A Surprisingly Excellent 1960 “Don Giovanni”

cover DAT12321

MOZART: Don Giovanni / Mario Petri, bar (Don Giovanni); Sesto Bruscantini, bar (Leporello); Teresa Stich-Randall, sop (Donna Anna); Leyla Gencer, sop (Donna Elvira); Luigi Alva, ten (Don Ottavio); Heinz Borst, bass (Commendatore); Graziella Sciutti, sop (Zerlina); Renato Cesari, bar (Masetto); RAI Milan Chorus & Symphony Orchestra; Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, cond (live: Milan, April 26, 1960) also available as a DVD on VAI 4314

Bonus tracks on CD only: MOZART: Idomeneo: Solitudini amiche, aure amorose / Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, sop; RAI Turin Symphony Orch.; Mario Rossi, cond / Le nozze di Figaro: Non più andrai / Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, bass; RAI Milan Symphony Orch.; Angelo Questa, cond / Porgi amor / Lisa Della Casa, sop; RAI Milan Symphony Orch.; Franco Mannino, cond / Dove sono / Teresa Stich-Randall, sop; RAI Rome Symphony Orch.; Mario Rossi, cond / Aprite un pó quegli occhi / Tito Gobbi, bar; RAI Milan Symphony Orch.; Alfredo Simonetto, cond / Deh’ vieni non tardar / Sena Jurinac, sop; RAI Rome Symphony Orch.; Mario Rossi, cond / Don Giovanni: Madamina / Boris Christoff, bass; RAI Turin Symphony Orch.; Mario Rossi, cond / Batti, batti o bel Masetto / Alda Noni, sop; RAI Turin Symphony Orch.; Nino Sanzogno, cond / Il mio tesoro / Cesare Valletti, ten; RAI Rome Symphony Orch.; Bruno Rigacci, cond / Cosí fan tutte: Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo / Italo Tajo, bass; RAI Turin Symphony Orch.; Mario Rossi, cond / Die Entführung aus dem Serail: Martern aller arten (in Italian) / Leyla Gencer, sop; RAI Milan Symphony Orch.; Alfredo Simonetto, cond / Datum DAT 12321 (live: dates and locations not listed)

coverThis splendid Don Giovanni was apparently first issued on CDs by Opera d’Oro in 2003, followed as a DVD from VAI in 2005 (since it originates from Milan television). Datum apparently also issued it earlier, since I found an alternate cover online, but this particular incarnation came out two years ago with all of the live bonus tracks used to fill out the third CD (the performance runs just 23 minutes too long to fit onto two CDs). Somehow, I missed all of these other releases, however; the major classical magazine I wrote for was much too busy sending me recordings of Chopin (which generally turns me off) and Liszt (with whom I became well over-saturated…he wasn’t that great of a composer) to review.

Let’s get the negatives out of the way first. It’s mono broadcast sound, and occasionally, as in the overture, the orchestra can sound a trifle scrappy. Teresa Stich-Randall’s laser-focused, virtually non-vibrato voice is not to everyone’s taste (which I was stunned to discover, since I’ve always loved her, and she would surely be a major star in today’s HIP Mozart performances), and openly dramatic singing never was her forte, but I find her much more exciting here than on the Hans Rosbaud performance (more on that below). Leyla Gencer also tends to underplay Donna Elvira a bit; she’s not the firebrand here that one heard in her performances of Il Trovatore or La Vestale. But that’s about all you can say to criticize it. Considering its time and place, the conducting is surprisingly brisk; only “Il mio tesoro” is slowed down a bit, and that was probably because tenor Luigi Alva couldn’t sing his runs and divisions at the quicker tempo. In many ways, this recording surpasses Rosbaud’s famous recording with Stich-Randall as Anna, a performance that suffered from the simply awful singing of Antonio Campo as Don Giovanni and Marcello Cortis as Leporello. The reason why the Rosbaud performance is more famous is partly due to the his high reputation, especially in Europe, as a great architectural conductor, and partly due to the much more glamorous names (and voices) of Suzanne Danco as Donna Elvira, Anna Moffo as Zerlina and Nicolai Gedda as Don Ottavio—but Danco wasn’t any more dramatic than Gencer, and Gedda also slowed down “Il mio tesoro” and had a terrible time with the runs.

Here, everyone is in good or great voice; Petri is not only a much better singer than Campo but a first-rate vocal actor; Bruscantini leans towards humor as Leporello but doesn’t ham it up; and more importantly is the way all the voices line up. What I mean by that is that every singer here has a “lean” timbre, tightly focused and projected like laser beams, which makes all the different lines in the fast-faced ensembles “sound” clearly and cleanly. You just don’t get that in recordings where the singers have rich, creamy voices, because rich, creamy voices have overtones that often overlap the other singers. Even in Riccardo Muti’s recording of the opera, which I consider to be a great one, you have such rich vocalists as Cheryl Studer (Donna Anna), Suzanne Mentzer (Zerlina) and Samuel Ramey (Leporello), and such voices, when singing together with others, create a blend and not a separation of sound in one’s ear. In many operas, particularly Italian and German operas of the mid-19th century, such a blend is not only welcome but preferred, but in Mozart it can sometimes obscure the fine filigree of the vocal writing. Listening to this performance is, to quote Arturo Toscanini, “like reading the score,” if you know what I mean, and that in itself makes this a truly valuable performance, especially for musicians and those of us who treasure clarity in Mozart’s vocal ensembles. Indeed, the singers’ perfect diction allows Molinari-Pradelli to take “Giovinette che fate all’amore” and “Ho capito, Signor, si!” at a very brisk pace, similar to what we hear nowadays from many HIP performances, except with much better string tone and better voices. The only cast member I’ve never heard of before is Heinz Borst as the Commendatore, and although he’s not the darkest or most dramatic singer I’ve heard in the role, he’s sinister enough in the final scene to get by.

