Don Regal, Don Remote
By DAVID CAIRNS THE first night of the new Don Giovanni at Covent Garden was—judged by the high standards by which this carefully prepared and sumptuous production would wish to be judged—a shambles. Amid a lovely eyeful of baroque settings violence was done by grievous delays between scenes, and in more than one scene the musical ensemble was reduced to confusion by the one unpar- donable crime in Mozart, unrhythmical singing —in which of all people the Don himself (Cesare Siepi), who would go to hell before he abandoned his sense of rhythm, and who would have saluted Proserpine and Pluto in phrases of impeccable poise and exactitude, was the worst offender.
If only opera critics were not always invited to the opening night of a new production. The performance which I saw on Monday was in- comparably more enjoyable, although this time I stood throughout at the back of the Stalls Circle. The orchestral playing was both more vivid and more relaxed. The characterisation was richer and more assured, the ensemble much more polished. The elaborate changes of scene were contrived, as far as possible, with smooth- ness and tact. This was an effort not unworthy of a great house, and of a work which, with all its patent faults, is the supreme justification of the art. Don Giovanni belongs to that company of operas—Don Carlos, The Trojans, Gaffer- cliimmerung, only it is greater than any of these ----in which weaknesses of detail are transcended by the scope and beauty of their poetic imagination.
It is easy to prove that Figaro is a more homo- geneous and well-made work, a complete and consistent masterpiece. But for anyone who learnt Don Giovanni thoroughly at his most impressionable age, as I did, there is simply no question : the difference between the two works is the difference in -range and depth and sheer musical invention between the moment in the fourth act of Figaro when the Countess appears in her true shape and the music expresses the general astonishment by a conventional rhythmic figure and a turn into the tonic minor (perfectly satisfactory though it is in its context), and the stunned horror of that marvellous modulation into a remote major key when Leporello un- cloaks and reveals his identity in the Sextet—that scene which, for all da Ponte's negligence, is the heart of the mystery of the unique tragi-comic fusion of the Don. For me, Don Giovanni is the work in which 1 feel closest to Mortirt as a man --which is to say that it is my opera of operas.
At Covent Garden there has been every sign, once past the first night, that Don Giovanni has been treated by Solti and Zeffirelli with the pas- sionate meticulousness it demands.
Yet I remain unconvinced. How should Don Giovanni be produced? My ideal (difficult, I ad- mit, to realise on the scale of grand opera) would, I think, be a performance, in a medium-sized theatre, with costumes of great richness in a plain fixed setting and the dramatic atmosphere left to the grandeur of the actors and the music's innate and abundant graphic realism, But however you do it, you must start from the character of the music; and the quality which distinguishes it above all is the sense of driving momentum with which it seems to rush forward from first note to last. The drama may falter, in its lapse into conventional buffo in the first half of Act 2; the music, flute-haunted, possessed, diabolically virile or sublimely frivolous, is quite consistent. It in- sists on an unbroken flow of scenes; delays are intolerable to it. Zeffirelli's production sacrifices this vital quality to visual magnificence. It is true that the delays have been reduced since the first night; but a delay of even twenty seconds between the Trio of Masks and the ballroom scene is fatal, and we suffer it in spite of the fact that the Trio has been sung before a drop curtain, to the ac- companiment of discreet but audible bumps.
Besides, the settings are (mostly) magnificent, but in the last resort irrelevant. Not only does their varied character strike me as unduly soft, dense, nostalgic for the music (which wants something at once heavier and lighter). We ad- mire the charm of the Watteau landscape for the middle scenes of Act 1, with its distant baroque palace and its lake, its exquisite trees and idyllic peasants bathed in a golden glow. But this is not what the opera is about. I do not agree that the painter's approach is out of place in opera. In Don Carlos, for instance, it is essential, to set the tragedy firmly and gorgeously in its historical context. But in Don Giovanni it is an intruder, and worse. The direct effect, at Covent Garden,, is to dwarf the characters and to dissi- pate the drama's tremendous impact in exquisite inessentials. What is in the end important is not that Zeffirelli has surprisingly mismanaged the ballroom scene, where the guests are made to dance to the opening allegro (an astonishing gaffe) and the Don, in the final impasse, is saved by the rapiers of his servants instead of cleaving a path through his enemies by a sudden ex- plosion of personality; but simply that he has from the start concentrated on the wrong things.
Perhaps if we had a more complete Don it would be different. But Siepi, in a performance of high accomplishment and (on Monday at least) musical distinction, is only half the part. With his handsome face and figure and his arro- gant guttural r's he is genuinely aristocratic, as few are in the part. The seduction of Zerlina is a masterpiece of purring, effortless carnality. But there is too strong a touch of the mindless animal about it. Siepi stalking Zerlina is too casual, instinctive; he turns aside to munch a fruit and elegantly throw away the pip, like a cat sud- denly distracted from the bird it is dismembering. He is the great cat but not the fallen Lucifer, the being apart—and, whatever the musicologists may tell us, the demonic Don is a fact; his music, with its obsessive repetitions and its phrases grandly arched over the notes of the common chord, insists on it: think of those E flats in the champagne aria, or the tremendous hysteria of `lo mi voglio divertir' and Tivan le femine,' repeated over and over again. Of course, the use of a bass (the worst solecism in opera) helps to blunt the force of the work. The part demands to be sung by, if anything, a slightly lighter shade of baritone than the Count in Figaro; and to do otherwise is to belittle Mozart, who had nothing essential to learn about colour.
Orchestral colour, warm, subtle and vivid, is a mark of Solti's conducting. By Monday's per- formance he was giving the players more scope for personal expression than on the first night, and at the same time controlling the ensemble more surely. Sometimes he insists too fanatically on an accompanying figure; and he misses one or two cardinal dramatic points—those two great gunshot chords, for instance, which at the open- ing of the supper scene should seem to sum up everything that has gone before and is to follow, and should be slightly held back and delivered with a Beethovenian conclusiveness; or the dazzling trumpet arpeggio twenty bars before the end of the opera, which I could not hear at all. But the general achievement is admirable.
Indeed, at its very worst the whole production is never less than most stimulatingly awry. The cast contains two exceptional performances- Mirella Freni's Zerlina, piquantly acted and robustly and excellently sung, and Geraint Evans's scuttling, ratlike, indestructible old trooper of a Leporello—and several good ones. The Donna Anna, Leyla Gencer, is a musical singer, but her voice, shirking the implications of those implacable high As, does not command the grand style of the part. Sena Jurinac is, as always, a moving Elvira but, half-smothered in black lace at her first appearance, she never quite emerges from the luxuriance of the setting. Alas, she is not the only one.