Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Cosė fan tutte Dramma giocoso in two acts KV588 (1790)
Fiordiligi - Malin Hartelius (soprano)
Dorabella - Anna Bonitatibus (mezzo)
Despina - Martina Jankovà (soprano)
Ferrando - Javier Camarena (tenor)
Guglielmo - Ruben Drole (baritone)
Don Alfonso - Oliver Widmer (baritone)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Zurich Opera/Franz Welser-Möst
rec. live, Zurich Opera House 2009
Stage Director: Sven-Eric Bechtolf
TV/Video Director: Felix Breisach
Sound format: PCM Stereo, DDD, DTS 5.1
Subtitles: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish
Picture Format: 16:9. Region Code: 0
ARTHAUS MUSIK 101 495 [2 DVDs: 200:00]

Mozart and his wife returned to Vienna in mid-November 1787 after the Prague premiere of Don Giovanni. They learned that a day or so previously Gluck, the doyen of living composers had died. The Emperor appointed Mozart to succeed him at an annual salary twice that paid for composing an opera for the Imperial Theatre. Despite this the Mozarts found it difficult to live on his earnings. They moved to cheaper accommodation yet again and Constance gave birth to a daughter on 27 December 1787. The child died six months later. Meanwhile, concerts became less fashionable, and with fewer fee-paying opportunities for 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 an operatic commission forthcoming from the Emperor to be premiered there.

Not unexpectedly after the successes of his previous two operas, Figaro and Don Giovanni, Mozart again called on Da Ponte for the libretto of the new work, Cosė fan tutte. It was an original piece by Da Ponte and first intended for Salieri who did not like it. Mozart’s opera was premiered at the Burgtheater on 26 January 1790. It had had only 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. Cosė 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.

The quotes on the box of this performance of Cosė fan tutte from Zurich include a claim that the theatre enjoys “A Mozart ensemble that is currently without equal in the opera world.” Ensemble is one thing, production and costume and sets another. The opening scene seems to be in some kind of museum or polymath or philosopher’s minimalist apartment with various items on display shelves; is this the abode of the cynical Don Alfonso? This setting quickly moves to a villa arrangement of shapeless pillars between rectangular openings, the whole dominated by a large centrally placed conifer tree. In act two a table, complete with cloth down to the floor, is placed in front of the tree. The table becomes the focus of much of the activity whilst in both acts the simplistic columns between the door openings serve as hiding places. The costumes are very much in Mozartean period with Ferrando and Guglielmo identically dressed and wigged. This matching is extended to their appearance as Albanians, complete with straggly hair and moustaches; perhaps some Freudian delusion that it is OK to sleep with an identical twin? The production is full of quite strange quirks. These include the chorus doing a cross between the shake and rock-and-roll (Disc 1 Ch. 13), Dorabella threatening to hang herself, but from nowhere, and Fiordiligi threatening to shoot herself as her sister sings the brief Smanie implacabili (Disc 1 Ch.25). These melodramatic touches add nothing to the plot and culminate in Dorabella collapsing, perhaps dead by poisoning, at the end (Disc 2 Ch.34). In act two the producer’s imagination also extends to Despina plying the sisters with wine to undermine their inhibitions, the appearance of a satyr from under the table, I suppose to accent the sexual undertones of the goings-on. Guglielmo makes a female doll from the table fruit and then does it serious mischief with a knife. These do nothing to complement the music or the plot. They only served to distance me from what is happening rather than draw me into the story as Mozart’s operas, when well presented, invariably do.

Much of the negative effect of the foregoing would have been mitigated if the soloists had lived up to the hype. Instead I found the Don Alfonso of Oliver Widmer dry. His appearance, with designer stubble and untidy hair, is unappealing. Similarly the Despina of Martina Jankovà was vocally mediocre, failing to make the most of the music in her arias (Disc 1 Ch.27 and Disc 2 Ch.2). Much the same can be said of her part in the ensembles and her interactions, particularly with an over-amorous Don Alfonso who seems to fancy her. The Ferrando of Javier Camarena lacked vocal allure. There was little of that grace with phrases and honeyed head-voice that characterise the best Mozart tenors. He also suffers some strain in Ah lo veggio (Disc 2 Ch.12). Guglielmo, his friend in the wager that induces so much confusion and emotional pain in the sisters, was better sung and acted by Ruben Drole. By far the best singing came from Malin Hartelius as Fiordiligi. Her rendition of both Come scoglio (Disc 1 Ch. 31) and the rondo Per pieta (Disc 2 Ch14) were the vocal highlights of the performance. Good diction, immaculate phrasing and characterisation were allied to legato singing and lovely tone. If the Dorabella of Anna Bonitatibus was not quite up to that high standard, her involvement and acting, allied to good well-characterised singing was more than satisfactory.

Glories of ensemble also depend on the orchestral contribution managed by the conductor. Whilst some of the ensembles skipped with Mozartean character, far too often it seemed to me that in the pit Franz Welser-Möst found the activity above him to be inhibiting. Consequently far too often the music failed to ignite and sparkle in the manner I know it should and does elsewhere, as on John Eliot Gardiner’s performance with The English Baroque soloists and a good cast (Archiv 073 026-9 also on two discs).

Robert J. Farr

This period costumed production suffers from a minimalist setting with too many silly visual distractions that inhibit, rather than complement, Mozart’s comedy.