It also helps that most of the cast, excepting Stich-Randall, Gencer and bass Heinz Borst as the Commendatore, are of Italian descent—and that includes Luigi Alva who, though born in Peru, had Italian parents and grew up speaking Italian. This also makes a difference, since Italian-speaking singers have much more perfect diction in that language and can make the words “tell” with greater force. I can’t even recall seeing another Don Giovanni with so many Italians in the cast, though I admit that I haven’t heard every single performance floating around.

The orchestra is just a mite heavier than we’re used to hearing it today, although by 1960 musicians had learned that you shouldn’t use a full symphony orchestra to play Mozart. With that being said, it’s the orchestra more so than the singers that suffers most from the mono TV sound, but it’s reproduced well enough here that it’s not a consistent problem.

One thing that surprised me was how firm Leyla Gencer’s voice sounds here. I’ve gotten so used to hearing her with that unusual flutter in the voice, not quite a wobble but still noticeable, that I didn’t realize that she could sing with a firmly solid tone. Although this was a televised broadcast, there was no audience present, thus you will listen in vain for bursts of applause after the arias and duets.

As for the conducting, Molinari-Pradelli actually takes much of the opera at quicker tempi than Rosbaud did, all to the music’s benefit. The only exception is “Il mio tesoro,” which Luigi Alva was used to taking at a somewhat relaxed tempo because he could just barely get through the runs at that speed without messing them up.

DVD color cover

Leyla Gencer, Mario Petri, Luigi Alva & Teresa Stich-Randall

Probably the most surprising casting choice in this performance will be, for many listeners, that of comic baritone, Sesto Bruscantini, as Leporello. Although several baritones have sung this role, they have all been ones with richer voices, such as Giuseppe Taddei on the 1959 Giulini recording. Most of the time it is sung by basso cantates; earlier generations were used to Salvatore Baccaloni, audiences around the time of this performance were used to Fernando Corena, and in later years it was sung by Wladimiro Ganzarolli, Ferruccio Furlanetto and Samuel Ramey, all of whom had richer voices. Bruscantini manages the part pretty well, but the attentive listener will note that he just barely gets most of his low notes, and at least once during “Madamina” he sings an alternate higher note. But you surely can’t complain that you can’t distinguish between the voices of the Don and his servant—they surely sound entirely different, and he certainly sounds like a servant. Moreover, in those massed ensembles Bruscantini’s brightly-focused voice helps us hear the various lines of the music more clearly. (As an historical footnote, one should remember that, in the 18th century, baritones were considered to be a species of bass, since basso roles in operas didn’t often go down as low as those of Osmin or Sarastro, and baritones seldom went up to a high A, usually stopping at G or Ab.) There’s also a bit of luxury casting here with the excellent baritone Renato Cesari, who often sang leading roles, as Masetto. Petri, excellent throughout, sings the most seductive performances of “La cì darem la mano” and “Deh’ vieni alla finestra” I’ve ever heard.

The natural reverb of the empty theater also greatly helps the voices of Alva and Graziella Sciutti, which often sounded shrill and nasty on records. Here, you realize that Alva had a very nice-sounding tenor voice and Sciutti, though still penny-bright, was not as naggingly brittle as she sometimes sounded on discs, which goes to prove that records sometimes lie to you.

As for the bonus tracks, most of them are very good and all are extremely interesting. We start with Lizzie Schwarzkopf singing an aria from Idomeneo, and she’s in excellent voice, displaying a nice trill and without the annoying mannerisms that later crept into her singing (I don’t know the year of the performance; my download had no booklet). Nicola Rossi-Lemeni singing “Non più andrai” was a real surprise, but he does a very fine job with it, and Angelo Questa’s conducting is alert and lively. Lisa Della Casa sings a fine “Porgi amore,” but the conductor, one Franco Mannino, gives new meaning to the word “lugubrious.” Stich-Randall’s “Dove sono” is beautiful as expected, and Mario Rossi gives her a better tempo than Mannino did for Della Casa. Stich-Randall does sneak a couple of little catch breaths in, but gives the illusion of singing it in one continuous line. Absolutely stupendous. Tito Gobbi sounds like his usual self singing “Aprite un po’ quegli occhi,” which is a little snarly but still rhythmically alert and enjoying himself. But nearly all of these tracks are interesting and revealing of the different artists involved, the only disappointment being the in-one-ear-and-out-the-other Alda Noni. The most unusual performances are Boris Christoff singing Leporello’s catalogue aria (much livelier than on his studio recording ofit) and Gencer singing “Martern aller arten” in Italian. Except for the fact that she only sang one trill (near the end), she did a good job with it.

Bottom line: except for the sometimes scrappy sound of the orchestra, which unfortunately can’t be fixed (I’ve read online that the DVD has even poorer sound than this CD incarnation), this is a Don Giovanni for the ages. It is now my historical performance of preference, even over the Busch, Krips and Giulini recordings, the latter of which I always felt was over-hyped. I highly recommend it.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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