[Met Performance] CID:103440
New production
Don Giovanni {75} Metropolitan Opera House: 11/29/1929.


Metropolitan Opera House
November 29, 1929
New production

Mozart-Da Ponte

Don Giovanni............Ezio Pinza
Donna Anna..............Leonora Corona
Don Ottavio.............Beniamino Gigli
Donna Elvira............Elisabeth Rethberg
Leporello...............Pavel Ludikar
Zerlina.................Editha Fleischer
Masetto.................Louis D'Angelo
Commendatore............Léon Rothier

Conductor...............Tullio Serafin

Director................Wilhelm von Wymetal
Designer................Joseph Urban
Choreographer...........August Berger

Don Giovanni received five performances this season.

Review of Lawrence Gilman in The New York Herald Tribune

"Long live Da Ponte! Long live Mozart!" wrote Guardasoni, stage manager of the original production of "Don Giovanni," in a congratulatory letter to Mozart's reprobate librettist after the opera's triumphant premiere at Prague 142 years ago. "All impresarios, all singers." He declared "should bless the names of Mozart and Da Ponte. For as long as these two live there will never be any more bad seasons!"

Mozart and Da Ponte alas are no longer able to supply impresarios with such safeguards against deficits. But "Don Giovanni" lives, and kindly souls may hope that by its exhibition last night at the Metropolitan, for the first time since April 3, 1908, before a crowded house, Mr. Gatti-Casazza has found a profitable addition to the active repertory of the theatre, even if one can scarcely say of the performance, in the words of the original Don Juan three centuries ago, that "it has no imperfections but perfection."

There are some who insist that we must look upon "Don Giovanni" as a serious work because Da Ponte in his Memoirs tells us that in writing it he thought of Dante's "Inferno." But what does that delightful scamp tell us in the very next passage of his Memoirs? Why, that, as he worked on the libretto (he was writing two others at the same time!) he was solaced and inspired by a bottle of Tokay, a box of snuff, and a lovely damsel of sixteen, the daughter of his landlady, who brought him now a little cake, now a cup of coffee, now nothing but her pretty face. Yet, despite the Tokay, the snuff, and the young Muse with her …and her coffee and her sweetness, Da Ponte was able to contrive for Mozart's setting of Don Juan whose utterances are as innocent of amorous intensity as the greater part of the work is devoid of any suggestion of the tragic gravity of Dante-for the scene of Don Giovanni's descent into the pit is prohibitive of emotions more appropriate to the devils and red fire or a Christmas pantomime than to the pity of the terror of the "Inferno." On the whole, we must look in "Don Giovanni" to other things than there for an explanation of its hold upon the affections of the discerning: in the wit, its gayety, its charm, to the beauty and power of its concerted numbers, to its command of the grand style in superb expressions of invective and danger and warning, to its exquisite, inexhaustible craftsmanship.

The guiding minds at the Metropolitan have taken a realistically tolerant view of the anomalous and baffling work. They present it, for the most part, as it stands, with its old mélange of tragedy and comic relief, wit and solemnity, sensationalism and naïve moralizing. The epilogue, with its anti-climatic sextet, was duly set before us last evening after the engulfing of the Profligate-though the low comedy means for Leporello and Zerlina that the too complacent Mozart added to the score for the Vienna production of 1787 in which Zerlina drags the Don's servant about by his hair and threatening him with a razor, was happily omitted.

Mr. Gatti's producers tackled bravely the problems and difficulties posed, by the work. 'Don Giovanni" is not an opera for the yawning maw of the Metropolitan. It is heard to the best advantage in such an auditorium as that of the Residence Theater at Munich, where its humorous byplay, the fun and the simplicity of the recitatives register without hindrance, and every musical point can tell to the utmost, The opera was originally conceived by Mozart to suit the room and the equipment of the Prague Theater, which had only seven singers and no regular chorus. The more nearly this effect of intimacy and simplicity and intelligibility can be accomplished, the better. And the pace should be light-footed, with as few changes of scene as possible. The Metropolitan uses inner curtains that are closed to conceal the five changes of scene in each of the two acts and these changes were effected smoothly and for the most part quickly last night. While they were being made, certain of the arias and concerted pieces were delivered before the curtains by the principals quite in the manner of the "concert in costume" abhorred by our fanatical friends, the Wagnerites.

