Klemperer’s Don Giovanni*
When a few years ago I asked Otto Klemperer how Mahler had actually conducted, he replied from precisely well-informed memory, “Completely naturally.” What he meant by this can only be properly understood in the context of his own specific conception of the practice: he conceives of natural conducting as consisting not in nature-worship and naivety but rather in refraining from shaping, decorating, or stimulating the music from the outside in any way. He earnestly refuses to make the music interesting; he abandons himself unreservedly to whatever is unfolding in it. If the word objectivity [Sachlichkeit] had not become so toxic, it would be the perfect term for his ideal style of performance. To be sure, in this mode no neo-objective attitude simply steamrolls over all musical expression and differentiation. But Klemperer tries to help the object itself in all its richness speak in such a way that it has no need of any additional ingredients.
In his recording of Don Giovanni, Klemperer comports himself like an old man reconstituting various experiences of his youth, reconstituting them with the naturalness defined immediately above. His modus operandi and results prove to be uncommonly sophisticated. As a conductor he in large measure restricts himself to fulfilling a supervisory function. On each track he establishes a kind of frame, a border, that limits capriciousness. At the same time there are remnants of certain of his the neoclassical proclivities of the nineteen-twenties such as an aversion to rubato. But the frame he has established affords the singers—and Klemperer conceives of Don Giovanni as a singer’s opera through and through—the freedom to develop. All musical direction from the podium is totally relaxed. This désinvolture on the part of the conductor stridently contrasts with the current tendency to keep a tight leash on every beat, every note, to refrain from loosening one’s grip for even a single second. Only once, at the great caesura in the scene of the stone guest, does Klemperer intervene, in the true spirit of the baroque, and to admittedly overwhelmingly impressive effect. The tempi are also relaxed, serene, almost never hortative, but also devoid of the slightest trace of sentimentality. Sometimes moderate tempi are of debatable merit; especially in Don Giovanni, which contains many alla breve passages that pose difficult questions about the choice of tempo. When informed by accumulated experience and devoid of all preciousness, even downright outlandish tempi are well-chosen. On the other hand, whenever Klemperer does beat time more quickly in the manner made familiar by tradition, as in “Là ci darem la mano,” he makes it easier for the music to breathe and constructs quite unusual and compelling arcs of phrasing.
Although the whole maintains its supremacy over the parts, no violence is done to the latter. The dyad of whole and parts is commensurate with the formal law of the work, the law of opera assoluta. Formally this kind of opera presents itself as a structure composed of pieces, each of which bears its own highly particular stamp and stands out in relief from all the others in the aggregate, whereas each of them, down to the level of its latent motivic interconnections, can in fact hail from nowhere but Don Giovanni, and such duality yields the only legitimate conception of style. But this conception emerges only in the specific content of Don Giovanni. For the equipoising of the individuation of the work’s singularity and the stylistic unity of the whole within this content is complemented by the comportment of the work’s historical moments towards one another. Its hero—whom the skittish dramatis personae peremptorily denigrates as “extremely licentious,” as though the composer and librettist wished to apologize for centering the work on him—is the hero of the late feudal period, whom the bourgeois age he has stumbled into brands a felon, just as it does the figurine-like characters of the Marquis de Sade. At the same time his antiquated libertinage embodies the potential of liberty vis-à-vis the morality that is overtaking him. As the host of a party he explicitly praises liberty even as he brazenly runs roughshod over other people’s exercise of their own liberty. The opera succeeds because it stands at the summit of a pass between two eras. It is the tension between these eras, not what used to be called an idea, that actuates this theater of the world. Klemperer’s comportment submits to the multivalent multifariousness of a structure that could never be encompassed by any overarching master concept. Moreover, there is a good reason why this opera that gravitates towards seriousness of the gloomiest sort is called a dramma giocoso; among the bourgeoisie, Don Giovanni is not only a demon, but also, according to the rules of their game, a clown. The deeds of his phase of irresistibility belong in the opera of the past; as though he were Falstaff, he is no longer capable of bagging any new mistresses. Although he chastises the buffoon Leporello, who leads a miserable life in his company and is incapable of breaking free of him, this servant is a mirror of his master.
The principal problem that every performance of this work must attempt to solve remains that of the relationship between the whole and its parts. Klemperer certainly does not suffocate the parts; nevertheless, it seems to me that they would require more encouragement than he grants them in order to come into their own, in order for that all-important Own to suffer no injury. There is no shortage of enchanting details like the unexpectedly cheeky whistles delivered by the flutes and bassoons in the catalogue aria. On the other hand, there are certain traces of asceticism; often Mozart is displaced into the distance, as Bach tended to be back in the twenties. This is especially evident in the orchestral playing: it is as if the great conductor were employing his left hand all too sparingly rather than judiciously in shaping measures such as the two lyrical ones in the violins in the introduction to the peasants’ chorus in the first act; one might also imagine Zerlina being allowed to segue more pliantly into the reprise of her first aria, and to sing it through less rigorously. There is an overkill of understatement. In an understated approach, moments of finesse must stand the test lest they receive undue emphasis. Ask only whether they do not remain unnoticed as long as the interpretation, however discreet it may be, does not thrust them into the spotlight.
It is further necessary to consider whether the delicate threadwork of the internal structure, its innumerable subtle contrasts, should not be more intensively worked out alongside the drastic contrasts of forte and piano—as, for example, in the quotation of Figaro in the banquet scene, a quotation whose two half-phrases are decidedly no less mutually distinct than fused together into a single phrase. Contemporary music-making, which had its first pioneer in Klemperer a full forty years ago, is ubiquitously faced with the difficultly of restoring to the individual details what was withdrawn from them in reaction to romantic practice without thereby macerating the overarching whole. Precisely for objective plenitude’s sake, the overcoming of this difficulty entails the addition of that so-called subjective type of interpretation that Klemperer renounces on many levels on account of his reverence for the object, and by no means on account of a lack of vigor or imagination. The problem of the reparation of detail has become so centrally the problem attending all music-making as such that no performer can be blamed for not having yet completely solved it. It remains to be seen whether it is completely solvable. Klemperer has contributed to the solution by never treating the musical sound as an end in itself, by never once striving for a shining and sparkling play of instrumental color, and instead unperturbedly concentrating on what is actually happening in the music.
