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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.

Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, January 2011

This lively, well-sung, and well-conducted performance of Così fan tutte features three of my favorite modern singers (Miah Persson, Patricia Petibon, and Bo Skovhus) as well as three excellent singers with whom I was previously unfamiliar (Isabel Leonard, Topi Lehtipuu, and Florian Boesch), conducted by the esteemed and always musical Adam Fischer. Neither Lehtipuu nor Boesch is a young man, but both their voices sound young: bright, well pointed, with superb breath support and technique. Leonard, born in 1982, studied with Edith Bers, Marilyn Horne, and Margo Garrett, and is also an exceptional mezzo with a bright, fluid voice. Except for some roughness of tone from Skovhus in the opening scenes of act I, none of them disappoint, despite Petibon’s lack of a good, clearly defined trill, though to my ears the performance is not as sensitive to mood and character as the outstanding recording by James Levine (DG 423897) with Kiri te Kanawa, Ann Murray, Hans Peter Blochwitz, Thomas Hampson, and Ferruccio Furlanetto. That recording has a depth of characterization missed by most other conductors and singers who fail to penetrate beneath the surface brilliance of Mozart’s score. Nevertheless, if you close your eyes and just listen, or if you rip the audio portion of this performance to your computer and burn it onto CD, you’ll have a heck of a good recording of Così to treasure for years to come, despite one anomaly. In the closing scene of act I, where Despina doubles as a doctor to help the “injured” Ferrando and Guglielmo, she supposedly takes a bottle of helium out of her emergency medical kit…and then sings her next phrase an octave higher than written. It’s a neat trick, and Petibon pulls it off with élan.

Chris Mullins
Opera Today, December 2010

MOZART, W.A.: Cosi fan tutte (Salzburg Festival, 2009) (NTSC) 2072538
MOZART, W.A.: Don Giovanni (Salzburg Festival, 2008) (NTSC) 2072548

Once a preserve of opulent traditional productions, the summer Salzburg Festival has become a destination for viewing more cutting edge stagings.

Perhaps the best-known of such from recent seasons is the Willy Decker take on Verdi’s La Traviata, a contemporary classic of a production that will soon debut at the Metropolitan Opera. The operas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart have a special history for Salzburg (one of these DVDs has a title card that states “From the House of Mozart”). Director Claus Goth brought his updated vision of Don Giovanni to the Festival in 2008, and his Così fan tutte was recorded for performance in 2009. Both productions are in contemporary dress, with grim chuckles in place of any buoyant cheer produced by former Salzburg productions. This is Mozart as misanthrope, pouring out his melodious commentary on the sad and/or despicable characters of Lorenzo da Ponte’s librettos. Well sung, sharply acted, impeccably staged—both DVDs present classy performances. Just be prepared for a distinctly chilly atmosphere.

Christian Schmidt’s stage design for the Così offers the clean white walls, metal railings and glass panels of a cliched contemporary loft home. An ironic intent makes itself felt as the story of the two pairs of young lovers manipulated into deceit by a cynical older man proceeds—the attractive veneer of the set complements the good looks of the younger leads, and an emptiness behind the good looks of both the surroundings and the characters also makes itself felt. That doesn’t take away the culpability of Don Alfonso and even Despina; the Don seems more cruel in his scheming than ever, and that rubs off on the sour comedy of Despina’s antics.

The quartet of young lovers submit themselves almost too well into this scheme, with not much personality in Miah Persson’s Fiordilgi, Isabel Leonard’s Dorabella, Florian Boesch’s Guglielmo, or Topi Lehtipuu’s Ferrando. They sing cleanly, manage the Mozartean line well, and look their parts. Mozart does give each of them at least one major set piece to bring to life, and here is where the director’s clinical vision may have inhibited the singers’ ability to “stand out.” Bo Skovhus, on the other hand, gets to camp it up a bit as Guth choreographs as much as directs the Don and Despina—there’s a lot of mock dancing and posing. Skovhus lets a scratchiness in his production loose a little too often, however, for a character probably intended to be a bit more seductive in his wheedling. Patricia Petibon’s Despina reigns in the cuteness for a sort of hyperactivity, more ominous than charming. In her recorded recital discs she is a more interesting singer than indicated here—Despina offers no real challenges.

One unmitigated strength of the performance comes from Adam Fischer’s muscular, propulsive direction of the Wiener Philharmoniker. The score comes across with a youthful energy appropriate to the characters while suggesting the aggression behind the Don’s gambit. Guth’s direction may not age well—at times it already feels self-conscious—but as one alternate vision of Così, it is effective in context.

