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2002, ROH London, Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni

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“At the heart of it all is Simon Keenlyside in the title role.” The Guardian

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Librettist: Lorenzo da Ponte
Venue and Dates: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London.
New production
18 February, 20, 23, 28 2002 with this cast (The first cast opened January 22. These are shown in brackets)
Conductor: Sir Charles MacKerras (Sir Colin Davis)
Director: Francesca Zambello
Sets: Maria Bjørnson
Lighting: Paul Pyant
Choreography: Steven Mear
Performers:
Don Giovanni: Simon Keenlyside (Bryn Terfel)
Leporello: Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (Alan Held)
Donna Anna: Christine Goerke (Adrianne Pieczonka)
Donna Elvira: Ana Maria Martinez (Melanie Diener)
Ottavio: John Mark Ainsley (Rainer Trost)
Commendatore: Andrea Silvestrelli (Robert Lloyd)
Zerlina: Natalie Christie (Rebecca Evans)
Masetto: Darren Jeffery (Ashley Holland)
Notes: The Royal Opera House website has a short video of Simon, Bryn and Francesca Zambello talking about Don Giovanni and this production. Click here and scroll to bottom of page to find the link. The clip may not load properly if you use Firefox

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Interview with Francesca Zambello

Michael Billington, The Guardian, 29 March 2002
http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/critic/feature/0,,675675,00.html

Mission: possible
Director Francesca Zambello is just as happy staging Aladdin at Disneyland as the classics at the Met – and she is determined to make opera more democratic.

… With the Covent Garden Don Giovanni we staged earlier this year, we all spent a lot of time in rehearsal simply reading the recitatives and discussing the dramatic content.

“That process also went on outside rehearsal. Both Bryn (Terfel) and Simon (Keenlyside), who both sang Don Giovanni at various points in the run, are very fluent on the computer. I’d wake up in the morning to find batches of e-mails from both of them. Because I work so much on text, I think it’s important that everyone in the opera house be brought together by a single language. Opera’s internationalism may be one of its strengths, but it’s also its greatest enemy.”

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Soundbites

Review by George Hall for Opera News, June 2002

http://www.metoperafamily.org/operanews/_archive/602/InReview.602.html

At Convent Garden, Zambello and two almost equally starry casts set out to change the recent spate of bad luck of
Don Giovanni in the U.K.

…The second cast (Feb. 18) was more consistent. Simon Keenlyside’s Giovanni lacked Terfel’s sheer amplitude, but his basic attitude of suave calculation took in many refinements. Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s Leporello showed an Italian’s natural appreciation of the dexterity and flavor of da Ponte’s text. Christine Goerke’s Donna Anna rose to the challenge of both arias with securely founded tone and dramatic command, and Ana Maria Martinez attacked the difficulties of Donna Elvira with relish, identifying the abandoned woman’s tensions both physically and vocally. John Mark Ainsley’s Ottavio was accurately delivered, though lacking in nuance, and Andrea Silvestrelli’s Commendatore was grandly voiced. Neither the Zerlina (Natalie Christie) nor the Masetto (Darren Jeffery) made any particular impression. Best of all was Mackerras’s fluid conducting, and his sanctioning (and presumably inventing) of the many stylish decorations that found their way into the vocal lines of every cast member.

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Andrew Clements, The Guardian, 20 February 2002
http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/critic/review/0,,745082,00.html

Rating: four out of five stars

The Royal Opera’s new production of Don Giovanni opened only a month ago, but the changes wrought on it by a complete change of cast and conductor are so radical that it almost qualifies as a revival. Crucially, the production is now peopled with real characters rather than ciphers, performers who offer genuine insights into the roles they are playing.

The transformation is multi-faceted, but the greatest gains are musical, and it is the performances that now make the show well worth seeing, or at least hearing. It all begins in the pit. Charles Mackerras’s reading of the score is everything Colin Davis’s before him was not: alive, transparent, yoked inseparably to the drama. The orchestral playing has pungency and point; it’s the best kind of modern-instrument Mozart. The difference is not just that Mackerras prefers faster tempi – the Champagne Aria is taken at such a lick that the words almost trip over themselves – but that he provides his superlative cast with a platform on which they can deliver theatrically compelling and integrated performances.

