If patience is a virtue, I must be about the most virtuous opera Blu-ray reviewer out there. After suffering the slings and arrows of some pretty rotten rotten product over the past several months (many of them from either Opus Arte or Art Haus Musik), I'm happy to report that keeping my head from exploding has evidently finally paid off, because this wonderful new BD of Mozart's Don Giovanni is practically perfect in every way. For once we don't have a director slathering his (actually in this case, her) "vision" over the proceedings like melted Crisco (and usually about as appetizing), and instead are given a "straight," though compelling and visually and aurally satisfying, reading of this piece that offers only one "cheat"--a very brief comic coda "sight gag" that some purists will take exception to, but which actually caps the night off swimmingly and at the very least brings the piece squarely into the opera buffa mode that Mozart himself ascribed to the piece.
Don Giovanni, one of countless retellings in various artistic genres of the Don Juan legend, has long been held up as a timeless masterpiece. Seamlessly blending dramatic, comedic and even supernatural elements, the opera offers Mozart at his most scintillating, with luscious melodies literally spilling from the mouths of the main characters, and an at times surprisingly rhythmically facile orchestra accompanying it all. The title character is perhaps opera's first anti-hero, albeit a strangely likable one. Don Juan is, after all, nothing more or less than a rake, a gigolo who burns his way through the amorous longings of every female with whom he comes into contact.
The opera focuses on a series of Don Juan's failed attempts, starting with an aborted rape that leads to murder, following up with a woman whom the lothario has abandoned but who has not given up carrying the torch for him, and the third a simple peasant girl Don Juan attempts to lure away from her betrothed. By the end of Act I, the walls are literally closing in on Don Juan. Director Francesca Zambello crafts a wonderful trompe d'oeil moment in the finale to the act when the masquerade ball hall starts folding in on itself and Don Juan and his semi-faithful servant Leporello search in vain for an escape from the vengeful hands of three women.
Act II traverses a tightrope that flirts with both farce (Leperello and Don Juan trade places, as it were) and tragedy (the Commendatore, the man murdered in Act I, returns as a ghost to demand Don Juan's repentance). The fascinating thing about these rather wide stylistic variances in the libretto is the homogeneity of Mozart's music. This is fluid melody and harmony pouring out from one inspired source, and whether we have Don Juan making a rather repulsive pass at a poor hapless lass, or Leporello acting the buffoon, Mozart's music is remarkably cohesive and self-referential. Any professional musician who's weathered a college level composition or theory class knows that the ghost scene that caps Act II is a favorite score for professors to foist on their students for analysis purposes, and that's for a good reason. The marriage of music to drama in this scene is absolutely miraculous.
What really sets Don Giovanni apart in the opera world is its rather relentlessly dour vision for its putative hero. Again and again throughout the two acts of the piece, Don Juan is cajoled, begged and even exhorted to repent of his evil ways. And yet he refuses. He seems to actually get a kick out of the drama he causes. This is played magnificently by Simon Keenlyside, in an almost Nietzschian interpretation. Look, for example, how he sidles up to the Commendatore after he's stabbed him. It's almost like a lover moving in on a conquest (and how apt is that?), until Don Juan suddenly laughs. It's obviously all just a game to him.
The rest of the cast is just as remarkable, including one of the best Donna Annas I've heard, Marina Poplavskaya. Kyle Ketelson as Leporello walks just the right fine line between the comedic and dramatic aspects of his character, and Joyce diDonato's Donna Elvira is suitably the moral center of the piece. If Zerlina (Miah Persson) and Musetta (Robert Gleadow) suffer just a bit by comparison, with Musetta especially seeming a bit on the petulant side, they still deliver the goods overall. The Commendatore is sung heroically by Eric Halfvarson, who makes the most of the climactic final showdown with Don Giovanni.
This beautiful Covent Garden presentation is aces in both production design and especially orchestral accompaniment. All I can say to Zambello and her team is thank you, thank you, thank you. For once, no radical "reimagining" has taken place, and we instead get a very distinctive, utilitarian set that features a weird columnar structure that assumes different uses throughout the opera. That's balanced against the ballroom scene, described above, and the incredible final scene, where we get everything from literal hell fires to a sort of Baron Munchhausen-esque flaming giant hand which is pointing the way to the nether regions where Don Giovanni is relegating himself by not agreeing to repent. Costumes are incredibly colorful without needlessly drawing attention to themselves.
I've long been a fan of conductor Sir Charles Mackerras. In fact his period instrument recreations of the original performances of Brahms' four symphonies remain some of my favorite versions of what are easily my most personally beloved 19th century symphonic works. Mackerras brings his calm assurance to the entire project, harvesting his orchestral forces easily and transparently. (I did have to wonder about his sometimes strange jaw movements--could Sir Charlie actually be chewing gum while he conducts?)
This is stellar opera performed just about as well as it can be, with a sterling physical production and unmatched orchestral accompaniment. (There are some very brief timing issues with the trio in the opening scene which I attribute either to nerves or perhaps to some monitor issues that were quickly resolved). Opus Arte has finally hit one out of the ballpark and even those not particularly enamored of this art form may find themselves unusually engaged by this Don Giovanni.
With an AVC codec and 1.78:1 OAR, Don Giovanni, despite being 1080i, offers a wonderfully crisp and lusciously well saturated image. There are gorgeous colors galore in this production, from deep cobalt blues to fiery reds, and they are all rendered here flawlessly. Contrast and black levels are consistent and top notch. My only caveat is that the actual television direction is a bit spotty at times--when one person is singing, we occasionally are forced to look at another character. But the image itself is wonderful.
Again, the uncompressed PCM 5.1 and 2.0 mixes are both excellent, though the 5.1 offers greater fullness, if not that much more separation. Mozart's orchestral lines are wonderfully transparent, especially in the winds and reeds, and the singers all sound marvelous. There were one or two very brief moments when I wished individual singers had been mixed a little higher, but these were extremely few and far between.
As usual with these Opus Arte releases, a nice illustrated booklet is included in the insert. Disc 1 of this two BD set also offers the standard illustrated synopsis as well as a really fun backstage tour of the Royal Opera House, interviews with Mackerras and Zambello (though I wished the interviewer would have just shut up after a while and let the interviewees talk for a change), and a cast gallery.
To segue into pop music for a moment, hopefully Etta James won't come after me like she did with Beyonce when I say, "At last!" A brilliant opera, performed brilliantly, with none of the "EuroTrash" bells and whistles that are so annoying in so many modern reinterpretations of classic works. For any opera lover, this is easily a DVD Talk Collector Series title. For the public at large--take a chance on upping your cultural quotient and check out this beautiful production of Don Giovanni. Highly recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet