Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Don Giovanni on Contested Fields

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On October 22, 2016, the Metropolitan Opera will broadcast “Live in HD” its Saturday matinee performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The production that will be seen by audiences in the New York house and at the movies globally premiered in 2011. Nothing about this staging gives off the excitement director Michael Grandage has generated in the legitimate theater. The moveable curved wballs pierced by doors and windows are all too familiar. To complaints of timidity such as “this Don Giovanni almost makes you yearn for those new stagings where the creative team is booed on opening night” (Times, Oct. 15, 2011), Peter Gelb, Met general manager, shot back with some justification, “Don’t get me started on that. . . . I feel damned if I do, damned if I don’t.” (Guardian [London], Dec. 9, 2011).

Don Giovanni has been favored at the Met for many decades. Since 1929, Mozart's drama giocoso has been on the boards two of every three seasons on average. But that was not always the case. Between 1908 and 1929, the opera was absent from the company’s repertoire. Its revival was inauspicious. Disappointed in most of the singers and no doubt remembering the noble baritone of Antonio Scotti, the unrepentant libertine of the turn of the century, critics judged bass Ezio Pinza lacking in "the elegance, the grace, the adroitness, the magnetic charm that the successful Don possesses, and his voice is not sufficiently flexible for the music." And through the 1930s, music journalists carped about Pinza. It was not until 1941, when conducted by Bruno Walter, that he earned their unrestrained praise. Virgil Thomson found him, and four of the other principals, "irreproachable." Pinza, who took on the doublet and hose of Don Giovanni in more than sixty Met performances, is credited with establishing the opera's place in the core repertoire. Handsome, charismatic, possessing a beautiful and theatre-filling voice, he was the undisputed king of the bass repertoire for his more than twenty-year-long operatic career in New York.

The several commercial disks of Giovanni's short solos and his duet with Zerlina fail to show off Pinza at his best. The impact of his voice, the clarity of his diction, the evenness of his legato, and the finesse of his phrasing are displayed not in the mini-arias Mozart granted the legendary rake but in a recording of bravura pages consigned to the servant. "Madamina, il catalogo รจ questo," is Leporello's accounting of Giovanni's amorous conquests.

A particularly dramatic back-stage Met story linked Don Giovanni and Ezio Pinza in 1942. The celebrated bass was diligently fulfilling his Met contract when FBI agents showed up at his suburban New York door and placed him under arrest on the accusation of a fellow bass, Norman Cordon. Pinza had been a permanent resident in the U.S. since 1939 and lately married to an American. Among the charges leveled against him were that he was a personal friend of Il Duce (they had never met), that his nickname was Mussolini, that by changing tempos during Met broadcasts he had sent coded messages abroad, that he had a tortoise-shell ring in the shape of a swastika (it was an antique ring that bore an archaic symbol). While columnist Walter Winchell went on the attack with his signature malice, many others came to Pinza’s defense, including Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. So did anti-fascist Bruno Walter. At Pinza’s successful second hearing, colleagues testified that Cordon had bragged about informing on his famous competitor. After three month’s detention, Pinza was released. His return to the Met in 1942–1943 came on tour in Philadelphia where, as Don Giovanni, he had the pleasure of murdering Cordon’s Commendatore in a performance conducted by Walter.

Another Met backstory with national implications links Don Giovanni with the celebrated African-American soprano Leontyne Price. In the southern cities of its spring tour, the Met was caught up in the fight for civil rights that defined the decade. During the 1961 Atlanta run, two African-American holders of orchestra tickets were asked to sit elsewhere. They refused. Protests ensued. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference joined in a telegram to general manager Rudolf Bing denouncing the company’s acceptance of a discriminatory policy. The cable was cosigned by Martin Luther King, Jr. The following year, officially at least, the Atlanta audience was integrated. Atlanta was again a thorn in Bing’s side in 1964. The organizers had balked at the prospect of Price in the cast of Don Giovanni. Bing dashed off this memorandum to the president of the Metropolitan Opera Association: “Leontyne Price at the present time is one of the most valuable properties [an unfortunate choice of words] of the Metropolitan Opera and there is no doubt that taking her on tour next season, but skipping the whole Atlanta week would terribly upset her, would without question make her refuse the whole tour and might, indeed, jeopardize her whole relationship with the Metropolitan.” Price sang Donna Anna in Atlanta that spring.

Here, recorded (alas, with faulty sonics) at a live performance just a few years earlier, Price sings Anna’s exacting “Or sai chi l’onore,” swearing vengeance on Don Giovanni, who forced himself upon her and then killed her father. Few sopranos are successful in maintaining Anna’s rhythm and rage through the music’s craggy course. Price does so with scrupulous attention to note values, all the while pouring forth a glorious flood of tone.

Pinza proved that the basso cantante, the lyric bass, was a perfect fit for Don Giovanni. His successor at the Met, basso cantante Cesare Siepi, holds the company record for the role. In recent seasons, the brighter sound of the baritone has had its turn. Here is baritone Simon Keenlyside, the Met’s October 22 Don Giovanni, in a seductively lyric rendition of the Act II serenade.