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“Don Giovanni”
“Don Giovanni” DVD
Reviewed by Ivana Redwine

Guide Rating -  

Mozart's 1787 Italian-language opera "Don Giovanni" stands as one of the greatest achievements in the history of music, and I think the innovative 1979 Joseph Losey movie version of that opera brilliantly captures its spirit on film. In my opinion, this movie version of "Don Giovanni" stands with Franco Zeffirelli's "La Traviata" and Ingmar Bergman's "The Magic Flute" as the very best of the operas on film. Now Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment has released the Losey film version of "Don Giovanni" on DVD, and I thought it was absolutely wonderful when I watched it at home recently. Alas, the DVD offers no bonus materials of any consequence, unless you count the three theatrical trailers.

Perhaps I should provide a little background to "Don Giovanni." The story in the opera is a version of the Don Juan legend, which goes something like this: Don Juan was a notorious womanizer who seduced the daughter of the commander of Seville, then killed the commander in a duel. Later, when Don Juan derisively invited a statue of the dead man to a feast, the statue came to life and dragged Don Juan to hell.

When the Don Juan legend, which is of Spanish origin, was turned into an Italian-language opera, the characters were given Italian names. Thus, Don Juan became Don Giovanni and the commander became Il Commendatore. Nevertheless, stage performances of the opera "Don Giovanni" are usually presented as being set in Seville around 1600. However, in Losey's film version of the opera, the setting was changed to the Veneto (the region around Venice), and this justified shooting at some of the most charming locations I've ever seen. I think it's worth watching the movie just to get a look at the splendid villas and their grounds, particularly Palladio's famous Villa Rotonda.

In the film, we see Don Giovanni (bass Ruggero Raimondi) trying to get away after an unsuccessful attempt to seduce Donna Anna (soprano Edda Moser) when he encounters her father, Il Commendatore. Anna's father is no match for the younger, bigger Giovanni, who kills the old man with his sword and rides away on his horse. Early next morning, Giovanni comes upon Donna Elvira (soprano Kiri Te Kanawa), a woman who is pursuing him after he seduced and abandoned her. When Giovanni leaves, his servant Leporello (baritone Jose Van Dam) sings the Catalogue Aria, during which he unfurls manuscripts containing the names of the 2,065 "women of all ranks, shapes, and ages" that his master has seduced.

A little later, Giovanni chances upon preparations for the wedding of peasants Zerlina (mezzo-soprano Teresa Berganza) and Masetto (bass Malcolm King). Giovanni tries to seduce the bride-to-be, and this provides the opportunity for his lovely duet with Zerlina, "La ci darem la mano" ("There you will give me your hand"). Zerlina seems tempted, but the vindictive Donna Elvira arrives to thwart Giovanni's attempt.

Soon Donna Anna realizes it was Giovanni who killed her father, and the seducer finds himself hounded by Anna and her fiance Don Ottavio (tenor Kenneth Riegel), as well as by Zerlina's fiance Masetto and the scorned Donna Elvira. Despite his mounting problems, Giovanni, accompanied by his servant Leporello, sets out to seduce Elvira's maid. As part of his seduction scheme, Giovanni forces his servant to switch clothes with him, and Leporello soon finds himself surrounded by hostile people who mistake him for his master. The frightened servant flees, eventually meeting up with Giovanni at a cemetery, where they stumble upon Il Commendatore's tomb. They invite the statue of the dead man to dinner, and the statue accepts. Later, when Giovanni is dining, the statue arrives and approaches him. Giovanni backs away in horror and is drawn into an open-pit fire used for glassmaking.

I'm not very knowledgeable about opera, but the voices in "Don Giovanni" all sound really good to me. I particularly like Ruggero Raimondi in the title role and Kiri Te Kanawa as Donna Elvira. Also, all the singers are at least adequate as movie actors. It appears to me that Losey's top priority must have been to cast for singing ability, and I suppose some of the performers won't be as young and good-looking as some viewers would like, but all the performers look OK to me. My only complaint about the film is that sometimes the singers' mouth movements are slightly out of sync with the sound track.

The genius of Losey's film is that he was so successful at visually complementing Mozart's great music. I love the way the singers are always shown in varied and interesting places, from the interiors of villas with murals and statuary to exteriors featuring fascinating architecture to gondolas moving through water. Although there are some beautifully composed shots, they're never held for long. Typically there are long takes as the camera fluidly follows the singers as they move around during melodic passages. In short, the film is a visual delight, and what's more, it's shot and edited to fit the music and story.

The DVD version of "Don Giovanni" looks and sounds terrific, and I give it my highest recommendation.

Selected Special Features on the DVD:

  • Theatrical Trailers (3)


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