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Frank Behrens
Brattleboro Reformer, October 2005

Two DVDs already released on the ArtHaus label have been reissued as a boxed set in tribute to mezzo Cecilia Bartoli and conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

There are many videos of Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte," but I believe that the ArtHaus edition is the best of the lot if considered in the light of "opera as theater."

For once, the dry recites are done with imagination, using something never heard in opera houses: silent pauses. The scene in which the two sisters and their disguised wooers are seated awkwardly at a table and one of them breaks the ice with "Nice day, isn't it?" gets a bigger laugh than all the silliness in other productions.

We have here the moralistic tale of two young men, Ferrando (Roberto Sacca) and Guglielmo (Oliver Widmer), betting the older and cynical Don Alfonso (Carlos Chausson) that their lovers, Fiordiligi (Cecilia Bartoli) and Dorabella (Liliana Nikiteanu), are constant.

With the aid of the clever maid Despina (Agnes Baltsa), each woos the other's beloved -- and both succeed! All around, some unpleasant truths are learned about themselves and only Don Alfonso emerges unscathed.

Since the subtitle of this work is "The School for Lovers," we have in this production Don Alfonso actually running a classroom for young men; and several scenes take place in front of the blackboard, which is a prop put to very good use throughout. The acting is good, with Bartoli mugging a little as usual, and the singing of some of the six participants perhaps less than spectacular but always within character.

The work is on two DVDs in the 16:9 screen ratio and there is a 22-minute "Behind the Scenes" featurette.

The "Don Giovanni," also on two DVDs, does have several good points. For the first time in a recent run of Dons, Rodney Gilfry gives us one who actually tries to be charming and not sullen or stolid or just plain nasty (as others have played the role). He does become less than charming in the final scene and the change is jarring. I think he is a weak Don.

Bartoli, as the mad Donna Elvira, actually sings "Ah, chi mi dice mai" as if the words mean something. Further, she is not afraid to let forth an ugly note in her Act II aria, which is a dramatic aria and not a concert piece. Now if she would try not to sing out of one side of her mouth now and then, all would be well.

Laszlo Polgar gives us a very serious Leporello, one who actually is ready to strike his master in the graveyard scene. There must be more the director could have given Isabel Rey, as Donna Anna, to do. The Zerlina of Liliana Nikiteanu is very attractive and believably torn between the promises of the Don and her obligations to the clottish Massetto (Oliver Widmer), who here is played as a silly person who does not deserve her.

The Don Ottavio (Roberto Sacca) is given nearly nothing dramatic to do. He looks sincere, sings well, if not radiantly, and that is all. Although Matti Salminen's Commendatore is imposing enough in the first scene, his statue is only a half-carved marble with an eye, and he is given what is probably the most unimpressive entrance in the dinner scene of any production of this work.

The scenery is dull and minimal, the costumes equally dull. Will we never again see this story set in the Spanish Renaissance?

I cannot fault the singing, but Gilfry's voice simply does not have the force needed for this role. Even without meaningless comparisons with Pinza and Siepi, he is too lightweight vocally to carry the metaphysical aspects of the character with any conviction.

Harnoncourt conducts the Chorus and Orchestra of the Opernhaus Zurich with competence, but offers no new insights into the score. Yet another of those self-congratulatory "behind the scenes" bonuses is included.

Frank Behrens reports on classical and Broadway music as well as recordings of books and plays for the Arts & Entertainment section.

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