At the heart of it all is Simon Keenlyside in the title role. Though he wears the same lank Meatloaf wig, his characterisation is worlds away from Bryn Terfel’s, which suggested nothing more than a bit of a lad on the lookout for some slap and tickle. Keenlyside’s Giovanni is a dangerous, proud predator in whom violence always simmers below the surface. He can switch from genteel seductiveness to physical threat in a moment, registering all the gradations in his wonderfully vital and well-focused singing. He is helped by having a perfect foil in Ildebrando d’Arcangelo’s Leporello; the repartee bounces between them, so that our perspective on their relationship constantly changes.

The new Anna is the American soprano Christine Goerke, feisty, moving and vocally hugely imposing. Elvira is Ana Maria Martinez, who wins our sympathies without a trace of the overplayed madness that afflicted the character before. John Mark Ainsley’s Ottavio also has a bad wig to contend with, but he creates such a powerful presence and sings his arias with such stylish directness it hardly matters.

There’s also a sonorous Commendatore from Andrea Silvestrelli, a perky Zerlina from Natalie Christie, and a highly promising Masetto from the young Darren Jeffrey. Altogether a fabulous evening musically.

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Helen Wright for MusicOMH.com

http://www.musicomh.com/opera/don-giovanni-3.htm

The first new production at Covent Garden this year, Francesca Zambello’s Don Giovanni has two casts – the first, theoretically the starry one, with Bryn Terfel as the Don. This sounds appealing, but the live radio broadcast was very disappointing. In contrast, the first night with the second cast was a musical triumph, under the more than capable baton of Charles Mackerras, though the production itself is flawed.

I had wondered whether Simon Keenlyside, recently seen in London as the urbane and noble Prince Andrei in War and Peace, would be a little too smooth as Giovanni – but no. He was a menacing figure, establishing from his first appearance that beneath the fine clothes this was no gentleman, as he killed the Commendatore in the most underhand fashion. However he cuts a fine figure, and his silky voice (in terrific form, with his usual crystal-clear diction) makes him a highly credible seducer.

He’s also a real action man, zipping up and down the staircase of the set and escaping his accusers at the end of Act I by swarming up a rope. He’s well matched by Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Leporello (soon to sing Don Giovanni in Naples). Looking as rough as they come, he’s a splendidly vivid character with a rich voice that perfectly complements that of Simon Keenlyside, and he’s a fine actor too.

The other exceptional performance comes from Ana Maria Martinez as Donna Elvira, making her Royal Opera debut. She’s a petite, feisty figure who arrives on stage spitting feathers and continues to delight throughout the opera, with a gorgeous clear tone and thrilling delivery. Donna Anna is Christine Goerke, less secure in her (admittedly fiendish) arias but certainly a woman it doesn’t pay to cross. Her Ottavio is John Mark Ainsley, singing sweetly in this rather lacklustre role, and her father the Commendatore is played solidly by Andrea Silvestrelli.

Zerlina is fun, played with great charm by another tiny singer, Natalie Christie. Darren Jeffery stood in for an ill Quentin Hayes as Masetto, and towered over Zerlina (and everyone else in the cast) – he is simply huge. This made for a striking contrast between rustic, dim husband and svelte, cunning would-be lover.

Well, I can’t put off talking about the production any longer, I suppose. It’s not terrible, it just doesn’t make too much sense, and the designs are not what one would expect from an old pro like Maria Björnson. There is one basic set, a curved wall which for most of the first act looks like a tiled 1970s toilet block sporting, for some unfathomable reason, a large Madonna. When swivelled ninety degrees we see an internal staircase, which does provide handy vantage points for various characters, and a narrow roofscape over which Don Giovanni drapes himself to great effect.

