25 July 2013

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—COSÌ FAN TUTTE (M. Persson, A. Brower, R. Villazón, A. Plachetka, M. Erdmann, A. Corbelli; DGG 479 0641)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: COSÌ FAN TUTTE (DGG 479 0641)

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Così fan tutte, ossia La scuola deglia amanti, K. 588—M. Persson (Fiordiligi), A. Brower (Dorabella), M. Erdmann (Despina), R. Villazón (Ferrando), A. Plachetka (Guglielmo), A. Corbelli (Don Alfonso); Vocalensemble Rastatt; Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Yannick Nézet-Séguin [Recorded ‘live’ during concert performances, July 2012, Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, Germany; Deutsche Grammophon 479 0641; 3CD, 178:10]

Few operas inspire the kind of competing affection and controversy that have surrounded Mozart’s Così fan tutte almost since its first performance in Vienna in 1790.  The première production was interrupted by the death of Emperor Joseph II and the subsequent period of mourning that closed Viennese theatres.  Not long thereafter, Mozart’s own death was nigh, and the increasingly ill and paranoid young composer was hard at work on both La clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte.  As a result of this redistribution of resources relatively soon after its première, Così was less subject to revisions than either of Mozart’s other operas set to libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte, Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni.  There are considerations of which passages, if any, are to be cut, but the primary complication of Così concerns its plot and the implications thereof.  Da Ponte’s examination of the supposition that absolute fidelity among amorous partners is a state that is contrary to human nature was considered insightful and entertaining by the Viennese in 1790, but later generations—even extending well into the 20th Century—found the story considerably less palatable, deeming it immoral, uncouth, and unworthy of Mozart’s genius, many of the few performances between Mozart’s lifetime and the revival of interest in the opera in the mid-20th Century even substituting ‘improved’ libretti that softened or wholly eliminated the sting of da Ponte’s social criticism.  Virtually from the time of its first performance, the looming question has concerned to what extent the opera is to be taken seriously.  Whatever the social implications of da Ponte’s libretto, neither the significance nor the quality of Mozart’s contributions to Così fan tutte can be doubted: the composer lavished on the score some of his most inspired music for the stage, and despite the complexities of its dramaturgy the musical legacy of Così fan tutte is one of true genius.

Recorded during concert performances in Baden-Baden, this Così benefits from the wonderful sound quality for which Deutsche Grammophon recordings are justifiably legendary.  There are only the faintest hints of audience noises in the form of laughter during recitatives, and these enhance the listening experience rather than in any way detracting from one’s enjoyment of the performance.  DGG’s engineers have carefully recreated a natural theatrical ambiance in which the performance plays out without ever sounding artificial.  Critical to the success of passages of secco recitative is the accompaniment of fortepianist Benjamin Bayl and ‘cellist Richard Lester.  Rather than seeming to inhibit the progress of the performance, the secco recitatives in this recording flow with the semblance of spontaneity.  Though their opportunities are few, the choristers of Vocalensemble Rastatt sing with fine tone and winning involvement.  The players of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe again prove themselves to be worthy of comparison with the most celebrated of their colleagues.  Anyone who feels that the demands on orchestral players in Mozart’s operas are less daunting than those of later repertory has never played any of Mozart’s scores; or has not played any of them as well as the instrumentalists of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe play Così fan tutte, at least.

