In the late 1960’s, as a student at Natal University in Pietermaritzburg, I’d haunt the university library, taking out back-copy bundles of Gramophone magazine, seeking out reviews of opera recordings acquired since hitting the capital from my small town home in the Midlands. Having recently had the life-changing experience of hearing Elisabeth Schwarzkopf performing a programme of Lieder in the Durban City Hall, I pounced on a review by the veteran critic Philip Hope-Wallace of EMI’s recording of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, with Carlo Maria Giulini conducting an all-star cast.
Notwithstanding the virile title role assumption of the young Viennese baritone, Eberhard Wächter as Mozart’s defiant philanderer, and supremely accomplished contributions from Joan Sutherland (Donna Anna), Luigi Alva (Don Ottavio), Giuseppe Taddei (Leporello) and the deeply sonorous bass, Gottlob Frick as The Commentadore, Hope-Wallace proclaimed “the entire venture is dominated by Madame Schwarzkopf’s full-breasted Donna Elvira.” Indeed, the German superstar soprano’s peerless realisation of what is possibly Mozart’s most compassionate portrayal of human vulnerability, remains the yardstick for successive generations of Elvira’s. From her impassioned entrance aria, “Ah, chi mi dice mai’, to her heart-rending singing in the glorious Act 2 trio, ‘A taci, ingiusto core!’ – in which Elvira is cruelly mocked by the Don and his henchman – Schwarzkopf is unforgettable, as she is in her tempestuous grand scena, ‘In quali eccessi, o Numi… Mì tradi quell’alma ingrata’, and in all other key moments of her role.
By no means a one-star act, however, the venture as a whole drew lavish endorsement from Gramophone: “This recording, put into the hands of those who have not yet unlocked the paradise of Mozartian opera is worth – what? A year at a foreign university? I don’t believe I exaggerate,” wrote Hope-Wallis.
Down the years, since its 1960 release, this classic set has stood the test of time. Informed by Giulini’s sure fire pacing on the podium, it stands as a testament to the casting savvy and directional skill of EMI’s legendary recording producer, Walter Legge. Then on the cusp of great careers were Wächter and Sutherland. The former’s high lyric baritone and volatile temperament are ideal for Mozart’s mercurial anti-hero.
Joan Sutherland & Carlo Maria Giulini
As for Sutherland, who had recently had her watershed break into international stardom as Lucia at Covent Garden, no wonder Bruno Walter, a lynchpin figure in the Mozart revival since the early 20th century, considered her Donna Anna the finest he’d heard in 50 years. Here, the young Australian’s soaring soprano is wonderfully offset by the pristine elegance and faultless sense style of her Ottavio, as delivered by her Peruvian colleague, Luigi Alva, the finest lyric tenor of the day.
Following the seismic take-over of EMI by Warner Classics a decade or so back, the latter industry giant has re-released EMI’s unrivalled back catalogue in digitally remastered editions. The entire Maria Callas recorded oeuvre has been the beneficiary of this huge venture, as have those of many other great names in EMI’s hallowed hall of fame, not least those by Schwarzkopf in her glory years.
While die-hard collectors may wish to explore Giulini’s sonically enhanced Don Giovanni via the portals of Amazon and other online retail outlets, the YouTube Music channel is an ever-present public resource for the world at large to experience this classic treasure, absolutely complete, and free of charge! Don’t hesitate.
See it on YouTube here: