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Donald Feldman
American Record Guide, May 2011

The audio recording is excellent…The Philharmonic plays beautifully. The videography is concentrated on the actors with little interest in the stage sets. The production of greatest recent interest was the Ponnelle-directed comedy of manners (Harnoncourt with Gruberova). It was my favorite, but I think it fails the reality test compared to this new production. There is certainly room for both in my library.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Mike Ashman
Gramophone, March 2011

MOZART, W.A.: Così fan tutte (Salzburg Festival, 2009) (NTSC) 2072538
MOZART, W.A.: Così fan tutte (Salzburg Festival, 2009) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 2072534

German theatre director Claus Guth is on quite a roll with his three modern-dress Salzburg Mozart/da Ponte productions and his 1850s Villa Wesendonk-set Zürich Tristan (hopefully to be released soon). Superficially, this Così is updated to some contemporary party set in the girl’s two-storey apartment. On the wall are wooden tribal masks—trendy decorations, but rapidly adopted by Alfonso and the boys for use as “Albanian” disguise. Alfonso himself and Despina (especially) move in a stylised, non-naturalistic manner when the four lovers are not watching them: they become, almost, 18th-century gods controlling the acting and relating of the couples. So, a 21st-century look but a clear reference back to Ariosto and Marivaux, sources which da Ponte used for a libretto that was his only original work for Mozart.

Guth is deft at choreographing the pain and the embarrassment of “wrong” couples getting together. The recitative following the Act 2 serenade in the garden lasts a long time as the attempts to talk and flirt produce only awkward pauses and staggering banalities about the weather—funny and cringe-making at the same time. The scene between the boys after Guglielmo has (as clearly pointed here by a bedroom exit) made love to Dorabella is paced as an unbearable wait for the truth to emerge.

The latter part of Act 2 seems unfinished in comparison with what precedes it. Some naturalistic questions, which Guth has not so much avoided before but shown to be irrelevant, are now rather muddied. It’s unclear why Petibon’s Despina, a cross hitherto between a hip young working charlady and a plotting goddess, has the angry lines Mozart and da Ponte provide for her when the Alfonso plot is fully revealed. It’s very unclear what is the sister’s attitude to their “real” lovers’ return: Brian Large’s cameras track only Miah Persson’s Fiordiligi here. She seems to show contempt and indifference but the home viewer doesn’t get the whole picture.

Despite these reservations—and Salzburg has recently announced re-studied versions of all three productions for summer 2011—this is already a mighty contribution to the otherwise rather naturalistic Così filmography. Its musical performances are solid (the local press described Fisher and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra as “conventional and at mezzo-forte throughout”); its acting ones much more than that.

Matthew Gurewitsch
Opera News, December 2010

MOZART, W.A.: Così fan tutte (Salzburg Festival, 2009) (NTSC) 2072538
MOZART, W.A.: Così fan tutte (Salzburg Festival, 2009) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 2072534

To notice that Così Fan Tutte hinges on the device of the masquerade is not exactly to discover America. This Salzburg Festival edition drives home the point by displaying three shamanistic masks—one African, one probably Japanese, one perhaps Polynesian—on the back wall of a sharp, two-story modernist interior. Upon arrival, the “Albanian” intruders don them momentarily, evidently scaring Fiordiligi out of her wits. Sudden darkness falls, and she sings “Come scoglio,” brandishing a flashlight in one hand and a butcher knife in the other, like some co-ed on Friday the 13th.

Claus Guth, the German director in charge of Salzburg’s entire current Mozart–da Ponte repertory, has his fan base. Jürgen Flimm, the festival’s outgoing intendant, has been heard to say that Guth’s Don Giovanni is the finest production of his tenure. Why? Because in his duel with the Commendatore, Don Giovanni sustains a mortal wound. This, according to Flimm, motivates the hero’s otherwise unaccountable rush to squeeze into the next three hours all the life (read: sex, mischief) he possibly can. A house of cards, if you ask me.

Guth’s Così lacks the coercive point of view but delivers equally flyaway results. At first, we seem to be watching models on the set of a fashion shoot or perhaps a champagne commercial. Then everything goes off the rails. The hellcat Despina stomps on in a biker jacket and go-go boots, helmet in hand. For “Smanie implacabili,” a tipsy Dorabella teeters on a ledge twelve feet off the floor, in real peril of her life. In the Act I finale, the rear wall ascends to reveal a dark forest—the domain of the id, of unreason, of savage, unacknowledged desires. (A pair of tree trunks growing through the ceiling of the sleek interior has already hinted at some “primal” dimension beyond the “civilized” veneer.) Rather than drink fake arsenic, the despondent lovers drink gasoline, then slide down a staircase on their stomachs, head first.