The inside of the curve provides an 18th Century interior for the masque, the first time that any attempt has been made for the set to work alongside the stylised traditional costumes. The last scene, always awaited with interest to see how Giovanni is taken down into hell, was fun but very silly – now we seemed to be in an ancient Roman villa, in which the hypocaust had become a dining room. However the flames were spectacular and from the vantage point of a box close to the stage, I can vouch for the heat they gave off.

The direction too was rather undistinguished – nothing terrible, but little of interest, and some rather inconsistent relationships between characters.

However, don’t let that put you off. There are still a few performances left and although it’s pretty well sold out, it’s well worth queuing for an unusually well-matched and exciting cast.

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Rupert Christiansen for the Telegraph 22 February 2002
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2002/02/22/btrc22.xml

Sir Charles Mackerras has taken over the conducting of Francesca Zambello’s new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House.

In contrast to his mellow predecessor, Sir Colin Davis, Mackerras takes a taut and brisk view of the drama – sometimes to the point of leaving both orchestra and singers breathless in pursuit. But the attendant theatricality makes for a thrilling evening, and I can’t recall when I last enjoyed a performance of this opera so much.

There was an entirely new cast, too. Simon Keenlyside presented a heartless charmer of a Don, floored by vanity and egotism rather than any outward-directed malevolence. He sang the role consummately, even though Mackerras raced him off his feet in the Champagne aria. Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, made an irresistible Leporello and John Mark Ainsley an eloquent Ottavio.

Two American sopranos made striking debuts. Christine Goerke’s big, broad voice was not under full control in Anna’s arias, but its potential was not in question. As Elvira, Ana Maria Martinez revealed an alluringly stage personality as well as producing some richly characterful and committed singing. Her sort of temperament is in short supply these days, and I only hope that the management has already signed her up for a return visit.

An extract from Ruth Elleson’s Letter from London for Opera Japonica, January 2002

http://www.operajaponica.org/archives/london/londonletterpast02.htm

The first cast, headed by Bryn Terfel with Colin Davis conducting, pulled in the crowds – but it was the second which really caught fire. Charles Mackerras’s leading man was Simon Keenlyside, whose edgy, chiselled good looks added to a dark, smouldering vocal portrayal. Of the rest of the cast, the most striking was Ana Maria Martinez as a lustrous, deranged Donna Elvira – not a secure sound, but very exciting – and the young American, Christine Goerke, sang with voluminous tone as Donna Anna. The staging was altered slightly between the two performances I saw, to its advantage.

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Edward Seckerson, the Independent, 21 February 2002

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/reviews/don-giovanni-royal-opera-house-london-661416.html

One hell of a menacing Don

The new Don on the block is elegant, svelte, small but perfectly formed. Great pecs. He is Simon Keenlyside, leading the second cast into Fancesca Zambello’s over-populated but improving production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. It doesn’t look any better – Maria Bjornson’s designs go to the wall at great expense – but the central relationships seem sharper now, there’s been a shift of emphasis, of balance, since Bryn Terfel’s all-pervasive brute of a Don went below. It’s interesting that our final glimpse of him was in inglorious isolation. Our final glimpse of Keenlyside finds him carrying off a naked woman. Shift of emphasis, indeed.

But there’s something else, something even more key to the success, the pace, the energy, and dynamism of the evening – and that’s the conducting of Sir Charles Mackerras. Where Sir Colin Davis was grandly authoritative, Mackerras is lethally incisive. The opening gesture of the overture, cut to the bone, precipitous (no boomingly portentous overhang of string basses for Sir Charles) is shockingly abrupt, the ensuing allegro instantly conveying the reckless dash of the narrative. So many women, so little time.

I honestly cannot remember when I last heard a better conducted Don Giovanni in the theatre. Rhythm, articulation, fluency and beauty of line – the playing was quite superb – but above all an acute sense of the score’s earthy buffo elements. The accompaniment to Leporello’s so-called “catalogue aria” was a case in point: capricious to a fault, cavorting bassoons lending an air of roguish parody to Leporello’s tally of the Don’s conquests.

