to Batti, batti.
Described in the booklet as “filmed,” the production seems to have been captured without an audience present — and yet, at the end, we see curtain calls, at least of the cast. Curious, as the camera captures many scenes in ways that would seem impossible during a live performance in the theater. The serenading Masetto (disguised as the Don) is viewed from the perspective of Donna Elvira on her balcony. During the second act quartet, the singers’ heads are superimposed over the stage picture. Many singers also sing directly to the camera at several points.
However the production was filmed, the sound engineer decided to include one relic of live performance — a copious amount of foot stomping and other stage noise. As Haitink leads a most energetic, detailed performance of the score, the extra noise is not welcome.
And as is so typical, the subtitles offer an amusing array of misspellings and awkward syntax.
For collectors of this opera, this Glyndebourne version can be highly recommended. It could not be a first-choice for it singers, and the production probably will enchant few, but the totality of the performance is much more than the sum of its parts. And surely some of the more recently recorded Don Giovanni DVDs will look as dated as this one in over 25 years — and possibly be of less musical distinction. Overall, a fine piece of work.
Los Angeles Harbor College
product_by=Benjamin Luxon, Stafford Dean, Horiana Branisteanu, Leo Goeke, Rachel Yakar. London Philharmonic Orchestra, Glyndebourne Chorus, Bernard Haitink (cond.)
product_id=Arthaus 101 087 [DVD]