The honey-blond Miah Persson, her timbre and complexion all peaches and cream, makes a luscious Fiordiligi, insofar as Guth’s shenanigans allow. In the Dorabella of the willowy Isabel Leonard, she has an intriguing foil, both for looks and for her leaner, spicier, yet equally fresh, often jubilant tone. A fluent technician, Topi Lehtipuu gives lyricism an edge of aggression; his lanky, cocky Ferrando might have sprung from the pages of Hans Christian Andersen, but his bitterness is that of Peer Gynt. Florian Boesch, a gripping, often saturnine recitalist, gives Guglielmo an unaccustomed gravity, as well as notes of melting tenderness. Patricia Petibon sashays through Despina’s part in a cold fury, changing outfits at the drop of a hat, from geisha to disco queen, yet disdaining actual disguises. In occasional upward transpositions (an octave, or is it two?), she might be Minnie Mouse on laughing gas.

But the life of this party—the shaman, the man behind the masks—is Don Alfonso. Incredibly, the part is taken by Bo Skovhus, the bland Danish thoroughbred, here reborn as a blond Mephistopheles in tux and ascot, burning with more than just a touch of Saturday Night Fever. (He hisses, and a fireplace bursts into flame.)

Hugo Shirley, November 2010

MOZART, W.A.: Don Giovanni (Salzburg Festival, 2008) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 2072544
MOZART, W.A.: Così fan tutte (Salzburg Festival, 2009) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 2072534

These two new blu-ray discs give us the second and third parts of Claus Guth’s Mozart/Da Ponte cycle from the Salzburg Festival, due to be revived in its entirety at the 2011 festival. While the 2006 Figaro was released on Deutsche Grammophon DVD, this Don Giovanni and Così (filmed in 2008 and 2009 respectively) are released on Euroarts. Importantly, too, they appear on Blu-ray—a medium still overlooked by Decca and DG.

Of the two later productions, it is Don Giovanni that presents the most radical rethink and the most compelling viewing. Guth’s vision is unremittingly bleak but incredibly powerful in its terse realisation. It’s not new to portray the Don’s seductions in a modern, emotionless light, or to show drugs as playing an important role in dictating his distorted view of the world; but I’ve not seen such elements incorporated into so fiercely single-minded a view of the work before.

The action is set is a desolate forest, with a grim bus stop on one side. The whole revolves, helping to provide smooth cinematic transitions between scenes while referencing so many films where shallow graves in the glow of headlights—it’s a reference that ultimately informs Guth’s staging of the Commendatore scene.

Guth’s staging is most powerful in the way it not only reflects the most de-humanized aspects modern life so chillingly, but also allies it to the grand, tragedic readings of Mozart’s Dramma giocoso prevalent in the nineteenth century. There’s no place here for the final ensemble, then, which is cut, as Guth shirks the challenge of staging it effectively within his vision of the work. We end with the Don’s damnation, except in this case it is no such thing: this is a godless world, the demons he hears are deep within his own psyche. Rather than the dissolute punished, we simply have the dissolute destroyed. Guth’s achievement, however, is that he manages to jetison the metaphysical without undermining the tragedy. A great deal of the production’s success must also be put down to Christopher Maltman’s central performance, which mixes dangerous physical allure with an almost Wozzeck-like psychological intensity. His final scene is a powerful study in mental collapse, while ‘Dehvieni’ is performed as a pathetic, moving plea for meaningful love.

As Leporello, Erwin Schrott, is an edgy, unhinged presence. He is in a state of drug-induced twitchiness throughout and dependent,more psychologically than financially on his master, whose superiority is marked as much by an ability to maintain an air of sobriety than anything else. Neither Schrott nor Maltman turns in the most glamorous performance vocally, but it hardly seems to matter. There’s plenty of glamour in any case from Annette Dasch’s Donna Anna and Dorothea Röschmann’s Donna Elvira. Both provide compelling studies of emotional neediness, while we can quite understand Donna Anna’s dissatisfaction with Don Ottavio, portrayed here by Matthew Polenzani as a bland embodiment of modern professional success—the American tenor sings stylishly, although denied ‘Il mio tesoro’. Ekatarina Siurina is an unusually seductive Zerlina (who here gets her bondage duet with Leporello, composed for Vienna), while Alex Esposito is a suitably indignant Musetto. Anatoli Kotscherga is darkly implacable as the Commendatore. Bertrand de Billy conducts the score swiftly, on the whole, but with a fine sense of drama, while the Vienna Philharmonic play magnificently.

