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Robert Farr
MusicWeb International, December 2011

Albeit in old style 4:3 format, this 1983 Salzburg Festival traditional production of Così fan tutte, with its elegant costumes and set alongside quality singing realises the intention of Da Ponte’s story and Mozart’s music as few other more modern ones do. © MusicWeb International

Robert J Farr
MusicWeb International, July 2011

Despite the success of Le Nozze de Figaro in Vienna in 1786 and Don Giovanni two years later, as concerts became less fashionable, and with fewer opportunities of fees from performing, Mozart was reduced to writing begging letters to fellow Freemasons. Matters looked up after the revival of Figaro at the Burgtheater in Vienna in 1789 with a commission forthcoming from the Emperor himself for a new opera to be premiered there. Not unexpectedly after the successes of his previous two, Mozart again called on Da Ponte for the libretto of Così fan tutte. Itwas an original work by Da Ponte and was originally intended for Salieri who did not like it. Mozart’s opera was premiered at the Burgtheater on 26 January 1790. It had only had five performances when all entertainment was curtailed on the death of Emperor Joseph II; it was never heard again in Vienna in Mozart’s lifetime although it was soon given in Prague and several German cities. Così fan tutte never achieved the popularity of the two earlier collaborations between Da Ponte and Mozart although, since the middle of the twentieth century, it has not lacked for productions with audio recordings numerous and video recordings becoming so.

Despite the work’s increasing popularity in the second half of the last century, particularly at Salzburg, and recognition as a masterpiece equal to the other two Da Pontes, it is difficult to bring off. This is particularly so with the emergence, in the last twenty or so years, of avant-garde producers and Regietheater productions. In fact any opera-lover who has seen Così on stage in the last twenty years will barely recognise this production with its traditional costumes and sets. It has become the norm to stage it in a variety of locations varying from a cruise ship to a seaside pier and including haute-couture dresses for the ladies! In the 1970s and 1980s the Salzburg Festival, not unlike Glyndebourne, did traditional productions and in the former case applied a grand manner that other places outside La Scala and New York’s Metropolitan Opera could scarcely afford. Salzburg was still under the influence of Karajan who had significant foresight in respect of technical innovation. He guaranteed that many of his productions were translated into films whilst others were from the stage. The present production marked Muti’s Salzburg debut. He was then Musical Director at La Scala and the event was filmed for transmission on television in 1983. A classic production by Michael Hampe with sets by Mauro Pagano this played at Salzburg for seven consecutive summers and then again in 1991, the bicentenary of Mozart’s death. The quality of the television picture is fine in clarity and detail when seen in the original 4:3 format. However viewers tempted by their television set’s technical facility to stretch the picture to 16:9 to fill the screen will experience some blurring and loss of detail. The rather flat sound, by today’s highest standards, will not be affected.

The sets are period and quite superb. These ladies certainly live in affluent surroundings with a backdrop, as Da Ponte intended, of the Bay of Naples. Their beaux are not without resource either as Don Alfonso is able to summon a boat, uniformed soldiers and realistic Albanian costumes in pursuit of the wager he has with the men. While Muti was known at this time as a consummate conductor of Verdi, his Mozart was something of an unknown. Add the increasing propensity for the music of the period to be taken by period instrument bands and a major question is bound to arise about the musical accompaniment from the rostrum and the traditional instruments of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. I would hardly put Muti’s interpretation alongside his distinguished predecessors in this opera at Salzburg such as Josef Krips or, particularly, Karl Böhm. However he does justice in tempi, articulation and phrasing to the great composer drawing quite superb playing from the orchestra.

As to the singers, none is less than good. As the arch manipulator, Don Alfonso, Sesto Bruscantini, one of the greatest character baritones of his generation, is a little past his prime. His tone had the odd dry patch and was lacking in some of the ideal fruitiness for which the role really calls. As the more ardent and emotional of the two male suitors, Ferrando, Francisco Araiza sings strongly, phrases well and creates a believable character. He has an edge to his voice that sometimes inhibits softer head tones. This is only a slight limitation and is no obstacle to his creating a realistic as well as ardent Ferrando as his singing of the aria Un aura amoroso (DVD 1 CH.34) illustrates. As his partner in the bet, Guglielmo, the American James Morris is both significantly taller as well as bigger-voiced; it was not that many years after this filming that he was Wotan at Bayreuth. The strength and size of his voice are greater than are often found in this role and while he creates a cogent character, he is not the most convincing Mozartean on record. As Fiordiligi, the more demure of the ladies, Margaret Marshall not only has the biggest sing but also the most demanding with the aria Come scoglio (DVD 1 CH.29) in act one and the long rondo, Per pieta, in act two (DVD 2 CH.13); these to go alongside the duets and ensembles. Her silvery soprano is a little thin at the very top and towards the end of the opera a slight tremor is evident. Nonetheless she creates a believable woman, tempted by her more flighty sister into the moral maze that is the cynical centre of this story of manipulation of human emotions. As Dorabella, Anne Murray is an outstanding actress and vocal interpreter, really playing the part of the more easily tempted sister whose behaviour reduces Ferrando to despair. Her lyric mezzo is flexible, true and musical with her brief Smanie implacabili (DVD 1 CH.23) and E amore un ladroncello (DVD 2 CH.20) being notable. In many ways the singing and acting prize goes to Kathleen Battle as the maid Despina whom Don Alfonso has to enrol, with the help of a little gold, in his enterprise. It is a role that is too easy to ham up. She, under the guidance of Michael Hampe, avoids any such temptation and with the help of disguise creates a realistic notary and moustachioed doctor. Her acting is matched by her clear flexible light soprano, which is a particular delight in the ensembles as well as her solos In uomini in soldati (DVD 1 CH.25) and Una donna a quindici anni (DVD 2 CH.2).

