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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 7, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 31
A historical gem: Don Giovanni in Berlin
Arts & Entertainment
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A historical gem: Don Giovanni in Berlin

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

DON GIOVANNI DEUTSCHE OPER BERLIN DVD

In the five-opera set commemorating the opening of the Deutsche Oper Berlin in 1961, there was bound to be at least one gem. And this two-DVD set of the opening night Don Giovanni in German fills that spot. Filmed in one take on September 23, 1961, and telecast the next day, the B&W 4:3 video is good for its day, with very decent sound. (This was the grand opening of the rebuilt opera house that was destroyed in WWII.) The one quibble one might have is that the brilliant orchestral writing by Mozart is too much overpowered by the well-recorded voices. (Oddly enough, the Met 12-14-57 radio broadcast CDs do far better in this regard.) I know well the delights of that orchestration but hardly noticed any of them in this viewing. Also, because most modern TV screens will 'stretch' the 4:3 picture to today's screen dimensions, all the singers appear a little pudgy.

The production is traditional and very simple without appearing cheap. Costumes work well for the B&W video, and are a little more elaborate than those I saw several times in the great 1957 Berman production at the old Met in NYC. (Ah, those days of $2 standing room tickets!) Best of all, the cast nearly equals the Met cast, which could never be bettered. The Met's Don, Cesare Siepi, is here Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; the Donna Anna at the Met was the great Mozartian Eleanor Steber, here taken by Wagnerian Elisabeth Grümmer; Fernando Corena's Leporello is here a wonderful Walter Berry; Lisa Della Casa's unforgettable Donna Elvira is here Pilar Lorengar; Roberta Peters' Zerlina is here Erika Köth; Georgio Tozzi's Commandatore is here Josef Greindl; Jan Peerce's Don Ottavio is here Donald Grobe; and Theodore Uppman's Masetto is here Ivan Sardi.

I detail these casts because that 1957 Don Giovanni is my nomination for the most nearly perfect opera performance I have ever seen. Karl Böhm's conducting at the Met was livelier and more playful than Ferenc Fricsay's super-serious manner at the Deutsche Oper. But the qualities of musicality, acting, and sheer vocalism on this DVD set are nearly equal overall to that of the 1957 Met. The one exception is Josef Greindl 's over-the-hill Commandatore, which gives only a hint of his former glory, as shown in his King Marke of nearly a decade earlier on the great Tristan und Isolde under Furtwängler.

The cast is too full of significant parts to detail them all here. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is an excellent Don, even if his German cannot match the suave legato of Siepi's Italian nor the super-elegance of Siepi's manner and handsome figure. Fischer-Dieskau was, of course, a great singer, but the 'Champagne Aria' is a bit beyond his reach. The ideal Don must make the audience love him (like the ladies of the cast) in spite of hating what he does. Siepi did this with ease; Fisher-Dieskau can't quite seduce us, despite his nuanced singing and intelligent acting.

Elizabeth Grümmer equals Steber in all ways and amazes with her powerful, Wagnerian voice, which has great warmth and gorgeous soft high notes. Because tenor Donald Grobe is little known in the U.S., I'll mention what a wonderful Don Ottavio he gives us here. Lovely sound, handsome appearance, and above all excellent Mozartian style characterize this performance. Born in 1929, he was active until he died prematurely in his fifties.

Of no less excellence are the performances of Erika Köth, Pilar Lorengar, and especially Walter Berry, whose effortless baritone and loveable comedic acting make him an ideal Leporello.

In short, if you can accept one of the world's greatest Italian operas in German translation, and the less-than-modern video and sound, you won't go wrong with this video of a special occasion, recorded only a few weeks after the erection of the Berlin Wall.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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