Tonight's show on "Great Performances" is Mozart's "Don Giovanni" in a new production from the Salzburg Festival, and people who really love opera should make a special effort to tune in (9 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., Channel 26 and Maryland Public TV).
For many fans, Mozart's moral fable about a libertine's hectic life and horrible death is the greatest opera ever composed. And the festival held each summer in the city of Mozart's birth presents some of the most elegant (not to mention the most expensive) opera productions in the world. A seat in front of your television tonight is the equivalent of a $250 ticket, which scalpers can boost to double that sum, and exchange rate fluctuations can push even higher.
Tonight's "Don Giovanni" meets the usual Salzburg standards: It is musically sumptuous and visually striking, with many scenes that look like a classic painting brought to life. The basic set (a public square) looks remarkably like part of Seville, where the opera is set. Sometimes this production is theatrically a bit static -- particularly in large ensemble numbers. Sometimes it is easy to imagine more vivid action on the screen -- particularly for those who remember the Washington Opera's "Don Giovanni," directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, a few years ago. But it is hard to imagine a better singer in any of the opera's eight roles.
The best work, musically and theatrically, is done by Samuel Ramey -- dashing, virile and vocally brilliant in the title role; Kathleen Battle, who lights up the stage as Zerlina; Ferruccio Furlanetto, funny and convincing as Leporello; and Julia Varady, a nobly unhappy Donna Elvira. These four provide most of the theatrical excitement, notably in "La ci darem," the catalogue aria, the champagne aria and "Vedrai carino." Anna Tomowa-Sintow is vocally an impressive Donna Anna but not much of an actress. Tenor Gosta Winbergh has the right style and range for Don Ottavio, but his acting might remind you of a (good-looking) piece of furniture.
Conductor Herbert von Karajan is like the Metropolitan Opera's artistic director James Levine -- a superb musician who sometimes neglects or deliberately submerges theatrical values. Von Karajan's current manner can be heard in the pacing and phrasing of the music -- always elegantly textured but often lacking in vitality. Still, these are small deficiencies in a production that reaches the highest artistic levels. The ensemble singing is the stuff that dreams are made of and the orchestra is the Vienna Philharmonic -- enough said.
Before the opera begins and during intermission, Ramey takes the audience on a guided tour of the post-card-pretty city of Salzburg and the well-preserved house where Mozart was born. He is as effective offstage as on.