Don Giovanni has not been very lucky on video. You have to go back to the magnetic Don of Thomas Allen, twice captured on DVD, to see an absolutely first-rate Don. Unfortunately, his richly spontaneous 1987 La Scala performance is marred by poor filming and an average Leporello, and his 1991 Cologne Don has some less than stellar singing from the women.
This 2005 Madrid performance has a great deal going for it. The success of the opera rises and falls with the success of the Don, and here we have a commanding, ruthless, dark voiced Carlos Alvarez. He has all the malice and menace the character requires, Unfortunately, he does not have enough of its charm and allure. Alvarez dominates the stage, as he should, but sometimes you wonder just what women see in him. Certainly, his dashing good looks and strong physical presence don't hurt. Still, a fine accomplishment, just not a complete one, lacking the last ounce of charisma.
Fortunately, the remainder of the cast is as strong as any I have seen, especially the women. Maria Bayo gives Donna Anna a most sensitive, and searching interpretation, beautifully sung. There is a touching simplicty here with a terrific voice that is most moving. Her act two "Crudele? Ah no, mio bene!" practically stills time. It is artful without artifice. Maria Jose Moreno's Zerlina is also very fine, irresistible and charming, lovingly sung. Sonia Ganassi presents a strong, well portrayed Donna Elvira, although her tempo could be more flexible in act two's "mi tradi quell' alma." It needs to breathe a little more. Lorenzo Regazzo's Leporello is, at it should, be, a fine foil to the Don, and in excellent voice, with good stage presence. He could show more fear in the final scene with the Commendatore but still this is a stellar interpretation. Jose Bros has an utterly lovely tenor for Don Ottavio, a balm on the ear. If only he did something with it interpretively and moved physically like he meant it. He has little stage presence, but oh, that voice. The Masetto of Jose Antonio Lopez has a pinched sound to a fairly pleasant voice, without a great deal of tonal variety, although he does show the spirit and anger of the character.
What strongly sets this performance apart is the compelling staging of Lluis Pasqual, updated to 1930s fascist Spain. Crumbling edifices, fancy cars, stunning period costumes and outstanding direction give a strong sense of purpose to the action. His ideas complement the story quite nicely. The macho Don fits in well with this strong-armed era. Pasqual has some real flair and creativity, too. When Leporello sings his catalog aria, not only does he show the ledger of Don Giovanni's conquests to Donna Elvira, he also produces a picture book, a delightful touch. And don't miss the inventive and fascinating ending. Pasqual takes some liberties here but is most thought provoking.
Unfortunately, as with almost any updated staging of the opera, some things don't work so well, as Mozart wrote certain period aspects into the piece. When the Don is first seducing Zerlina away from her fiancee, Masetto, she speaks of Don Giovanni being a "gentleman" and a "nobleman," persuading Masetto not to worry. In the 1780s these terms had some cachet, but 150 years later, they fall lamely on the ear and mind (although the Don flashing open his sport coat, supposedly threatening Masetto with a weapon, certainly has its desired effect).
Some minor anachronisms and inconsistencies could easily have been fixed. When the Don throws paper money to bribe Leporello in act two, the libretto speaks of gold coins. Gold would have been believable in this 1930s context. In the final banquet scene, when Leporello is supposed to be munching on a piece of pheasant, it's obvious to any blu ray viewer (and likely nobody in the audience) he is chomping on a carrot. Come on, give the poor servant a piece of chicken at least.
Conductor Victor Pablo Perez leads the fine Madrid Symphony Orchestra with spirit and strength. He could, however, bend a little more in his approach. There are several instances where his inflexible and speedy tempos need some slight modifications of pace, some breathing room. He can occasionally grow glib, tiring on the ear. He rushes Zerlina along too quickly and without bending in her act one "batti, batti." He could use more "bendi, bendi," although Zerlina makes as much of this as she can.
Wonderful picture, with excellent sound quality and balance. Doesn't blu ray really spoil us! A very fine performance in a catalog not filled with them.