Perhaps more so than in any other of Mozart’s mature Italian operas, Così cannot be successful when it is conducted indifferently.  With a charismatic singer in the title rôle and a trio of ladies who are sensitive to the musical and dramatic pitfalls of their parts, Don Giovanni can easily survive wayward conducting, and Le nozze di Figaro has proved almost immune to poor conducting and pedestrian singing.  Perhaps because of the complicated psychology of da Ponte’s libretto and the brilliance with which Mozart depicted the ambiguities in his score, Così is a different matter entirely.  Pacing of the opera is crucial to the ability of the singers to both deliver the music correctly and connect with the audience effectively.  From the first bars of the Overture, Yannick Nézet-Séguin displays complete affinity for Così, his choices of tempo unfailingly reflecting an insightful perception of the opera’s dramatic progress and an alertness to the needs of the cast.  Even the most accomplished Fiordiligi needs the absolute support of her conductor in order to meet the formidable demands of ‘Come scoglio immoto resta’ and ‘Per pietà, ben mio, perdona,’ two of the most fearsome arias in the soprano repertory.  Maestro Nézet-Séguin proves a master of dramatic timing within the confines of good taste, shaping the performance with the sure hand of a practiced Mozartean.  It has become fashionable to entrust Così to conductors—and casts—that specialize in historically-informed performance practices, and while ‘period’ performance ideals yield valuable results in Mozart’s operas, not least among which is clarity of ensemble that can reveal Mozart’s extraordinary gifts for counterpoint and orchestration, conductors with experience in later music can bring to Così a welcome sense of the opera’s importance in the development of the genre.  Maestro Nézet-Séguin, whose repertory is quite vast despite his youth, synthesizes elements of historically-appropriate practices with broader sensibilities born of acquaintance with operatic and symphonic repertories of the 19th and 20th Centuries.  Phrasing is adapted to the needs of the singers, who, having the support from the podium that allows them to focus on the details of what Mozart asked of them, avoid the willful distortions of line that mar so many performances.  Maestro Nézet-Séguin exhibited great promise with his leadership of the performance of Don Giovanni that launched DGG’s series of recordings of Mozart’s mature operas: that promise is fully realized in this performance of Così fan tutte.  Few conductors have achieved the balance of lightness and seriousness that elucidates the description of Così as a dramma giocoso.  Supporting his cast with dedication both to their success and to Mozart’s music, Maestro Nézet-Séguin makes it unusually clear that there are very serious, perhaps even life-altering emotions hiding behind the smiles and laughter of Così.

Mozart created in Despina and Don Alfonso two of opera’s most enigmatic but endearing schemers.  The impetus for Despina’s all-too-willing participation in Don Alfonso’s plot to embarrass his friends’ blind faith in their paramours is made most clear: ‘è l’oro il mio giulebbe,’ she sings—‘gold is my weakness.’  Don Alfonso’s deep pockets facilitate Despina’s complicity in deception, but precisely what inspires Don Alfonso’s duplicity is never revealed.  In this performance, Alessandro Corbelli’s Don Alfonso sounds too good-natured to intend any serious damage to his friends’ happiness, but the conspiratorial relish with which he sets his business in motion is unmistakable.  Traditions gleaned from 19th-Century opera dictate that lovers should be baritones and world-wise roués basses, and many productions of Così adopt this arrangement.  Mozart’s music for Don Alfonso has a slightly higher tessitura than that for Guglielmo, however, and the casting of this performance tellingly contrasts the timbres of Mr. Corbelli’s baritone and a bass-baritone Guglielmo.  A veteran of Italian opera buffa, Mr. Corbelli knows his way round a part like Don Alfonso, and the wry humor that he brings to his performance is delightful.  He never pursues laughs at the expense of musical integrity, however, and his contributions to ensembles—whether comedic or more serious in tone—are adroit and carefully judged.  Don Alfonso is given only one aria, ‘Vorrei dir e cor non ho,’ which Mr. Corbelli sings well, but it is the ensembles in which his finest work is done.  Mr. Corbelli’s voice is no longer as firm or as smooth as it was earlier in his career, but the skill with which he uses his voice is unimpaired.  Indeed, the artistry with which he builds performances around articulation of text has only become more pointed with time, and in this performance the rare moments in which the security of the voice falters slightly are put to touching use by Mr. Corbelli.  The Despina of Mojca Erdmann is rather more daft than cunning or charming.  The brightness of Ms. Erdmann’s timbre gives both the voice and the character decidedly hard edges, and the excursions into the vocal stratosphere that the singer employs whilst disguised as the mesmerist and the notary are not improvements on more conventional performances of the music.  Ms. Erdmann’s command of Despina’s notes is never in doubt, but her understanding of Mozartean style is seemingly a work in progress.  Both of Despina’s arias are delivered capably but without the elegance that shapes performances by the most accomplished Mozart singers, even in broadly comic rôles.  Like Mr. Corbelli, Ms. Erdmann is at her best in ensembles, in which she responds to her colleagues with increased sensitivity and vocal warmth.  She possesses a good natural voice and a technique capable of meeting the challenges of virtually any rôle within the scope of her voice type: as her career as a Mozartean develops, she will hopefully learn to place more of her trust in the composer and his music.