  To Mr. Serafin, the musical overseer of the production, must go the credit for the most admirable traits of last night's performance; the justness of the tempi, which never permitted the musical line to sag; the long breath and continuity of design which he gave to Mozart's cantilena when the style of the music required it; the spirit and clarity of the concerted numbers; the pervading life and flexibility of the reading. He could not, to be sure, transform all the principals of the cast into Mozart singers of the first rank. Certain of the chief participants in last night's doings might best be disposed of by saying that they were as heaven made them. With the exception of Mr. Gigli (whose "Dalla sua Pace" was one of the happier events of the evening) and Mme. Rethberg (who was not, unluckily, in her best form), there was not much to rejoice the hearts of those who are aware of the distinction and felicity with which Mozart's music has been sung in the past at the Metropolitan-who know what a sure sense of line and accent, what a firm grasp of a difficult style, it imperatively demands.

  Mr. Gigli and Mme. Rethberg came closest to these things. Mr. Pinza as the Don survived his ordeal more happily than one had supposed he would. But he lacks the elegance, the grace, the adroitness, the magnetic charm that the successful Don possesses, and his voice is not sufficiently flexible for the music.

  The Leporello of Mr. Ludikar was but a pallid reflection of the rich and delectable portrait of Da Ponte and Mozart. Miss Fleischer sang prettily as Zerlina, but she missed a great deal of point of the rôle. Mr. Rothier's voice lacked the force and his acting the sinister power that are needed to give weight to the scene in which the Stone Guest comes to square accounts with the Profligate--though [he] made touching the death scene of the Commendatore. Mr. D'Angelo's Masetto was amusing. Of Miss Leonora Corona, who substituted for the ailing Rosa Ponselle [as Donna Anna], it will perhaps be sufficient to say that she made Miss Ponselle's indisposition seem a costly thing indeed for the Metropolitan.

 Mr. Serafin, it may be noted, restored for Donna Elvira the superb Handelian aria, "Ah! Fuggi il traditor!" this is often omitted in performance, and he transferred to the first act, as is customary, the "Mi tradi quell'alma ingrata," which Mozart added to the score of the second act to please Mme. Cavalieri (not Lina). Mozart is said to have remarked that "Don Giovanni" was written a little for Prague, not at all for Vienna (where it failed abysmally), and most of all for himself. That, perhaps, is the true reason why it has lived to be almost a century and a half old-difficult and disheartening for impresarios, but an endless delight for those who are responsive to its gayety, its wit, its tragic power and its noble strength. Mr. Urban's setting were new and spotless.

Review of Oscar Thompson in The New York Post

After twenty-one years of waiting for the right cast, Mozart's "Don Giovanni" came back to the Metropolitan Opera House last night with the wrong one; wrong in almost every detail, from the Don himself to the marble ghost of the commendatore. But because it was "Don Giovanni" and, therefore, entailed an evening of immortal music, the Metropolitan's elaborate revival, so long awaited, so eagerly discussed, so widely heralded as bringing back the days of the all-star ensemble, had its rich measure of reward that was eagerly seized upon by the most brilliant opera audience of the season.

No opportunity to applaud good singing-and there was some good singing during the evening-was overlooked; it was sincere applause that could be heard above the palm-pounding of the professionals. This plain evidence of the strength of a long neglected masterpiece, with a public that has had to forego it was heartening, as heartening as the failure of the principals to grasp its style, individually, and to co-ordinate their efforts into a cohesive and plausible ensemble was disheartening. Repetitions of the opera may be expected to bring smoother performances, but are not likely to overturn present objections to the casting. Questions will remain as to the mounting and the spirit behind the direction of the stage.

Presumably in the quest of the novel and the individual, the action was framed with a special curtain, in itself a sufficiently attractive tapestry imitation. If this had done simple duty in parting on and closing on the five scenes of the opera's two acts, it might have enhanced Mr. Urban's sets. (With an exception of two they had need of enhancement.) But the unhappy thought that came to some one, to have the chief arias sung in front of this curtain in concert style, wrecked in its execution a maximum of mischief to the dramatic line of an opera that, for all its eighteenth century conventions, is an essentially and at times thrillingly dramatic work.