The work is sung by an international ensemble in Italian and in a highly Italianate style, with fiery recitatives and a great deal of bel canto, in delightful contrast to the severe organization of the overall structure. The role of Don Giovanni is performed by Nicolai Ghiaurov. He wields his beautiful voice with great musicality and cultivation. The fact that he seems to be a bit lacking in suggestive power may simply be owing to the intrinsic difference between records and live theater. In his recitatives he perhaps does a bit too much of a good thing with his menacing laugh, or rather with his surrogate for a joie de vivre that is fishy in any case. What is missing from the breathless champagne aria is the essential art of letting it out in a deluge while at the same time expressing its subtlest nuances.
Christa Ludwig as Elvira conquers the center of the work by dint of pure musical quality. Thanks to her vocal artistry and expressive articulation, this singer has become one of the most significant mezzosopranos available to contemporary musical theater; over the last few years she has acquired a warmth that overflows and envelops the listener. The great arias “Ah! mi dice mai” and “Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata” are true pièces de résistance. If possible they are even surpassed by the andantino trio in A major in the second act, probably the finest composition in the opera in virtue of its wealth of musical figures and perfectly balanced multifariousness, and Ms. Ludwig is absolutely dominant in this recorded performance of it. The role of Donna Anna is sung by Claire Watson. The level of expansiveness and intensity that her soprano voice manages to attain is admirable, but one cannot fail to notice that she is in danger of overexerting herself a bit, which danger is admittedly but the flipside of her intrinsically quite legitimate tendency not to be tied down to stereotypical notions about the role. Her voice is scarcely powerful enough for the grandly dramatic passages. Her coloratura lacks the sovereignty and security requisite to them, especially in the aria “Non mi dire,” with whose allegro section’s notorious exigencies Ms. Watson is not quite capable of coping. A coloratura singer in the grand manner must present what she has to give with a degree of facility and amplitude that seems to dash off the most neck-breaking runs with playful cavalierness; when coloratura is merely up to par, it is already failing to keep pace with coloratura as an ideal. The double-sided character of the dramatic and coloratura soprano was self-evident in Mozart’s time. Under present conditions it is scarcely reasonable to expect it: this is an inescapable historical limitation on any possible performance of Don Giovanni. Mirella Freni’s Zerlina sings prettily and with great purity, although her singing does not contrast with that of the other women as vividly as the role demands here; for the sake of realizing the long-playing record as a form, the timbres of the various singers should be almost excessively distinct from one another, because of course it is these timbres alone that define the characters here. Mr. Berry manages to be a buffoonesque Leporello without overacting so much as a jot. As Don Ottavio, Mr. Gedda rises to the occasion with the quantity of good breeding that only that bridegroom’s bridegroom is capable of mustering; Mr. Monatarsolo makes his Masetto an old-school yokel; the great commendatore is Franz Crass. They are all accompanied by London’s New Philharmonia Orchestra. Klemperer’s conception relegates the orchestra to a subsidiary function, which it willingly serves; understandably, the orchestra does not emanate much spontaneity. The instrumental basslines occasionally sound a bit lackluster; acoustic conditions may be to blame for this.
It must not be forgotten that as a performance destined to be listened to on the gramophone, this one takes advantage of its exemption from all theatrical considerations by exhibiting very few cuts. If I am not mistaken, apart from a few genuinely dispensable secco recitatives, the only thing that is missing is Zerlina and Leporello’s duet in the second act—presumably an addendum, as is suggested by the number it bears in the score. It would be instructive to compare the original Italian text with the standard German version, which instantly made the libretto unambiguously safe for middle-class consumption.
Klemperer retains the final scene, the one following the Don’s descent into Hell, owing to a neoclassical, and specifically Cocteauean, intellectual predilection for conventions that ultimately dates back to Nietzsche, to his hostility to Wagnerian music drama. Since then the notion of restoring the topos of the happy ending merely because it would be good to have such an ending has ceased to be tenable. The grandeur of the commendatore scene imperiously overshadows everything that has preceded it in the performance; anything that the restorative impulse allows to follow it cannot but be anticlimactic. No appeal to style can exert any sway over a work that from atop its lofty pinnacle overrules its own stylistic principle. The feebleness of the major-mode finale is no felicitous return to form: it attests to the extent to which Mozart has lost the power to bring the dixhuitième back to life. The finale ought to be omitted from all live, staged performances; any attempt to rationalize it as an exercise in irony will tend to undermine rather than fortify its claim to aesthetic merit. In any case, should the ominous criterion of fidelity to the work itself be invoked as decisive, it must be remembered that Mozart himself sanctioned this cut. The work must be protected from the incursions of a forced naivety, a naivety that the commendatore scene—the last of the baroque allegories of premundane creation—retroactively damns as unregenerate silliness.
Anyone determined to listen to Don Giovanni with a fully attentive consciousness—to listen to it categorically, so to speak—will find Klemperer’s discs inexhaustible.
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2019 by Douglas Robertson
Source: Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Werke, Rolf Tiedemann, ed. in collaboration with Gretel Adorno, Susan Buck-Morss, and Klaus Schultz (Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main, 1986; Directmedia: Berlin, 2003), Vol. 19, pp. 539ff.