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Richard Wigmore
Gramophone, December 2010

MOZART, W.A.: Così fan tutte (Zurich Opera, 2009) (NTSC) 101495
MOZART, W.A.: Così fan tutte (Staatsoper Berlin, 2002) (NTSC) 2052238

In recent years the action of the opera Thomas Beecham once described as a “long summer day spent in a cloudless land by a Southern sea” has been routinely deconstructed and updated, as in the notorious Peter Sellars production set in Despina’s seedy Florida diner (Decca, 12/05). For Doris Dörrie at the Berlin Staatsoper in 2002, Così became a “hippy musical” set in the early 19702. In the process two young bourgeois couples morph into sexually liberated, dope-smoking Flower Children. Uninhibited hippy mores also seem to infect the ultra-knowing Despina and the icily detached Don Alfonso, who at the end can hardly keep their hands off each other.

Like so many Konzepte, Dörrie’s entertaining Hippyfest short-changes the moments of extreme tenderness and poignancy. Except for the bitter ending, it’s too much of a romp for the opera’s deeper, disquieting undercurrents to register as movingly as they do in Nicholas Hytner’s Glyndebourne production conducted by Ivan Fischer (Opus Arte, 6/07), and in John Eliot Gardiner’s Paris staging (Archiv, 2/03). Stillness is at a premium. But within its own parameters, Dörrie’s production is slick and zanily stylish, with plenty of visual comedy.

In the pit Daniel Barenboim chooses predictably unhurried tempi and is keenly responsive to the music’s wit. All six soloists are personable and throw themselves eagerly into Dörrie’s 1970s revamp, though the dulcet-toned Werner Güra (deprived of both Ferrando’s Act 2 solos) sings more persuasively than he acts. Conversely, the Despina, Daniela Bruera, makes up in Latin quick-wittedness and guile what she lacks in vocal allure. Roman Trekel’s youthful, firmly sung Alfonso has something of the cold calculation of Don Giovanni.

With her flavoursome tone, Katharina Kammerloher makes a flighty, and funny, sex-kitten of a Dorabella, sinking all too willingly into a marijuana-scented haze of hedonism. But the plan goes to the consummately sung Fiordiligi of Dorothea Röschmann. Her impassioned, intensely vulnerable “Per pietà” and her final surrender to Ferrando in the duet “Fra gli amplessi” are the emotional high-points of the whole performance. I also enjoyed the 2009 Zürich Così. Franz Welser-Möst uses a fuller text (both of Ferrando’s Act 2 arias are included) than Barenboim, and conducts with rather more awareness of “period” style—brisker tempi, leaner textures—if less expressive flexibility. The balance also enables you to hear more of Mozart’s ever-inventive orchestral detail than on the Berlin DVD. Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s clear, ungimmicky (but for one aberration) production sets the opera in the period in which it was composed. Rolf Glittenberg’s elegant, almost minimalist design (white walls and columns framing a cedar tree against an azure Mediterranean sky—Beecham, you feel, would have approved) and the character’s movements have a geometric symmetry. The pairs of lovers, too, are dressed virtually alike in Act 1. With a loosening of inhibition, abetted by copious slugs of wine, in Act 2, the women’s dress, like their personalities, becomes more sharply differentiated.

Unlike Dörrie, Bechtolf understands the virtues of stillness and simplicity in the more heartfelt numbers. The “letter” quintet, “Di scriver mi”, has a dreamlike radiance, with Welser-Möst’s (unusually) slow tempo underlining the affinity with Mozart’s Ave verum corpus. There are some amusing gags—say, when Dorabella holds up cue cards for her sister, not always competently, in “Come scoglio”—and a marked change from play-acting to serious, passionate emotion as Act 2 progresses.

All the singers respond well to the camera, not least Martina Janková’s sexy, hyperactive, often very funny Despina. Of the sisters, Malin Hartelius’s assured, subtly inflected and (in Act 2) moving Fiordiligi is almost a match for Röschmann’s. While her prominent vibrato won’t please everyone in Mozart, Anna Bonitatibus sings a delightfully abandoned “È amore un ladroncello”. Their lovers are equally good. Ruben Drole brings a cultivated baritone and plenty of temperament to Guglielmo’s role as he moves from suave self-satisfaction to cynical bitterness, while Javier Camarena, though occasionally strained at the top of the stave, sings the taxing “Ah, lo veggio” with a fine, Italianate ring. Now to the one serious blot on the whole production. The ending suggests a rueful tenderness, with the prospect of reconciliation between the original lovers. Then, against the final peal and clatter of C major, Fiordiligi inadvertently drinks arsenic—carelessly left on the table—and drops dead: an incongruous, melodramatic touch that goes right against the grain of music and libretto, and inevitably leaves a very nasty taste in the mouth.