Ildebrando D’Arcangelo is a complete knock-out as Leporello – charming, funny, sexy, but pointedly in touch with his emotions in ways that his master can never be. What a difference a native Italian speaker makes in the role. Not that Simon Keenlyside’s Don is found wanting in that respect. Physically and vocally it’s a much more discreet, less domineering performance than Terfel’s – Keenlyside’s voice, though classy, lacks charisma – but in some ways his elegant understatement, the touch of feyness in the demeanour, is a more menacing way to go with the role. For one thing, it throws the women’s blind fixation on him into even greater relief.

They were all good. Especially Ana Maria Martinez as Donna Elvira – a real star. This production might be dubbed “Elvira Get Your Gun” after the lady for whom a musket is now the perfect accessary to her soiled wedding dress. Martinez communicates with humour and temperament the irrationality of one for whom love and hate are now indivisible. “Mi tradi” is the music of madness, all breathless, palpitating rhythm and distracted vocal runs – and that’s how she characterised it.

Christine Goerke’s Donna Anna was impressive, too: poised, imperious, failing to keep her powder dry only fleetingly in the Queen-of-the-Night-like coloratura of “Non mi dir”. John Mark Ainsley (Don Ottavio) has lost some of his vocal lustre of late: there are problems over the break, chest and head tones aren’t complementing each other as they might. Still, the illusion of beauty is in the musicality and there was plenty of that on display.

A cracking evening for Mozart, then. Fire and water make for a steamy denouement in the Don’s bathhouse but Mackerras (with trumpets and hard-sticked drums blazing) and his cast have the temperature soaring long before then.

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Tom Sutcliffe, Evening Standard 19 February 2002

http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/music/review-374912-details/A+feast+of+fine+singing/review.do?reviewId=374912

A feast of fine singing

With Charles Mackerras conducting a wonder-fully fresh and youthful new cast, the Royal Opera’s Don Giovanni is miraculously transformed. Director Francesca Zambello’s ideas in the second act still become progressively less effective and imaginative the more extravagant the effects they require.

Yet Simon Keenlyside’s Don is extremely watchable as he fiddles nervously with his hair and hat, or positions himself to make a stylish pass at his latest prospect, or skips and bows with an elegant flourish of his hand. His voice may lack the bloom and succulence of Terfel, but Mozart’s libidinous hero requires sexual intensity and class more than singing.

Mackerras’s subtle reading of the neurotic passions in this unsettled piece is fascinatingly persuasive. Counting on beautifully expressive orchestral playing, he explores the musical language’s characteristic blend of serious emotion, rhythmic edginess and accomplished ornament. The listener gains an immediate sense where the work is going. The scales early in the overture, suggesting divine judgment, are not heavy at all – but their moral idea is unmistakable. Mackerras has a deep understanding of the different characters and, though he is demanding for singers, his dramatic sense guarantees the consistency of the whole ensemble.

But what casting! Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s Leporello has the nobility of voice and theatrical charisma to make a great Don himself. The mimed serenade opening the second act is polished rather than pretence clumsy – clearly a well-honed party trick. John Mark Ainsley’s sympathetic, intelligent Ottavio sings Dalla sua pace ravishingly, and creates a constantly impressive figure. Ana Maria Martinez’s feisty, ripely passionate Elvira (in her torn and dirty wedding dress) wins more appreciation than Christine Goerke’s powerful thrilling Anna, who loses impact and seems a bit too frigid. Natalie Christie’s tiny, adorable Zerlina and Darren Jeffery’s affectionate, highly-promising Masetto steal their scenes perfectly. It’s a feast of fine singing.

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Melanie Eskenazi, Seen & Heard, 23 February 2002

http://www.musicweb.uk.net/SandH/2002/Feb02/Mozart_Giovanni.htm

‘Sure lends a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘The fires of Hell shall consume you’ was my reflection on seeing the final image of this production, that of Simon Keenlyside’s Don grinning from the inferno and looking as though he were about to eat the naked babe slung across his chest. The descent into Hell, and the sauna – cum – supper scene which preceded it, were done as impressively as any well-heeled opera house can; nice to see my money going up in flames, but I’d really rather have a more interesting production, thanks very much. It’s been a while since I’ve seen one of those in this house, but then that is not much to go by, since the new People’s Royal Opera only issues press tickets to chaps (and occasionally chapesses) upon whom they can rely for raves, or at least a modicum of politesse no matter what dreary guff they serve up onstage, and I don’t care to spend too much of my own money to watch what are often no more than concert performances in drag. All that being a given, this was a hugely enjoyable evening due to the singing, and, as someone in the loo queue opined, ‘You don’t come here for productions, do you – you come for the singers.’ Well, maybe……..

