13 February 2015

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – COSÌ FAN TUTTE (S. Kermes, M. Ernman, C. Maltman, K. Tarver, A. Kasyan, K. Wolff; Sony Classical 88765466162)

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - COSÌ FAN TUTTE (Sony Classical 88765466162)WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Così fan tutte, K. 588Simone Kermes (Fiordiligi), Malena Ernman (Dorabella), Christopher Maltman (Guglielmo), Kenneth Tarver (Ferrando), Anna Kasyan (Despina), Konstantin Wolff (Don Alfonso); MusicAeterna (Orchestra and Chorus of the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre); Teodor Currentzis, conductor [Recorded in the P.I. Tchaikovsky State Opera and Ballet Theatre, Perm, Russia, 9 – 19 January 2013; Sony Classical 88765466162; 3 CDs, 176:54; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Since the first time that I heard Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's 1790 masterpiece Così fan tutte, the opera has exerted tremendous power on my imagination; power that extends far beyond the extraordinary beauty of the music. Though Mozart's and Lorenzo da Ponte's complex tale of amorous intrigue, disguised identities, and imperiled morals was anything but controversial in the late-Eighteenth-Century Vienna embodied by the progressive policies of Emperor Joseph II, by the first decade of the subsequent century debate raged about the suitability of the opera for the delicate sensibilities of audiences then accustomed to the conjugal rectitude celebrated in Beethoven's Fidelio. [The moral ambiguities of the Rossini opere buffe that enjoyed widespread popularity in Vienna in the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century were presumably deemed too frivolous to be truly threatening.] Well into the Twentieth Century, productions of Così fan tutte in German-speaking Europe continued to ‘adjust’ the opera's plot to render it more palatable to the austere scruples of evolving societies. Why was Così fan tutte subjected for so many years to the damaging effects of ex post facto ‘moralization,’ the true result of which was the meaningless reverse-gentrification of Mozart’s uniquely noble explorations of the durability and perversity of attraction and devotion? In Don Giovanni, the lecher is a known quantity, but in Così fan tutte who are the perpetrators, and who are the victims? Who is the puppeteer, and who are the puppets? Far too few performances of Così fan tutte contend with these questions: it is easier for both performers and audiences to approach the opera as a progression of pretty music to be sung prettily. In my view, what makes Così fan tutte one of the greatest works of art created for the operatic stage is its oracular synthesis of danger and delight. That is a difficult amalgamation to successfully effectuate in performance, but there is potential for incredible artistic growth in the attempt. Sony Classical’s new recording of Così fan tutte, preceded by a scintillating Le nozze di Figaro [reviewed here] and to be followed in autumn 2015 by what is likely to be an incendiary Don Giovanni, seeks to provide new solutions to the opera’s quandaries. In this context, it is pretty music sung prettily, but it is also a journey through emotions that are often glaringly ugly.

As a study of cause and effect, whether Greek-born conductor Teodor Currentzis consciously strives to instigate controversy with his unconventional performance philosophies or this is merely the product of his endeavors is a matter for debate, but there is no denying that, further pursuing the path initiated with his recording of Le nozze di Figaro, this recording of Così fan tutte is unlike any other on disc. Firstly, there is the continuo—decidedly bizarre, historically inappropriate, and sometimes over the top but great fun and brilliantly executed by lutenist Vasily Antipov, fortepianist Maxim Emelyanychev, cellist and gambist Alexander Prozorov, and hurdy-gurdy—yes, hurdy-gurdy!—player Irina Pyzhyanova. There are the extreme tempi, almost farcically fast in some numbers and exaggeratedly slow in others. Interestingly, though, the Ouvertura—a representative example of Maestro Currentzis’s approach—seems hectic, being dispatched in less than four minutes, but is only a few seconds briefer than recorded accounts paced by Sir Charles Mackerras and Sir Simon Rattle. [Not surprisingly, performances conducted by Karl Böhm, Herbert von Karajan, and Otto Klemperer have longer durations: very surprisingly, Rinaldo Alessandrini lingers more than thirty seconds longer over the Ouvertura than does Maestro Currentzis.] There are instances in which the conductor’s dictates seem to push the singers in directions that are contrary to their own musical and dramatic instincts. This is a thought-provoking Così fan tutte, however, and, though idiosyncratic, Maestro Currentzis’s choices rarely seem superfluous or intended merely to shock. He is fortunate to have a cast of singers whose technical acumen enables them to follow his lead, their natural inclinations notwithstanding, and Perm’s MusicAeterna orchestra and chorus collaborate with Maestro Currentzis with complete commitment. The choristers meet Mozart’s demands with confidence to spare, and the instrumentalists play the score with effervescent energy and eagerness. The brass and woodwind players do not shrink from the raucousness to which Maestro Currentzis spurs them, but even at its most tempestuous the performance maintains a captivating sense of being a faithful rendering of an opera premièred in 1790. This may not be Così fan tutte as Mozart might have expected to hear it, but it is neither a disappointingly featherweight Baroque reading of the score nor an over-Romanticized travesty. Maestro Currentzis makes no apologies for Mozart’s enigmatic score or his singular relationship with it.

