GHCD 2236/37 – DON GIOVANNI – Mozart – 1943 – Metropolitan Operan, Pinza – Milanov

Metropolitan Opera, Chorus & Orchestra conducted by Paul Breisach

To the CD in our Shop

By Christopher Howell

In this performance the Met is on tour to Chicago with a production which had opened under Bruno Walter in 1942 with Ezio Pinza’s famous Don and a generally similar cast (CDs of this are available). The point of the present issue is that it gives us Pinza’s most famous partner as Leporello, Salvatore Baccaloni, in better sound than the 1944 broadcast under Georg Szell, which has also been transferred to CD, and Zinka Milanov’s only preserved broadcast of a Mozart opera.

This is not quite the great deal it sounds. Pinza and Baccaloni are indeed wonderful in their recitatives, the words of their native language flashing vividly from their tongues, but Baccaloni is in coarse voice in his catalogue aria, which also reveals a few intonation problems. He is better later but it would seem that it was not exactly for the singing as such that his performance was so highly regarded. As for Milanov, she goes for Donna Anna as if she were a Verdi heroine, her tone uncontrolled and, in the first Act in particular, frequently sharp. Though the swooning style is still wrong, her Bellinian rendition of Non mi dir does at least provide some of the soft singing and beautiful tone for which she was renowned. All in all it seems there were good reasons why RCA, for whom she recorded many operas by Verdi and the like, looked elsewhere for their Mozart sopranos. Her shortcomings are all the more obvious when both Novotna and Sayáo (after an uneasy start) are thoroughly stylish. Sayáo has also great charm and a real personality, so that Zerlina assumes a more central role in the opera than is often the case.

The other difference from 1942 is, of course, that Bruno Walter’s place was taken by one Paul Breisach. The booklet gives extensive (and very interesting) notes on the performance and short biographies of each singer, but no information about this gentleman is forthcoming. [see Editor’s Note]. I presume he was an assistant who conducted rehearsals and the odd performance when the great man was away. He takes some pretty fast tempi, which would be all right if he breathed with his singers, but instead he barges on. At least some of Baccaloni’s problems seem to stem from this and even Pinza has a job to keep up in the champagne aria. The women assert themselves rather better; Novotna gently nudges him towards the tempi she wants and Sayáo forces him to accompany her in one of the most beautifully shaped performances of Batti, batti I’ve heard. To be sure, he moves ahead when the orchestra has a few bars on its own but she always gets her tempo back when she re-enters. Slow tempi, on the other hand, sometimes drag, notably the introduction to Vedrai carino which is far from Grazioso, so this time Sayáo has to move him on. But I don’t want to make too much of this since the magic of a theatrical occasion is certainly there and I daresay the players mostly looked the other way and played the Walter interpretation.

Pinza’s suave charmer of a Don is certainly worth having, though in view of the existence of the Walter performance this may not be the best way to get it; Melton and Harrell are nothing very special.

In common with their general policy – a long letter in defence of which from Richard Caniell can be found on the site – Guild have provided missing portions from other sources, using the same singers as far as possible. I remain unconvinced. Those seeking a listener-friendly version will not be choosing in the historical bracket at all, and issues like this are surely intended for dedicated opera buffs who want to study – rather than just sit back and listen – performances that cannot be heard on other versions. As far as I am concerned, if it’s a broken torso it’s a broken torso and I’d rather have it like that. If the banquet scene and the beginning of the epilogue are missing it’s a great pity, but nothing is gained by filling them in with, respectively, the 1944 Szell and the 1936 Glyndebourne recordings, which the seasoned collector very likely has anyway. Likewise, if a patch of the scene in Act Two between Don Giovanni, Masetto and Zerlina suffers from a very bad scratch, I’d rather endure it for the sake of what I can hear of the performances than have it substituted with the 1942 Walter, which I would want to hear in its own context. Museums nowadays don’t try to complete missing portions of painting and statues which are partially damaged (indeed, much restoration today is dedicated to removing the work of 19th Century “restorers” who did just that); isn’t this the same thing?. Still, whether you agree or not, Guild do at least declare exactly what the interpolations are; I’m not for a moment accusing them of misleading the public.

Editor’s Note: Paul Breisach (1896-1952). A biographical entry: Born Vienna. Studied at the Vienna Academy of Music. Assistant to Strauss at Vienna State Opera. Conductor at Mannheim 1921-24. First conducted at the Met in 1941. Also conducted there during 1945-6 season. Principal conductor of San Francisco Opera from 1946 until his death in 1952. Recorded extracts from Wagner operas with Janssen and Melton. Also recorded excerpts from Grétry’s opera Richard Coeur de Lion with Singher and the Met opera and chorus (Columbia and Victor)