Don Giovanni (in German)
Grümmer, Lorengar, Köth; Fischer-Dieskau, Grobe, Berry, Sardi, Greindl; Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Fricsay. Production: Ebert. Arthaus Musik 101 574 (2 DVDs), black and white, 176 mins., subtitled
In the space of a portentous fortnight in 1961, the Berlin Wall went up and Deutsche Oper inaugurated a new house with this Don Giovanni. There is an air of overwhelming seriousness about the production. As conducted by Ferenc Fricsay, it is much more dramma than giocoso. Any time there is accompanied recitative, Fricsay's orchestra leaps out to remind the characters that they are all going to hell, not just Giovanni. There is something relentless and judgmental about Leporello's catalogue aria. Even the little D-major moral at the very end is hammered home in an almost threatening manner.
Carl Ebert's stage direction, too, is light on humor. Mostly he places his actors in well-judged positions for each scene; mercifully, the video direction often allows us to see the whole stage. Very little happens during the arias. Designer Georges Wakhevitch has provided two treacherous staircases and some gorgeous painted drop curtains. The cemetery scene is particularly well-proportioned, and the plaza for the wedding is an etude in perfect perspective. Soon some opera company is going to discover the brand-new idea of painted drops, and it is going to sweep the world.
It was inevitable that such a high-profile occasion would offer an all-star cast and would feature Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. His default mode, supreme confidence, isn't suitable for every role, but it certainly is effective for Giovanni. It's an unfailingly detailed performance vocally. (He has an entirely different mode of address for his conquest of Zerlina, and it appears well before "Là ci darem la mano.") Has anyone in history ever sung a double "s" so seductively?
His Leporello, Walter Berry, sings the text with matching splendid clarity. He is genuinely amusing and genuinely sings the notes. Elisabeth Grümmer leaves the impression that Donna Anna's vocal writing lies well for her — though it can hardly be comfortable for anyone — and she has an unwavering center to the tone. The last section of "Non mi dir" is priceless, a moment of comfort and optimism rather than an obstacle course. As Donna Elvira, the much-missed Pilar Lorengar keeps swooping in like an angel of vengeance (with Fricsay making her an entirely seria character) and gives a performance of tremendous dignity and pain. Erika Köth, also a noted Queen of the Night, is a peaky Zerlina. But she is a canny actress: when she sees that her "Batti, batti" is having the desired effect on Masetto, she takes the opportunity to roll her eyes whenever he looks away from her. Donald Grobe is an ardent, youthful, elegant Don Ottavio, but his entire performance comes from the sound of his voice. There isn't a speck of acting involved. Ebert's touch is more successful on his Masetto. Ivan Sardi is able to play the uncertainty of the character as an actor while singing with assurance.
Some people might dismiss this video out of hand, because it is sung in German translation, because it is filmed in black and white, or because it is in the old 4:3 aspect ratio. That is one way of looking at it. Another is that Don Giovanni is particularly poorly served on DVD, and this performance, with its sense of purpose and the seriousness of its attempt to honor everything in the score, takes us closer to the heart of the opera than most others.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN
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