Just what is it that entitles people like Zambello to get away with such non – production? I would love to know, but please don’t bother to tell me that it was great because she just let the singers sing; this is opera, and to me opera is about theatre, about the crucial confrontations that occur at certain points in the lives of the protagonists, set against a fully thought through set which evokes many different kinds of emotions and ideas. None of this was present, and I understand that the production was even worse first time around, but lo! the ‘Times’ critic does not draw attention to how utterly risible it was for there to have been no Commendatore on view in the ‘graveyard’ scene during the first run, but actually applauds the director for something like ‘having the courage to see she’d not got it right first time’ and then make amends! So, where are we here? Madame Flutterbye’s training school for would-be directors, or one of the world’s great lyric theatres? Personally, I have seen better direction onstage at OUDS.

So what was wrong with it? Let’s start with the good stuff; that descent into Hell was magic, plenty of smoke & flames, lots of red everywhere, money, money, money – lovely. The three ladies getting together at the moment of Elvira’s contemplated suicide worked well, especially given the contrast in size between them, Zerlina being under 5ft tall and Anna around 6ft, but I did keep half expecting them to break into ‘Ei ei! Wie fein! Wie fein!’ Beyond that, nothing; most of the time, you had the sense that the singers had just been allowed to do their own thing; Don Ottavio, for example, was John Mark Ainsley doing his usual (and very convincing and un-tenorish it is, too) of ‘I may be a stuffy nobleman but I’m really randy with it / I may not have done it yet but I sure as hell want to / O, please do just admire my lyrical distress!’ However, he has done that at Glyndebourne and at Aix and probably elsewhere too, and in productions that actually made coherent sense and even left you moved at the end by his plight, but here I’m afraid I had to suppress the desire to laugh when the – shall we say – Junoesque form of Christine Goerke’s Anna enveloped him in her lap like a luscious Black Widow spider. Chomp!

There was no sense of rapport between the Leporello and Giovanni, for all the Leporello’s italianitá, and the peasant / servant chorus were hammy as hell, if you’ll forgive the phrase. Everything was stock operatic gesture of the kind one is so familiar with, including plenty of silly stuff in the disguise scene. The Catalogue aria was finely sung, but indifferently acted – ‘Voi sapete, quel che fa…’ yes, but why don’t you give some inkling of what you’re going on about? Meanwhile Elvira stamps her feet alongside.

The set is even worse than that of the recent ‘Rigoletto,’ and that takes some doing. A curved wall dominates, looking like an assemblage of those Perspex cubes used downstairs in the Science Museum, but it is not constant; it moves about, often noisily, and for the ball scene we see its interior, a fantastically amateurish rendition of a sumptuous red ballroom. It is topped with various bits and pieces from time to time, most risibly in that very scene, where the onstage band is made up of what appear to be representatives from the Cleveland, Ohio branch of the Daughters of the Revolution. The worst moment, of many, was the Serenade; whilst the Don was crooning away about coming to the window and so on (she was already there, by the way – or rather, she was perched up atop the wall) what was happening? You’ve guessed it – that darned wall was sliding around to meet him, so as he reached the sublime final line, it clunked into place for him to lean on. Oh dear, these Sixth Form set designers, Mrs. Alsop – what a lot we need to teach them before the First Night!