Sabrina Lazarus
Opera News, October 2010

MOZART, W.A.: Così fan tutte (Zurich Opera, 2009) (NTSC) 101495
MOZART, W.A.: Così fan tutte (Zurich Opera, 2009) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 101496

Così Fan Tutte is the Taming of the Shrew of the opera canon. In today’s post-feminist world, watching this opera can be discomfiting; to get to the exquisite music Mozart composed for his last collaboration with librettist da Ponte, one must put aside the here and now.

And that’s exactly what this 2009 production from Zurich Opera House does: it throws its audience headfirst into the late-eighteenth century, the period when the opera was written. In the booklet that accompanies the disc, dramaturg Ronny Dietrich demonstrates how Così can be read as a critique of the era’s Enlightenment ideals: rational thought and the ways of the heart do not always match.

Stage director Sven-Eric Bechtolf gives us a Don Alfonso with a veritable taxidermy collection, clearly a man of science, complete with a mad-scientist shock of white hair. He is the lone character donning black, lending him a striking and ominous appearance against Rolf Glittenberg’s stark, white, austere set. Science and logic infuse the entire production. There is precision to the movements, and the pairs of lovers constantly mirror each other, making for very crisp stage pictures. But the rigid symmetry has a down side: when singers occasionally end up an inch or two off-center, it becomes a salient error in the wide shot. Bechtolf really uses the music, capitalizing on every opportunity for a gag, but at times the excessive stage business distracts from the singing. The staging serves da Ponte’s words better than it does Mozart’s music.

The transformation of this dramma giocoso (with a decidedly unhappy and, in the case of this production, quite morbid ending) into a psychological drama requires much of its singers. They employ a complex blend of over-the-top physical comedy—the suicide attempts made during Dorabella’s “Smanie implacabili” are hilarious—and nuanced characterization, with serviceable rather than outstanding results. Malin Hartelius’s Fiordiligi is competent, but she takes some time to find her Italian rhythm; her consonants are not propulsive enough to drive the music. Anna Bonitatibus’s Dorabella makes a fine complement to Hartelius, though her vibrato at times gets away from her. The men are largely more successful: the voices of Javier Camarena (Ferrando) and Ruben Drole (Guglielmo) are supple and viscous, blending beautifully for their duets. Oliver Widmer sings Don Alfonso with a pompous easiness, infusing his recitatives with a hint of a growl. The real success story here, however, is the Despina of Martina Janková, who completely commits to a brassy yet beautiful sound for her many comic disguises within Don Alfonso’s scheme. She is a delight.

The litmus test for an orchestra playing Così, for me, is whether it can control the presto tempo in the overture. Welser-Möst’s orchestra passes with flying colors. The players are not without error—faulty brass mars one of Fiordiligi’s arias—but they have a rich, full sound that’s great on a stereo system. But even so, a lack of coordination between the orchestra and the six singers creates an indistinguishable wall of sound in the ensemble that ends Act I.

It is just one more example of the uneven experience this Così delivers. An interesting and fresh production is coupled with fine players, and yet the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Ralph V Lucano
American Record Guide, September 2010

MOZART, W.A.: Così fan tutte (Zurich Opera, 2009) (NTSC) 101495
MOZART, W.A.: Così fan tutte (Staatsoper Berlin, 2002) (NTSC) 2052238