In this performance, Don Alfonso’s wit has an especially cutting acidity, his manipulation of the people and situations in the opera suggesting a rapacious appetite for victory at any cost. This quality renders this an atypically hostile Così fan tutte: there is a sense of far more than good-natured wagers being at stake in these amatory entanglements. Bass-baritone Konstantin Wolff is an aloof, vaguely unnerving Don Alfonso who seems to materialize in moments of tension like a vexatious specter. The voice is a burly instrument that its owner uses with suavity, and Mr. Wolff brings an understated slyness to recitatives. He sings Don Alfonso’s aria in Act One, ‘Vorrei dir, e cor non ho,’ sonorously, seizing the opportunity to elucidate the character’s cynicism. The absence of the buffoonery of many performances in this Don Alfonso’s comic frugality is certainly not lamented, but Mr. Wolff sings so well that the restraint imposed by Maestro Currentzis’s concept seems to blunt the force of his intelligent portrayal.

Like Mr. Wolff’s Don Alfonso, the Despina of soprano Anna Kasyan is an unusually sober, unexaggerated persona. The silliness that has traditionally passed for a characterful interpretation of Despina is mostly avoided in this performance, but Ms. Kasyan’s impersonation stops just sort of compensatory sincerity. In both of her arias, ‘In uomini, in soldati’ in Act One and ‘Una donna a quindici anni’ in Act Two, Ms. Kasyan sings charmingly and far more capably than many Despinas, but the prevailing mood of the performance rounds the edges of the character. Ms. Kasyan creates a Despina who is pert and pretty, but her sarcasm seems snarky but rarely genuinely insolent. She is as aware as any Despina on records that her mistresses are rather foolish but is atypically reluctant—more hesitant, in truth, than Mozart and da Ponte would have her be—to say so.

Combining an extraordinary technique honed through uncompromising dedication to the art of bel canto with a timbre of honeyed beauty, Kenneth Tarver easily surpasses every recorded Ferrando except George Shirley and Richard Tucker, whose studio-recorded souvenir of his participation in Alfred Lunt's Metropolitan Opera production of Così fan tutte—sung in the much-traveled English translation by Ruth and Thomas Martin—is a splendid and still-undervalued piece of singing. From a technical perspective, Mr. Tarver possesses as perfect a voice for Ferrando's music as might be found today. The foremost distinction of his performance on this recording is the manner in which he sings stylishly without preening and prancing through the music. Ferrando is rarely convincing in his Albanian disguise, which is played by many tenors solely for laughs, but Mr. Tarver succeeds at inspiring smiles by refusing to condescend to the comedy rather than indulging in ridiculous antics. It is the voice that provides greatest pleasure, however. It is not just that he has a voice for which Mozart’s music might have been tailor-made: in addition to that quality, Mr. Tarver knows how to sing the rôle, shaping every phrase with a naturalness and grace that elude even very accomplished Mozarteans. Ferrando’s Act One aria ‘Un'aura amorosa’ is one of Mozart’s most gorgeous inspirations, and it has never been more lovingly and gracefully sung on records than by Mr. Tarver in this performance. To this he adds a glistening account of the cavatina in Act Two, ‘Tradito, schernito,’ that sharpens his character’s dramatic profile. Even with a Ferrando capable of conquering its considerable difficulties at hand, the aria ‘Ah! lo veggio’ is lamentably cut, depriving Mr. Tarver of the opportunity to fully realize Mozart’s vision for Ferrando. Most tenors either sing the music or play the part: Mr. Tarver manages both aspects of the rôle in his performance, and his is a Ferrando who is both magnificently-sung and engagingly three-dimensional.