Czech bass-baritone Adam Plachetka brings to Guglielmo’s music more voice than the rôle has enjoyed in many performances.  Mr. Plachetka has no problems with the lower reaches of Guglielmo’s tessitura, and the darkness of his timbre lends his performance compelling seriousness.  ‘Non siate ritrosi’ and ‘Donne mie, la fate a tanti,’ Guglielmo’s arias, receive from Mr. Plachetka assured performances, the former in particular benefiting from the virility of the singer’s timbre.  In turn bemused, beguiling, and exasperated in ensembles, Mr. Plachetka responds to his colleagues with finely-judged singing.  The brawny masculinity of his singing makes his perceived betrayal and despair all the more touching, and the depths of emotion with which Mr. Plachetka shapes his performance are consistently apt to the texts that he sings.  His singing in the duet with Dorabella, ‘Il core vi dono,’ is a model of Mozartean grace.  Occasional hints of bluntness intrude into Mr. Plachetka’s delivery of secco recitatives, but his excellent diction contributes meaningfully to the overall success of his performance.  Guglielmo is the sort of rôle that proves more complicated in performance than it seems in a glance at the score, and admittedly the Così discography is not brimming with great performances of the part: Mr. Plachetka brings Guglielmo to life with greater animation and musicality than most of his recorded rivals, and ultimately his is an uncommonly satisfying performance of this deceptively nuanced character.

In such an ambitious, well-prepared performance, it is disappointing that the tradition of cutting Ferrando’s aria ‘Ah, lo veggio’ is perpetuated, not least because this recording’s Ferrando could likely have given a credible account of it.  The aria is not truly comfortable for any tenor, with its cascades of coloratura and high tessitura centered in the tenor’s passaggio (demanding more than a dozen top B-flats), and would not have been easy territory for Rolando Villazón, but the winning fortitude with which the Mexican tenor approaches Ferrando’s other challenges suggests that, at least in the context of concert performances being recorded for commercial release, he might have attempted the aria.  The presence of Mr. Villazón in this performance of Così is perhaps even more surprising than was his appearance as Don Ottavio in the recording of Don Giovanni that launched this DGG series.  As he did as Don Ottavio, Mr. Villazón approaches Ferrando’s music with energy, dedication, and legitimate attempts at achieving and preserving Mozartean lines.  The singer’s natural good humor is evident throughout the performance, especially in ensembles, and the sparkle that he brings to secco recitatives is invaluable.  When the emotions darken, the bronzed, slightly nasal timbre of Mr. Villazón’s voice combines with a seriousness of approach to infuse the performance with airs of genuine heartbreak and life-or-death intensity.  ‘Un’aura amorosa del nostro tesoro,’ one of the most exquisitely beautiful and technically demanding arias in the tenor repertory, receives from Mr. Villazón a lovely, refined performance.  Though his approach to the upper register is cautious, he avoids resorting to falsetto in high lines.  Bravura passages are capably, even confidently handled, and he makes an appreciable attempt at trilling.  ‘Tradito, schernito dal perfido cor’ is a brief cavatina in which, like Händel, Mozart stopped time with an outpouring of undiluted emotion.  The directness with which Mr. Villazón sings of his lover’s betrayal is tremendously effective.  His Ferrando is a man who wears his heart on his sleeve, and the authentically Latin passion that Mr. Villazón brings to his performance, though atypical for a Mozart rôle, is superb.  It is clear in this performance that, at least to Mr. Villazón’s Ferrando, the things that transpire in Così are of dire significance, and though his is not the sort of voice that comes to mind as an ideal Mozart instrument Mr. Villazón proves to be an exceptionally musical and uncommonly moving Ferrando.

