The prospect of hearing Christian Gerhaher sing the title role in Don Giovanni with the orchestra whose forebears gave its première drew fans and cognoscenti alike to Bamberg’s Joseph Keilberth Saal. To judge from the prolonged ovations they were not disappointed. Yet this was a flawed account.

Christian Gerhaher
© Jim Rakete | Sony Classical

Gerhaher’s experience in a role he knows well rescued an evening of mitigated pleasures: his magisterial vocal colours lent definition to conductor Jakub Hrůša’s oddly symphonic reading in this unstaged concert performance. In truth there were occasions when the baritone pushed his characterisation a little too hard, for example when he barked his way through the Champagne Aria, but better that than the deferential evening of ‘pure’ Mozart favoured by some of his colleagues.

From the weighty overture and Leporello’s leaden "Notte e giorno faticar" it was clear that Hrůša’s head was in the concert hall, not the opera house. The killing of the Commendatore (Tijl Faveyts, balefully good) was cleansed of its ugliness; Donna Elvira’s entrance aria "Ah, chi mi dice mai" progressed in fits and starts. The Bamberg Symphony Orchestra may be a virtuoso outfit, but for its conductor to luxuriate in the players’ golden sound did them a disservice when there was drama to be had. The absence of theatricality was all the more unexpected given Hrůša’s impressive Glyndebourne pedigree, so it’s worth considering why the problems arose.

First, there was no credited director. Even a concert performance needs a stage professional to make sure the pieces fit and provide the conductor with a sounding board in delivering the opera’s theatricality; here there was nobody.

Second, the singers flew blind. For most of the evening they were arrayed in front of the orchestra with their backs to the conductor and with no sightline to him, nor he to them. Not even a monitor screen. Under such circumstances the only safe route to achieving decent musical ensemble is caution, which is what we got.

Finally there’s the variable casting. Tareq Nazmi’s Leporello, not an especially complex creation and certainly not a witty one, leapt from loud to inaudible at the turn of a bar. Sophie Karthäuser, for her part, brought little sense of interpretation to Zerlina; indeed, she did not persuade this listener that she understood what she was singing. Her naughty-nice aria "Batti, batti" (‘Beat me if you want but I’m innocent’) came across as little more than a lilting song that she topped off with a sweet smile to the audience.

Layla Claire is a a card-carrying Mozartean with admirable credentials, but she seemed troubled by the lack of connection with Hrůša and was ill at ease in projecting Donna Elvira’s anguish. Simona Šaturová, meanwhile, appeared beset with technical issues and only just held it together through Mozart’s challenging music for Donna Anna. Her voice, fragile and slightly vinegary on the day, was tested in the florid climax of "Non mi dir" and not all the notes made it through.

Božidar Smiljanić had more luck in bringing Masetto to life, while the opera’s revelation (and something of a saving grace) was Martin Mitterrutzner, a dazzling German tenor whose flourishing career at home is bound to propel him to international attention before long. He has sung Don Ottavio before, and it showed as the young singer held the platform with an energy and focus equalled only by Gerhaher himself. 


Mark's press trip to Bamberg was sponsored by Bamberg Symphony Orchestra.

An earlier version of this review questioned the loss of Don Ottavio's aria "Dalla sua pace" when, in fact, the performance given was of the Prague version of Mozart's score ("Dalla sua pace" having being written for the 1788 Vienna revision).