The Don Giovanni Guth stages is stronger overall than the Così, at least partly because it has a more high-powered cast than that of the Così. Set designer Schmidt here provides a very realistic pine forest, the only discernible reason for which seems to your reviewer to center on differentiating Guth’s setting from the famous Calixto Bieto one (preserved on DVD in a performance at Barcelona’s Liceu). Bieto used modern dress (as does Guth) and elements of an organized crime mileux to highlight the libretto’s potent and dangerous mixture of violence and sexuality. Guth has the same concern, and most of his “big ideas” come across as vaguely desperate efforts to make his vision distinct from Bieto’s. So in the action under the prologue, we see Christopher Maltman’s Don get shot by the Commendatore, a grievous stomach wound that seems to bother the Don from time to time during the rest of the action, until he finally succumbs with the Commendatore’s reappearance at the end—but propelled into hell by Leporello and a syringe of heroin. To underscore the darkness of his vision, Guth chose an edition of the score without the “happy ending” ensemble, which Bieto memorably used to underlay the victorious “good guys” mutilating the Don’s corpse.

A vocally strong, physically seductive group of singers work hard for Guth. Maltman apparently spent as much time in the gym as in the rehearsal hall, if not more, and if not as muscular as his physique, his voice still ripples with strength. Erwin Schrott’s Leporello is no sad sidekick, but almost as dangerously sexy as his master. Nonetheless, Schrott also has the comic chops to portray the character’s frustration and barely contained resentment. In a wimpy suit and glasses, Matthew Polenzani could have been yet another feckless Don Ottavio, but his expert singing gives his character some needed backbone. In an imaginative touch, Guth has Ottavio dig out his cell phone when the car he and Donna Anna are riding in “breaks down” in the forest.

The women are a bit less distinctive. Annette Dasch in particular lacks the full armory for Donna Anna , a difficult role that requires ample strength and beauty. Dorothea Röeschmann doesn’t portray Donna Elvira as a harpy, thankfully; on the other hand, her interpretation is almost too neutral for a role that should have some edge. Ekaterina Siurina as Zerlina and Alex Espositio as Masetto are modestly effective (the booklet credit list amusingly assigns each of these singers to the other’s role!).

Bertrand de Billy is the conductor here, leading an entirely professional performance. In spots the rather spare piano used for recitatives seems anachronistic.

Salzburg’s tickets have the reputation of being both scarce and expensive, so for those who would like a great view of the stage and to keep their wallets full, these DVDs are to be appreciated. Neither one of these stagings may become classics such as the Dexter Traviata, but they both have much to reward the attentive viewer.

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.)

My Classical Notes, October 2010

The title (Italian) of this opera means “That’s how they all do it”. In the original score the following was also added: “Or School for Lovers”

I have always loved the 5 or 6 best-known Mozart operas. And this one is the story of two young men who test their respective lovers to see if they would remain true to them. The two ladies are strongly tempted to be untrue, and Mozart’s title reveals his position: “Così fan Tutte” (They all do it).

This specific recording is done in a contemporary setting with a strong ensemble of young singers who toy with love and trust under the cynical gaze of singer Bo Skovhus’ Don Alfonso and his foxy, temperamental sidekick Despina, played by fiery young soprano Patricia Petitbon. Baritone Florian Boesch and tenor Topi Lehtipuu nicely complement their frisky partners Miah Persson and Isabel Leonard.

Conductor Adam Fischer keeps the tempi brisk and the Vienna Philharmonic shows us again their marvelous expertise in their reading of the score.

While I liked the fact that the humor of this comic tale is maintained even though it is in a contemporary setting, this is the one Mozart opera where I get tired of all the spoken recitatives, and I am always eager for the music to begin again. As in another opera done in Salzburg that I reviewed here previously (Don Giovanni), I feel that the staging was done at a meager budget, and was not very imaginative.

Bottom line: Great conducting by Adam Fischer and the VPO. The music is always timeless and wonderful.

Nicholas Sheffo
Fulvue Drive-in, August 2010

Mozart – Cosi fan tutte [2072538] & Don Giovanni [2072548] are here as separate Unitel Classica and EuroArts DVD sets (with the ORF) from Wiener Philharmoniker performances staged by Claus Guth and directed for video by Brian Large. Though we have covered both classics in Blu-ray editions by other artists, these are just as good as and even better than past productions with an uncanny sense of effectiveness that both updates the works for modern times, yet keeps all the classical sense and feel intact, which is not easy to do. Instead of mere time transplants, the performances have the flow that brings life to the original work in ways that make you forget you are watching something created a long time ago. The result is two shows that may be long, but are constantly involving and ones to recommend as among the best Mozart on video to date. The anamorphically enhanced 1.78 X 1 video may both be a little soft and weak with motion blur, some noise and some detail issues, but I would love to see Blu-ray editions, which both deserve. The DTS 5.0 is strong on both releases and even more so than the Dolby Digital 5.0 and PCM 2.0 Stereo also included. Both have bonus booklets inside their cases.

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4:05:11 PM, 1 September 2015
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