Nostalgia for a Lost Don Giovanni
Mozart’s great opera ‘Don Giovanni” is tough to get right. It has a large cast, each singer having much to do, and if the cast is uneven as it was in the San Francisco Opera’s production this summer season, there can long stretches of tedium. The San Francisco audience is lucky that the opera’s most important cast member, Ildibrando D’Arcangelo as Don Giovanni, was more than up to the role’s demands. In fact, Mr. D’Arcangelo is one of the best Don Giovannis to come along in a long while.
The opera’s two partners in crime, D’Arcangelo as Giovanni and the robust Uruguayan bass-baritone Erwin Schrott as Leporello, were the evening’s stars-- at least stars on the stage. The real star of the evening though was in the orchestra pit, the French conductor Mark Minkowski, who was making his debut with the San Francisco opera company. This early music specialist conducted the Mozart classic with verve and energy and was careful to keep things moving along at a brisk pace which is exactly what this opera needs. Only the great Otto Klemperer could get away with very slow tempi in Giovanni.
D’Arcangelo has just the right dark coloration to the voice that Giovanni needs, and his rhythmic enunciation of the text was nothing short of superb. It really does make a big difference when you have an Italian in the role, especially one trained in Rossini.
My only reservation about Mr. D’Archangelo was his characterization of Giovanni as a vulgar thug or punk, an out-and-out murderer. Not so; Giovanni is an elegant, cultured seducer and sexual abuser but no murderer. He kills the Commendatore in a dual the old man asks for and warns him of the likely consequences.
Much closer to what I consider to be the ‘true Giovanni’ would be the interpretation of the role by Cesare Siepi, who sang the Don here in San Francisco in 1981 during the opera company’s first summer season. Siepi was already 58 at the time and much reduced physically; on stage he looked more like the father of Don Giovanni than the Don himself.
But the gorgeous voice that had been Siepi’s trademark during his long and illustrious career was still intact and he tried his best to be that elegant seducer of old. I had seen him in the role at the Met during the 60’s and this was one tall, dark, handsome and elegant Italian who not only made the women on stage swoon but also those in the audience. After Ezio Pinza, Siepi is considered the best exponent of the role since the 1940s.
To appreciate what has happened to opera over the past 36 years or so, I looked at the complete cast list for Don Giovanni from that opening summer season and compared it with what San Francisco is presenting this season. Besides Siepi, there was the formidable Giuseppe Taddei as Leporello, a young Carol Vaness as Donna Anna, John Macurdy as the Commendatore, Gosta Winbergh a great Don Ottavio, Lella Cuberli as Donna Elvira, Pamela South as Zerlina and Kevin Langan as Masetto. There were very few tedious stretches during the performance with that cast.
The point is not that the San Francisco Opera has gone down though it has—the Met went down during this period as well, perhaps even more so. Opera all over has gone down because there no longer are the singers in sufficient numbers. Why this is happening is anyone’s guess but that it is happening is beyond dispute. The comparative cast listings speak for themselves.
As for the other Giovanni cast members the other evening, I prefer not to mention their names to protect the guilty.