These two productions, Zurich 2009 and Berlin 2002, couldn’t be more different. In Zurich, the opera is sent in the 1790s. The characters are in period costume, though Alfonso wears tiny sunglasses and looks like an aging rock star—sort of a cross between George Washington and Ringo Starr. The first scene is set in what looks like a naturalist’s library, with various biological specimens in shelves in the background. The rest is in the sisters’s house, the stage dominated by a tall evergreen tree growing in the living room. Director Sven-Eric Bechtoff is a fuss-budget who can’t abide inaction. He turns the chorus ‘Bella Vita Militar’ into a dance number, and the arias are sung against distracting stage business in the background. Fiordiligi feigns suicide in various ways while Dorabella sings ‘Smanie Implacabili’—those antics were old even in the days of Vaudeville. When Fiordiligi tackles her difficult ‘Come Scoglio’, the cameras are on the other players, who read and laugh at her diary. In Act II there’s a large table covered by a cloth that hangs to the floor, so various characters (including, inexplicably, a faun), can hide under it and pop out from time to time, rather like Valzacchi’s cohorts in Act III of Rosenkavalier. Dorabella slowly peels a banana when she sings ‘E amore un Ladroncello”. At the end of the opera, the lovers clearly have misgivings about going back to their original partners, which is realistic; but the scene is ruined when Fiordiligi accidentally takes poison and drops dead on the stage, and the curtain falls as the camera aims at her wide, lifeless eyes.

In Berlin, Doris Dörrie stages Cosi as a “hippie musical” set in the 1970s. The first scene is an airport departure lounge; the two gentlemen are about to board a large 747 with “Cosi” written on the side. The rest of the opera takes place in and around a modern house, elaborately furnished. Everyone dresses in 70s, flower-child style. Guglielmo’s ‘Non Siate Ritrosi’ is turned into a stripper music—he ends up in his tighty whities, Ferrando in jeans and suspenders (neither a pretty sight). Dorabella»s “ritrattino” is not her portrait but her brassiere, and it gets waved about quite a lot. The Italian word remains unchanged, but the text is altered in other places, notably in the ladies’ duet ‘Prendero Quello Biondino’ (as we have it here), because Guglielmo is the fair one. (In Zurich, both men have dark hair, which turns the duet into nonsense.) At the opera’s conclusion, the lovers took ashamed and unhappy, but Despina and Alfonso have fallen in love with each other.

Dörrie was born in Hanover in 1955, so she came of age in the 70s and perhaps looks back fondly on the strange fashions and mores of that decade. I have no nostalgia for it whatsoever—it all seems embarrassing at a distance—but of these two productions, it’s Dörrie’s I would choose over Bechtoff’s. In Zurich, the characters are so caught up in self-mockery that they’re not sympathetic or believable for a minute. In Berlin, outlandish though the setting may be, the players look silly but act as though they’re real. You can connect with them and understand them, and you’ll probably even feel sorry for them in the end.

It helps that the Berlin performance is much stronger musically than the Zurich. Welser-Möst plays the score complete, and he just chugs mechanically through most of it, every now and then letting individual instruments poke through the texture. He sometimes disrupts the musical flow by putting on the brakes (Flordiligi’s solo lines in the “Dove son” section of the Act I finale), and elsewhere he chooses some strange tempos. He takes the trivial duet ‘Al Fato dan Legge’ at half speed but races though the sublime trio ‘Soave Sia il Vento’. Barenboim is slower an weightier on the whole. He makes some cuts, among them ‘Al Fato dan Legge’ and (this is perhaps going too far) both of Ferrando’s arias in Act II, but he secures beautiful, pointed playing from his orchestra (you’ll notice it immediately in the overture) and he brings a steady, irresistible momentum to the big ensembles.

Both casts are quite good, on the whole. The lower male voices are on the dry side. Widmer’s Alfonso is sometimes approximate in pitch; Trekel has trouble with florid passages. The Zurich Ferrando, Javier Camarena, has a sweet, agile voice that often turns wispy. Güra, in Berlin, is less suave but more substantial. Müller-Brachmann’s baritone is more appealing than Drole’s. Both casts have bright, perky Despinas (Jankova in Zurich is particularly funny as the notary). Both Dorabellas have solid contralto underpinnings that help distinguish them from their Fiordiligis. In Berlin, Kamerloher is tall and blonde, and she appears flighty and curious from the start. Bonitatibus, in Zurich, looks gorgeous and sings strongly, and she bears a strong physical resemblance to her “sister”, fluently and incisively sung by Hartelius. The dark, petite Röschmann doesn’t have the same natural poise, but she’s always thoughtful and sometimes feisty, and she sings both arias with great determination, accuracy, and rich tone.

Both sets come with good notes. The Arthaus requires two DVDs, but it’s not technically superior to the Euroarts in any substantial way.