Alongside Mr. Tarver’s Ferrando, the Guglielmo of baritone Christopher Maltman is a brusque, less-sophisticated fellow who nonetheless occasionally reveals endearing vulnerability in spite of himself. Finding in Mozart’s music for Guglielmo tessitura in which he is completely comfortable, Mr. Maltman sings more securely and handsomely than he sometimes has in recent seasons. He has at his disposal a ruggedly attractive timbre bolstered by a laudable degree of flexibility, qualities that make him an artist capable of seizing control of a performance and inviting an audience into the specific environment that he conjures. In his singing of Guglielmo's Act One aria, 'Non siate ritrosi,' Mr. Maltman is the very model of the self-confident, slightly arrogant young man sure of his paramour's fidelity: how could any woman fail to be faithful to such a swaggering, debonair man? A totally different facet of the character shines in his Act Two aria, 'Donne mie, la fate a tanti,' and Mr. Maltman rips into the words with ferocity. In martial guise, this Guglielmo is an ancestor of Belcore in Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore, but Mr. Maltman takes the character's duties as a lover very seriously. His suddenly crestfallen demeanor when it becomes apparent that Don Alfonso’s plan has worked all too well makes the shift from an amicable gentlemen’s bet to a life-altering situation unusually apparent. Mr. Maltman makes the pain of the injury to Guglielmo’s pride stingingly sincere, and his robust, dapper singing provides as much enjoyment as his piquant dramatic portrayal.

Singing Dorabella with cool, focused tone, mezzo-soprano Malena Ernman depicts a very proper young lady whose decorum suppresses a burgeoning desire for adventure. In her Act One aria, ‘Smanie implacabili che m'agitate,’ Ms. Ernman molds the melodic line with a sculptor’s perceptiveness, the text used as a chisel to carve phrases with flair. When she sings ‘È amore un ladroncello’ in her Act Two aria, she is one of the few recorded Dorabellas who sounds fully at ease with the range of the music. Ms. Ernman is an insightful, intelligent singer, and she proves to be a wily, winsome Dorabella. Still, though it is difficult to pinpoint what her well-sung performance lacks, something stands between her and consistent, unadulterated realization of the rôle. She sometimes seems at the brink of surrendering herself to the part, but she hesitates, thwarting her good intentions. This is a viable reading of the rôle but also one that keeps the listener at a distance. Vocally, Ms. Ernman is a world-class Dorabella: emotionally, she misses the involvement that makes the character so lovably human. She is a Dorabella who impresses but does not enthrall.

German soprano Simone Kermes is a singer known for blowing through a performance like a tornado, uprooting conventions and turning expectations on their heads. In that sense, her Fiordiligi in this performance is surprisingly conservative. Her ornamentations and resolutions of cadences are predictably inventive but stylish, and she phrases with sensitivity and bashful femininity, utilizing straight tone as an expressive device. Fiordiligi’s arias are two of the most demanding soprano arias in the repertory, the first asking for a top B♭ and the punishing interval of a tenth and the second taking the singer to top C. In Act One, Ms. Kermes sings ‘Come scoglio immoto resta’ poignantly, employing the lightness of her timbre to suggest the character’s psychological detachment from her surroundings. ‘Per pietà, ben mio, perdona’ in Act Two is the outburst of a Baroque heroine after the fashion of Händel’s rôles for Francesca Cuzzoni with which Ms. Kermes is so closely acquainted. The soprano’s technique is equal to the music, but she does not endeavor to hide the effort involved in singing the rôle: there is no parody in this Fiordiligi, no farcical pomposity, and singing of such expressivity should not be easy. Ms. Kermes’s unwavering seriousness introduces the suggestion that the opera’s happy ending may not include any real happiness for Fiordiligi. Like everything that she does, Ms. Kermes’s Fiordiligi is a very personal creation, an uncommonly vivid portrait of a flawed woman. Ethereally voiced, it is a provocative, heartbreaking performance.