And .. er…the singing? Mostly wonderful, especially from the women. Ana Maria Martinez generated so much heat with her Elvira that those flames were barely necessary; this was definitely the best Elvira I’ve heard since Kiri Te Kanawa, and this one actually looks and acts the part of a tempestuous avenger. Her voice is thrilling; confident and bright on top, buoyant in the middle and with some wonderfully warm low notes, and she phrases the music skilfully, shaping the challenging lines without strain. A star in the making, and I look forward to hearing her in many more roles. The same can also be said of Christine Goerke, making her house debut as Anna; this is another really exciting voice, its warmth and sweetness allied to a thrilling high register, reminding me of Margaret Price in character; what a pity that the staging did not make much of her, and that the tempo of ‘Non mi dir’ seemed designed to wreck her phrasing. Despina was the delightful Natalie Christie, who did all she could with the part; again, such a shame that she was given nothing to work with at ‘Via, via, non e gran male…’

The men were less striking; critics seem to have gone into ecstasy overdrive at the mere presence of a – gasp! – real Italian! as Leporello, but d’Archangelo was another loss to non – direction, as far as I was concerned – he hammed it up for all he was worth but he and Giovanni might have been on different stages. His voice is genuinely beautiful, and so much more might have been made of him – the Catalogue aria was simply boring, vocally and dramatically. Masetto and the Commendatore were reliably and convincingly taken, which leaves the male leads..

John Mark Ainsley has been the lyric tenor who has given me the most unalloyed musical pleasure over the past ten years or so; his utterly convincing, wonderfully mellifluous, floridly decorated Ottavio at Glyndebourne, peerless Orfeo at ENO and elsewhere, and many Bach Evangelists as well as recitals, have set standards that no other tenor has quite come near, but I very much fear that the Royal Opera may have left it a bit late to engage him at his best, since on this showing he seems, at the extraordinarily early age of 38, to be getting past his sell by date. He did begin very young, of course – he must have been around 22 when I first heard him – and has already made something like 100 recordings, but it would be a tremendous loss if this most lovely of English tenor voices were to be in decline, especially as he also possesses such good taste, versatility and musicality, and can do things on stage which so few other lyric tenors can – that is, act convincingly, cut an impressive figure and look good in his costumes. Of course, his problem may just have been a cold, in which case I will presumably hear him in a better state on Thursday night, but there seems to be a loss of some of the bloom at the top of his voice, and although histrionically he did everything he could with minimal direction, making Ottavio seem human and interesting, he was struggling vocally, only getting through ‘Il mio Tesoro’ by the skin of his teeth and singing ‘Dalla sua Pace’ with less than his usual confidence, although he did manage to decorate the reprise with a truly Mozartian trill. Someone needs to tell Mackerras that it is now close season on tenor – torturing, too, since ‘Dalla sua Pace’ was taken at the same kind of crucifying pace of ‘Non mi dir,’ but in that instance the singer was fit enough to cope with it.

Simon Keenlyside is another favourite of mine; I had heard great things of his Don, and in most aspects, he did not disappoint, although I was certain that this was not his best singing in the role. Like Ainsley, he is a gifted stage actor, graceful in movement and absolutely convincing in demeanour; any woman would be sure to experience a mixture of emotions at the thought of intimacy with this Giovanni, but would be sure to capitulate in the end, despite her reservations. His singing of the serenade was grievously hampered by the – only word for it – stupid staging of the scene, but ‘La cì darem’ showed him at his best – beguilingly phrased, sing with caressing tone and truly Mozartean musicianship. ‘Finch’ han dal vino’ was solidly rather than excitingly sung, and he needed to summon up every last ounce for his final moments. Nevertheless, this was a striking and beautifully sung assumption of the role from a very fine baritone at the height of his powers.

The singers were warmly received by the usual packed house, as was the conductor, and rightly so; I was not happy with his choice of tempi in two crucial arias, but apart from that, he drew the best playing from the orchestra that I have so far heard from them since the new house opened – lovely mellifluous woodwind, bright string tone, really springy rhythms and some wonderfully caressing support for the singers. Despite my dim view of the production, this standard of playing and the mostly thrilling singing means that I shall now have to give Andreas Scholl a miss on Thursday evening, so as to attend this ‘Don Giovanni’ once again, and coming from me that’s praise indeed.

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