Hell-Bent Don G from Von K–Salzburg, ’60

Review by: Robert Levine

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Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 7

This is Karajan’s Don Giovanni as it’s never otherwise been heard. Recorded live in Salzburg in 1960, it seems like an almost conscious effort to negate Furtwängler’s approach to the opera: it’s hotheaded and thrilling with no time for introspection. Just action, action, action. Karajan’s studio recording with Samuel Ramey from many years later is turgid compared to this: rarely have I encountered such a complete change in approach to a piece of music by a conductor. What next? A three-hour Parsifal from Knappertsbusch?

The cast is fabulous, enough to make current opera lovers drool. Eberhard Waechter is the exception to the perfection: he is not an ideal Don, just as he was not for Giulini four years later, but he is manly, energetic, and sly, if never quite sexy or dangerous-sounding. He is best in the final scene. Walter Berry is our Leporello—sassy, smug, but noticeably scared in the Graveyard and Dinner scenes—and he sings with rounded tone and impeccable diction. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, seemingly tossing caution to the wind, offers a crazed, impetuous, enraged Elvira, and her voice is perfectly placed for the role, with breath to spare and no weakness throughout the range.

Hearing Leontyne Price in her youth as Donna Anna is more than a treat: the voice is like a geyser, it can do no wrong, and Karajan draws real passion from her. Cesare Valletti is a perfect Don Ottavio both vocally and dramatically; he is no wimp, but he most assuredly is an aristocrat and both arias are stunningly sung. And yes, he takes the long line in “Il mio tesoro” in one breath. Graziella Sciutti manages to charm with her tiny voice as Zerlina; Rolando Panerai is a properly angry and frustrated Masetto; and Nicola Zaccaria’s Commendatore is frightening dead or alive.

A bonus is a 1953 performance of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony from RAI Turin. It too is breakneck and exciting, although the orchestra is not on the same level as the Vienna Philharmonic. The sound throughout is a bit shrill and limited, but not enough to ever obscure either the Don Giovanni or the symphony. This may not be a first choice—perhaps Giulini/EMI still is—but it’s a thrilling performance.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Giulini (EMI)

  • Eberhard Waechter, Walter Berry, Rolando Panerai (baritone); Leontyne Price, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Graziella Sciutti (soprano); Cesare Valletti (tenor); Nicola Zaccaria (bass)
  • Karajan, Herbert von (conductor)
  • Vienna Philharmonic

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