This fizzing period Così
is a welcome reissue in the Brilliant Opera Collection at
super-budget price. It won’t topple any others off their
perch, but it’s good to set alongside them, and at this price
you can afford to indulge.
The best element of the recording
is the playing of La Petite Bande. A small ensemble, they
pare down Mozart’s orchestration to its bare essentials but
play with fabulous virtuosity, including the various solos
- listen to the obbligato horn in Per pieta, for example.
This lends a predominant sprightliness to their interpretation,
a world away from the larger scale symphony orchestras of
Karajan or Böhm. Kuijken’s direction matches this very well.
His view of the score is fresh and exciting and he sheds new
light on countless corners of this well loved score: his pointing
of the final sextet, to name one example, contains quite a
few surprises. He doesn’t just achieve this through quick
tempi, however; at times he is surprisingly leisurely and
he knows when to relax, such as in Soave sia il vento.
He could teach his period performance colleagues like Rene
Jacobs a thing or two in this regard. All told the score
felt fresh, lively and interesting in their hands with a broad
smile spread across it for most of its length.
The singing, however, was somewhat
more mixed. This was recorded live in what was presumably
a concert performance with the occasional audience cough intruding.
The concert format carries its problems, however: we get some
of the flaws associated with live music (some bad mistiming
in the opening trio, for example) but few of the pay-offs
of a staging. There is little sense of the living comedy
so important in this piece and the frequent asides in the
first act are rattled off without any heed to their dramatic
potential. The voices themselves all sound young and involved.
Soile Isokoski’s Fiordiligi confirms her as the natural heir
to such greats as Schwarzkopf and te Kanawa. Her voice is
commanding but pure with a silvery gleam to it, especially
in the glorious high notes of her two big arias. She comes
dangerously close to being overwhelmed by the orchestra in
Per pieta, however, but that’s probably more the fault
of the balance engineers. Next to her Monica Groop’s Dorabella
plays the comedy very successfully: Smanie implacabile
comes across as humorous satire rather than a sincere statement,
and her landroncello aria is as cheeky as the accompanying
clarinet. Nancy Argenta’s Despina is surprising for the wrong
reasons. She doesn’t seem to get to the heart of what makes
this tricky character tick. Despina’s more serious arias
feel sterile, while her fake voices for the doctor and notary
are grating and unpleasant. The men have a similar balance
of benefits and detriments. Huub Claessens fits the role
of Don Alfonso very successfully: he seems to be in full control
but, refreshingly, he also feels surprisingly young and not
the jaded old cynic that we may be used to from other interpretations.
Per Vollestad plays the comedy of Guglielmo’s role very successfully,
especially in Donne miei and Non siate ritrosi,
though he becomes a bit gruff and unyielding towards the end.
The biggest problem is Markus Schäfer who just doesn’t sound
comfortable here. At the beginning of the performance he
sounds relatively lyrical and in control, but he becomes noticeably
more strained as the evening draws on. His Act 2 arias sound
nasal and forced, though regrettably the rot sets in with
Un aura amorosa, which is too laboured to convey the
“breath of love” which Mozart so beautifully writes. The
Petite Bande chorus sing very well, though, especially in
the beautiful Act 2 serenade Secondate aurette amichi
which has all the breath of love that Un aura amorosa
lacked. Furthermore, the score is given completely complete,
and there were a few numbers here which I’d never heard, including
a duet for Ferrando and Guglielmo in Act 1 Scene 2 and an
extra ensemble in the final scene of Act 2.
This set won’t displace Böhm, Haitink
or Marriner in my affections, then, but the orchestral playing
is good enough to win it a place on any shelf. Furthermore
the singing is good in enough places to make it competitive.
More importantly, it just feels right, and that’s important
for this piece where mood and atmosphere can have such an
impact on the reading. I might even suggest that, next to
the frenzied Jacobs and the rather serious Gardiner, this
could come close to being a prime choice for a period version.