The close of the first scene, after the slaying of the Commandatore, found Don Ottavio and Donna Anna swearing vengeance before the curtain; Don Ottavio sang both "Dalla Sua Pace" and "Il Mio Tesoro" in similar isolation by the prompter's box; Donna Elvira's "Mi Tradi" was transferred from the second act to the first to put it similarly, out in front and the close the a scene; and Donna Anna's heavenly "Non Mi Dir," though begun in its accustomed surroundings, was curtained off midway in its delivery.

A spotlight from the center ceiling of the audience chamber illuminated these tapestried solos. But when the Epilogue was reached, and all the principals save the departed Don were brought before the curtain, the house lights were turned on full blast, which was one way of arresting the departure of those who already had left their seats in the belief that the performance had come to an end without this afterword-customarily omitted in the past from American representations of the work.

An inner stage and curtains that sometimes closed with the singers in front of them were used effectively in the Metropolitan's production of "Cosi Fan Tutte," but that madcap comedy fared much more happily than "Don Giovanni." Urban's set for that work, among other details, were as atmospheric as those for "Don Giovanni" were not. And though "Cosi Fan Tutte" was sadly cut, whereas "Don Giovanni" was given in almost its entirety, the singers of the former attained in conspicuous measure to the style that was so generally absent last night.

Musically, the defects of the revival began with the orchestra. It played smoothly and euphoniously, but Tulio Serafin made surprisingly little of the larger moments of the score. Nothing that could be charged to the singers was more disappointing than the lack of emphasis and thrust in the treatment of the Stone Guest's music. Perhaps this will be altered when the conductor has more fully gauged the score to the large auditorium. In the accompaniment of the airs there were equally disappointing instances of little or nothing made of the poignant orchestral phrases.

Ezio Pinza's portrayal of the titular role suggested a roystering guardsman or a captain of the King's navy more than it did the loverly hidalgo of the Mozartean tradition, notwithstanding his costumic opulence. He had the inches but not the gait, the beard but not the manner. He made love by a variety of rude force, even though he contrived to sing "La Ci Darem" and the Serenade gently. The voice was too generally dark of color, and often was freighted with a vibrato. His best moments were in the defiance of the statue, though Leon Rothier's earnest effort to make that sepulchral intruder terrifying restrained a benignity that scarcely merited the defiance. Pavel Ludikar treated Leporello as some German basses treat the mercurial Figaro. The two great bass airs were utterly nondescript. Louis D'Angelo drew Masetto as a comic-strip character, but drew him cleverly. His burlesque was out of place, but genuinely amusing.

Of the males, there remains only Beniamino Gigli, who walked though the role of Don Ottavio as if he had been warned that to be Mozartean is to be thoroughly aloof from whatever takes place, but he sang Ottavio's two imperishable airs-irrespective of the tapestry-with smoothly controlled and musical tone. He might have improved "Dalla Dua Pace" by refraining from two incorporations of the half-sob, and he shied a time or two at the long phrases other tenors of no greater gifts have employed in "Il Mio Tesoro"; also altering the word "Cercate" to a more convenient "Ah"; but these were details of no serious consequence in singing that was restrained, tasteful, and musical, if not of the highest grace or fluidity of style.

The Zerlina of Editha Fleischer was pleasantly acceptable in both song and acting, though it is not to be pretended that her "Batti Batti" or "Vedrai Carino" strung pearls of the most beautiful tone. Elizabeth Rethberg sang, for the most part, shrilly and shrewishly as Elvira, with an excess of that metallic which of late so lamentably has replaced her former caressive tone. Leonora Corona contributed some attractive phrases to the Trio of the Masks but as Donna Anna she was overweighed, both as to voice and technique, by "Or Sai chi L'Onore" and the florid second part of "Non Mi Dir." She ignored completely the traditional appogiaturas, but was not alone in this.

Photograph of Ezio Pinza as Don Giovanni by Carlo Edwards.

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