More than any of Mozart's other operas and, in truth, almost any other opera in the international repertory, Così fan tutte is an ensemble work. The arias are expertly-crafted pieces, but a performance of the opera can transcend poor singing of the arias. The ensembles in Così fan tutte are microcosms in which virtually every aspect of human interactions is dissected, examined with near-scientific scrutiny, and reassembled in music of surpassing beauty. Beginning with lively accounts of the series of trios for Ferrando, Guglielmo, and Don Alfonso in Act One, ‘La mia Dorabella capace non è,’ ‘È la fede delle femmine,’ and ‘Una bella serenata,’ the lovers’ rejoinders to the affront of Don Alfonso’s suggestion that their ladies’ affections are transitory palpably relayed, the ensembles receive lucid treatment from both cast and conductor. Ms. Kermes and Ms. Ernman duet alluringly in ‘Ah guarda, o sorella,’ matched by Mr. Tarver’s and Mr. Maltman’s fluent singing in their ‘Al fato dan legge,’ and the superb quintets ‘Sento, oh Dio, che questo piede’ and ‘Di scriverni ogni giorno’ are frolicsomely sung, foreshadowing the comic ensembles in Rossini’s operas and even those in Verdi’s Falstaff. The foremost misjudgment in Maestro Currentzis’s leadership of this performance is his dirge-like tempo for the exquisite terzettino ‘Soave sia il vento.’ The singers are encouraged by the conductor’s plodding to croon melodramatically. Consequentially, the trio seems neither ironic nor profound: it is merely purposelessly slow. Both the sextet ‘Alla bella Despinetta’ and the trio for Don Alfonso, Ferrando, and Guglielmo, ‘E voi ridete,’ are more appropriately paced, and the singers gambol through the Act One Finale with evident joy and a flurry of fetching sounds.

In Fiordiligi’s and Dorabella’s duet in Act Two, ‘Prenderò quel brunettino,’ the sisters draw strength from one another, Ms. Kermes and Ms. Ernman savoring their exchanges. Their swains boldly trade their own barbs with the chorus in ‘Secondate, aurette amiche.’ Ms. Kasyan and Mr. Wolff join the beleaguered siblings in a charming singing of the quartet ‘La mano a me date.’ Uncertainty gives way momentarily to uncomplicated ardor in Ms. Ernman’s and Mr. Maltman’s soaring ‘Il core vi dono,’ which Ms. Kermes and Mr. Tarver complement with a dulcet-toned exhibition of genuine bel canto in ‘Fra gli amplessi in pochi istanti.’ The opera’s extended finale is a cooperative affair in which singers, musicians, and conductor listen and react to one another intuitively. Everyone rises to the occasion with singing, playing, and conducting of exuberance.

No performance of Così fan tutte could hope to answer all of the questions that the opera poses, but Teodor Currentzis presides over a traversal of the score that in both essence and execution is unusually confrontational. It asks the listener to become part of the drama, eavesdropping on whispered conversations and choosing which characters’ motives are to be respected and which are to be rejected. This recording will not be to everyone’s liking, but anyone who appreciates the opera and Mozart’s music in general should spend three hours getting to know it. Even the performance’s defects are evidence of a consuming determination to illustrate the significance of every note and word. I love Così fan tutte, and I found much to love—and to put my understanding of this wonderful score to the test—in this recording.