The updated staging inevitably brings a couple of jarring anachronisms, but in Guth’s Don Giovanni, the power of the conception renders these relatively inconsequential. There are probably just as many anachronisms in his Così, yet there they seem a great deal more worrying. And Guth’s approach in the final Da Ponte opera is less convincing, reflecting Così’s greater elusiveness. The production is smartly modern, and the cast, particularly the ladies, achingly glamorous. The direction is a great deal more stylized, however, with a fair amount of bizarre dancing, as well as ensembles delivered in a self-consciously stand-and-deliver manner.

On the whole Guth seems deeply uneasy with the work’s famously difficult mixture of comedy and pathos, warm emotion and calculated manipulation. In terms of the last of these, Don Alfonso is cast more clearly than usual as the ultra-cynical puppeteer, steering the course not just of the young lovers but also magically effecting scene changes. Unfortunately, however, there’s little comedy going on. If in studiously leaving out the dressing-up Guth deems it an unnecessary element of the plot, he fails to find anything to substitute it, which leaves something of a gap, both in terms of theatrical realism, which is emphasised elsewhere, and basic entertainment. While stripping the comedy from Don Giovanni can work, it’s a far riskier strategy in Così. Here the comedic burden is placed rather too heavily on Patricia Petibon, whose performance as Despina tries too hard—including some dubious vocal clowning. Things improve, however, as the emotional consequences of Don Alfonso’s game make themselves clear.

Guth references his own Don Giovanni by having the same forest impinge on the Così set in Act Two, but in doing so only underlines how it manages none of that production’s clear-sighted intensity. Without such a comparison, this Così would probably seem more successful, especially given the fine cast and playing—the Vienna Philharmonic this time conducted by Adam Fischer. Miah Persson is a feisty, well-sung Fiodiligi, while Isabel Leonard, combines catwalk looks with her rich, well-controlled mezzo to seductive effect. Topi Lehtipuu is an elegant Ferrando and Florian Boesch an intense Gugliemo, but neither man’s voice is well captured in the recorded sound. Bo Skovhus plays Don Alfonso with convincing cynicism, but his voice comes across rather fuzzily.

Kevin Filipski
Times Square, October 2010

Mozart’s effervescent comedy Così fan tutte (EuroArts Blu-ray) has never looked better than in this 2009 Salzburg staging, captured in hi-def: that Miah Persson and Isabel Leonard are simultaneously sexy and sizzling singers is a bonus

Jeffrey Kauffman, October 2010

Claus Guth is one of several operatic director enfants terribles or wünderkinder who, depending on your point of view, is either ingeniously innovative or completely, irredeemably delusional. Guth often doesn’t just reinterpret a classic opera, he completely reinvents it. Guth is a visionary to be reckoned with, that can’t be argued. Whether he is depicting Die Walküre as Wotan’s private marionette factory or placing Don Giovanni in a rotating haunted wooded setting, Guth brings considerable visual flair and an often analytical bent to each libretto he tackles. His results have made him the pariah of some, the idol of others. I tend to fall somewhere in between. I found his Ariadne auf Naxos rather interesting with a lot to recommend it. I’m somewhat less swayed by this new Blu-ray of Così fan tutte, always one of the more problematic Mozart operas, one which even without the “tarting up” Guth employs in this production tends to split and often offend modern day audiences. Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte were probably nowhere more cynical and jaded than they were in Così fan tutte, an opera which, on its face at least, disparages the fidelity of women while also mocking both the over-trusting ways, as well as the deceptive intent, of their male mates. But as is almost always the case with Mozart, there’s such an ebullient joy to the music that the cynicism is often cloaked in candy sweet melody, making many think they’re watching, and listening to, the operatic equivalent of a sitcom. Guth seems to slightly alter that perception by casting this Così in modern dress, but with a kind of early Fox Network 90210 ethos that is at once startling but also at considerable odds with the text, both intrinsically and also within the intentionally ironic confines of Guth’s conception.