Robert Levine, May 2010

This new (summer of 2009) Cosi from the Zurich Opera house has a great deal of charm, it looks and sounds good, and it pulls very few senseless directorial punches, save for one at the end, which is stunningly weird.

The physical production, by Rolf Glittenberg, takes a clean, bright, minimalist approach. After an opening scene for the three men in front of glass shelving with books, a globe, metronome, mounted butterflies, a male and female torso, and other Enlightenment-implying tchochkes, we move to what seems like a Palladian villa (despite the fact that the opera presumably takes place near Naples). White semi-circular walls with columns (good for hiding behind) surround a tall, thin, lush green cedar tree; the background is the brilliant blue of a clear day. Chairs and a table are moved about for scene changes and props.

Marianne Glittenberg has costumed Ferrando and Guglielmo exactly alike: as themselves they are all in white, including periwigs (and they both have mustaches); as the Albanians, they have long, messy hair and colorful silken long coats. Fiordiligi is in white, Dorabella in off-white; the difference in the women is minimal until Act 2, when Fiordiligi wears blue. Alfonso is dapper and removed and Despina is nicely untidy. The dress is clearly meant to be of Mozart’s time.

In director Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s vision, the first act is all play - Dorabella takes a noose and stands on a chair before realizing that she has nowhere to hang it from, and Fiordiligi sings “Come scoglio” while Dorabella holds up cue cards with the text. They seem to be playing at opera seria. With the encouragement of Despina, both of them drink plenty of wine. The guys dance to the rhythms of “Bella vita militar”. By Act 2, when the real trouble begins, so do the real emotions. Ferrando becomes angrier and angrier (delivering a vicious “Tradito, schernito”) while Guglielmo, after a macho first act and prideful seduction of Dorabella, appears to fall apart completely: he’s not only angry, he seems not to know whether he’s coming or going.

Despina is introduced in a rage; yes, she enters complaining, but this woman looks ready to kill and her cynicism never flags. She even semi-seduces Alfonso before turning her charm off. Alfonso gives off a real chill and is more enigmatic than usual; he doesn’t want anyone to see him clearly and so he wears tinted spectacles.

The singing is uniformly excellent. Malin Hartelius is a terrific Fiordiligi, her vibrato prominent but never bothersome, her inflections ideal, her sense of silliness sublime. You get the feeling at times that she’s throwing vocal caution to the wind, but it’s never less than exciting and musical. And she looks great. The same goes for the warm-voiced Anna Bonitatibus as Dorabella, often drunker than her sister and over-dramatizing wonderfully.

As Ferrando, Javier Camarena offers a truly Mediterranean sound (he’s Mexican, but you know what I mean), dispatching “Un aura amorosa” with bel canto ease and, as mentioned above, “Tradito, schernito” with clenched teeth and big though lyrical sound. Guglielmo is played as a peacock by baritone Ruben Drole, very pleased with himself all the way through his seduction of Dorabella, and he should be: he is charismatic, his voice is lush, his timing impeccable.

Oliver Widmer’s Don Alfonso, as mentioned, is mysterious; indeed, we often find him singing at a whisper. He’s not quite evil, but he’s smarter than anyone else and laughs at the trouble around him. You would not want to mess with Martina Jankova, whose Despina is controlling and furious—so young, so bitter—and in fact, so funny. Oh yes—I referred to a “weird” directorial punch in my first paragraph: In the closing moments of the opera, Fiordiligi drinks poison and drops dead. Maybe I shouldn’t have told you.

Franz Welser-Möst leads a charming, detail-filled account of the score, with very few eccentricities. One is a very, very slow farewell quintet in Act 1, but perhaps that is so that Alfonso’s laughter can seem more sinister than usual. Otherwise his sensibly quick reading has elegance and class; the winds are always audible and there’s an aura of chamber music throughout. His singers embellish vocal lines tastefully, moderately, and not always when and where you’d expect; the continuo has a life of its own (though not as much as with René Jacobs). It’s a very animated performance.

This Cosi has a great deal of competition on video—there are at least a half dozen worth seeing (and 70 on CD!)—from Peter Sellars’ wacky-but-fascinating version placed in a diner, to a superbly-led, very chilly, period-instrument set from Sweden’s jewel-like Drottningholm Court Theater (and a more conventional period set from Glyndebourne), to a traditional, handsome Muti-led reading from Vienna. But this one is up there with those—a marvelous, clever, musically superb performance.

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