Mezzo-soprano Angela Brower is a Dorabella who walks at the edge of peril with every appearance of carefree glee.  Accomplished both as Dorabella and as Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro, Ms. Brower is no stranger to Mozart repertory, and her experience complements her natural abilities to produce a most enjoyable Dorabella in this recording.  The voice has an attractively rounded quality and evenness of tone that portend future success in heavier repertory.  In this performance, Ms. Brower sings with great charm, particularly in Dorabella’s first aria, ‘Smanie implacabili.’  Dorabella is without question the more free-spirited of the sisters, and the smile in Ms. Brower’s tone as she flirts and cajoles is captivating.  Like Ferrando, her beloved, Dorabella’s high spirits also conceal a core of seriousness, and Ms. Brower’s singing in the Quintet in which she and her sister bid their lovers farewell and, especially, in the sublime ‘Soave il vento’ is poised and tinged with sadness.  Dorabella proves less resilient than Fiordiligi when under siege by the faux Albanians and expresses her philosophy of the transient, tricky nature of love in the wonderful aria ‘È amore un ladroncello,’ which Ms. Brower sings brightly.  Like the other characters in Così, Dorabella faces her greatest challenges in ensembles, and Ms. Brower meets every demand unflinchingly.  To her credit, Ms. Brower creates a more three-dimensional Dorabella than many performances enjoy, and such is the youthful accomplishment of her technique that she needs to employ none of the compromises that many singers must make in singing Dorabella’s music.

Soprano Miah Persson is also an acclaimed Mozart singer, and her performance as Fiordiligi in this recording verifies the legitimacy of the esteem in which she is held.  From Hyacinthus and Melia in Apollo et Hyacinthus—composed for trebles—to Pamina and the Königin der Nacht in Die Zauberflöte, none of Mozart’s operatic soprano rôles is without musical difficulties.  Comparing Fiordiligi to her sisters in the other da Ponte operas, she might be said to be a fusion of the Contessa in Le nozze di Figaro and Donna Anna in Don Giovanni: possessing both the aloofness and repose of the Contessa and the fire of Donna Anna, Fiordiligi has music that requires both long-breathed lyricism and command of rapid-fire coloratura and wide intervals.  The soprano who created the part, Adriana Ferrarese, was appreciated by contemporary critics for both her powerful lower register and her reliably steady upper extension, both of which were exploited by Mozart in his music for Fiordiligi.  Taking the high lines in ensembles demands of the singer great breath control, which Ms. Persson displays impressively.  Though the voice occasionally sounds slightly ungainly, the daunting slopes of both arias are successfully scaled.  ‘Come scoglio immoto resta,’ an aria that rivals Konstanze’s arias in Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Donna Anna’s ‘Or sai chi l’onore’ and ‘Non mi dir’ in Don Giovanni in difficulty, inspires Ms. Persson to splendidly alert, shapely singing.  The Rondò ‘Per pietà, ben mio, perdona’ draws from Ms. Persson a very personal, introverted performance that explores the conflicting emotions that Fiordiligi feels as her resolve begins to crumble.  Ms. Persson’s voice is completely secure throughout the wide range required by Fiordiligi’s music, and her technique—honed through performances of Händel rôles—encompasses every musical weapon deployed by Mozart.  Only a few of the lowest notes lack resonance and bloom.  Comparing their timbres in their respective rôles in this performance, it would be interesting to hear Ms. Persson and Ms. Brower exchange parts.  This is indicative of the levels of excellence that both ladies achieve in their music, and Ms. Persson is an impeccably stylish Fiordiligi who clears every one of Mozart’s hurdles with the skill of an Olympian.

It was not so long ago that death knells were rung for the Classical Music recording industry.  Thankfully, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumors of the demise of high-quality recordings of Classical and operatic repertory were greatly exaggerated.  Deutsche Grammophon’s series of recordings of Mozart’s mature operas began auspiciously with an excellent Don Giovanni: this recording of Così fan tutte raises the bar for the series to an even higher rung of achievement.  Superbly played, intelligently conducted, and expertly sung, this is a Così fan tutte that ravishes the ears and touches the heart.