Così fan tutte is in some ways strangely both one of the more modern as well as one of the more politically incorrect and archaic operas that has nestled its way into the standard repertory. When Don Alfonso (Bo Skovhus) challenges Ferrando (Topi Lehtipuu) and Guglielmo (Florian Boesch) about how easily he can coax their loves Fiordiligi (Miah Persson) and Dorabella (Isabel Leonard) to stray, he makes it clear that he does so because in his “elder statesman” wisdom he has come to realize that all women lack the fidelity gene. When the two men then deceive their loves, telling them they’re off to war, and then quickly returning in disguise to see if the ladies will stray, Così takes several buffa tropes and just lightly sets them askew. Except in Guth’s production, we’re so far removed from traditional buffa territory that there’s no context, so much so that the men don’t even bother to disguise themselves when they return. It wasn’t until I started doing some background research about this production that I realized Alfonso is evidently supposed to be some kind of spirit in Guth’s conception, one who magically weaves his spell over the women so that no disguise is necessary. It would have been nice had that been clearly communicated to the audience.

Guth has an incredibly able cast here, including several superstars and a couple who are on the cusp of superstardom. In fact the cast is so capable and, frankly, charismatic, that that alone may be enough to recommend this version even to stalwart traditionalists. For when you have music of this caliber being sung so elegantly, a lot of the trappings can be ignored, no matter how ill conceived they might be. Dorabella is often the “dumb blonde” of the piece, and Isabel Leonard is never able to fully escape that formulation, despite a silvery tone, especially in her upper register. Persson’s Fiordiligi is unquestionably the stronger characterization, due both to da Ponte’s libretto and the innate capabilities of the singer. Both men do very well, and Skovhus makes an appealingly semi-sinister Alfonso. The only real misfire is Patricia Petitbon’s Despina, which in Guth’s formulation is something closer to a Dell’Arte clown, replete with use of helium to make her voice skip up an octave. It’s simultaneously silly and senseless.

The spare, modern mid-century chic set works fairly well throughout the production, though the odd decision to close Act I in near darkness means most of the singers are nearly invisible. Guth no doubt is drawing an objective parallel to the growing gloom of the relationships, but it tends to get in the way of the music, never a good thing. There’s considerably more flair, albeit rather subtle (especially in the relatively over the top world of Guth) in the choral finale, which is staged as a slow dance and works very well on the multiple levels of the set.

This Salzburg Festival production may have caught its audience just slightly by surprise. After all, Salzburg was home to Mozart for many years. (Anyone who has been to the composer’s absolutely miniscule apartment in the city—now a museum—will never forget it). This might have been expected to be the refuge of a traditionalist production which gladly presented everything in late 18th century regalia. Guth certainly doesn’t take that tack, and the results are at best middling, at least from a conceptual standpoint. What saves this production is the fine singing. If you can’t stand the physical conceit here, just turn off your television and listen to this Blu-ray.

Video Quality

EuroArts and Unitel Classica present Così fan tutte on Blu-ray with an MPEG-2 codec in 1080i and 1.78:1. The best thing about this presentation from a visual standpoint is the beautifully robust color of the women’s dresses. The reds and purplish-pinks blossom beautifully, just perhaps glancing the edge of blooming territory without ever bleeding over into it. Detail overall is a tad on the soft side, not helped by Guth’s decision to cast large swaths of the stage in shadow. Contrast is acceptable, if never really brilliantly gradated, and there is some good to excellent detail on close-ups especially. Despina’s bright red hair is another standout (literally).

Audio Quality

The audio on this Blu-ray is considerably better, with both a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and an LPCM 2.0 track offered. The DTS track has excellent separation, especially wonderful at being able to hear the quintets, some of Mozart’s most artful choral writing. There isn’t a superabundance of hall ambience here, but there is certainly a decent spaciousness that allows the music to waft nicely with just the hint of reverb. Voices are reproduced beautifully, with exceptional fidelity throughout all ranges. Dynamic range is also excellent here, and balance between the singers and the Vienna Philharmonic is for the most part exceptional. There are one or two times when a stray syllable or two gets lost beneath the orchestra, but it’s a rare phenomenon. Overall, this is a sterling performance and a really fine recording.

Special Features and Extras

No supplements other than trailers and the insert booklet essay are offered.

Overall Score and Recommendation

Guth’s concept here is muddled, but even that can’t keep the native ebullience of Mozart from reaching its intended target. Put aside lingering qualms about political incorrectness, and even the conceptual weirdness of this particular production, and just listen to the glorious music. Recommended.

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9:23:35 PM, 1 September 2015
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