The ensembles and recitatives are well handled by Muti, along with the soloists. But the strengths of this performance which set it apart and mark it out from the many other varied interpretations available, are the sets, costumes and production. These are true to Da Ponte’s and Mozart’s creation. The booklet has a fully detailed Chapter summary for each of the two DVDs, complete with aria, recitative and ensemble titles and timings. There is also an informed article about Così fan tutte at Salzburg given in English. German and French.

Bill White
Fanfare, July 2011

Così fan tutte, the one-time wallflower of the trio of operas produced by composer Mozart and librettist Da Ponte, has these days found widespread popularity, both on stage and on recordings, if not yet quite a match for its highly regarded partners, Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro. As example, there are now an incredible 17 commercial DVDs available of the opera, this 1983 production from the Salzburg Festival one of the earlier and better of them. The story of two young sisters of Naples whose constancy is tested by their soldier lovers at the instigation of the cynical older friend Don Alfonzo with the aid of the scheming maid Despina is either a rather light, charming period farce or an engaging psychological drama of amorous relationships, depending on what you read. I, for one, lean more to the charming farce school, but whatever the merits of the libretto there is no doubt that this is the young genius Mozart bringing his A game, a score filled with inspired arias as well as many beautiful lyrical ensembles; the music is consistently sublime, and perhaps one of the greatest opera scores ever written.

There is much to like about this Salzburg DVD now on the Arthaus Musik label. You can easily just sit back and bask in the wonderful musical sounds made by the Vienna Philharmonic under the leadership of the young Riccardo Muti. The maestro keeps tempos brisk, perhaps a bit too brisk at times, not fully allowing the singers to expand into the music, but by and large he moves the action along crisply, to the benefit of the work. The singers themselves are all strong. Unlike Il Trovatore, which is said to require four great singers, Così requires six very good ones, and has them here. The Fiordiligi, Margaret Marshall, sings her two famous arias very well and consistently supplies the bright top to the many ensembles she takes part in. As an actress, Marshall smiles a bit too much for a portrayal of the sister devastated by the loss of her lover in act I and sorely conflicted by a new suitor in act II, but she seems so nice you can’t help but root for her. A fine Dorabella is turned in by the well-known and excellent mezzo-soprano Ann Murray without perhaps giving us the last bit of the flirtatious, man-loving younger sister Da Ponti intended and Mozart sketched into her music. The men sing equally excellently, led by a young James Morris as Guglielmo and a solid Sesto Bruscantini as Don Alfonso. The silvery-voiced, impish Despina of Kathleen Battle almost steals the show. Standard cuts of the short Ferrando-Guglielmo duet in act I and Ferrando’s act II aria “Ah! Lo veggio” are made.

One significant drawback to this set is the recorded sound of the singers; the balance is noticeably recessed and they all sound overly resonant. This can be corrected to some degree by frequency controls on the stereo receiver. The orchestra, by contrast, sounds very good, even if it overwhelms the voices in a few spots. Sets and costumes are traditional and richly appointed, finely evocative of the opera’s summery Mediterranean setting.

Most of the 17 Così DVDs have been reviewed in the pages of Fanfare, including this current one. In Fanfare 30:2 Joel Kaskow’s opening comment is, “What a relief to see a production so resolutely old-fashioned in appearance,” and I totally agree. I don’t really have an axe to grind with the many regietheatre productions of today; many are entertaining and provide much enjoyment, while at least a portion of their ultimate value will be sorted out at the box office. Those types of productions filmed for posterity, however, are not for me. Give me old-fashioned any day so I can pull the DVD back out and enjoy multiple viewings of the basic opera over the years.

If you want to take a chance on the sonics, go ahead and try this Arthaus DVD; it provides much to like.

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