Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Così fan tutte - Dramma giocoso in two acts. KV588 (1790)
Fiordiligi – Kiri Te Kanawa (soprano); Dorabella – Frederica von Stade (mezzo); Ferrando – David Rendall (tenor); Guglielmo – Philippe Huttenlocher (baritone); Don Alfonso – Jules Bastin (bass); Despina – Teresa Stratas (soprano)
Chœurs de l’Opéra du Rhin
Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg/Alain Lombard
rec. Strasbourg, May 1977
WARNER CLASSICS - ERATO 2564 68230-6 [3 CDs : 61.15 + 56.41 + 61.07]

It came as a slight shock to me when I realised that my favourite recordings of Così are those from 1954 and 1955, conducted by Karajan and Böhm respectively, then Böhm’s famous 1962 recording for EMI, and finally this 1977 set conducted by Alain Lombard. The first two are virtually historical mono, while the second Böhm and the Lombard are stereo, but none could be said to reflect modern performing practice. No matter; to me they represent the essence of how this miraculous music should be performed and I would be hard pressed to choose one from amongst them.

This Erato re-issue will have been long awaited by those unable to obtain the long discontinued set which first appeared on CD in 1995. It is perhaps a dark horse in the illustrious company I name above, but it inspires a deep affection amongst its adherents, not least as it enshrines virtually perfect performances by two beloved artists in their vocal prime: Kiri Te Kanawa’s Fiordiligi and Frederica von Stade’s Dorabella. I would also add an encomium to David Rendall’s Ferrando as being his finest achievement in a chequered career. Teresa Stratas, equally renowned in Puccini, Strauss, verismo and Berg, was also a highly accomplished Mozartian, and treats us here to a richly comic, pertly vocalised Despina. Perhaps the time she took out of her long career to do charity work in Calcutta and Romania in combination with her maintaining a low profile in retirement resulted in a little collective amnesia regarding her true worth; this re-issue might jog a few memories. The other two lower-voiced male singers, Swiss baritone Philippe Huttenlocher as Guglielmo and Belgian basse chantante Jules Bastin as Don Alfonso, are less celebrated and neither is endowed with a particularly rich or characterful voice, but they by no means let the side down in a production strong on ensemble and teamwork. This is a fresh, youthful version full of high spirits and meltingly beautiful singing.

Lombard’s direction of the Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra is relaxed but never slack – whereas it has to be said that Böhm’s pacing can be frustratingly four-square, despite the brilliance of his casts; too often a certain Germanic doggedness blights the momentum, although I admire the arching control he exerts over that extraordinary, extended, twenty-minute finale to Act 1. Nobody approaches Karajan’s sparkle and élan in 1954 – but his is not the only way to do Mozart; Lombard’s spaciousness gives his singers more time to make their points and there is a benefit in being able to savour the creamy beauty of the singing here. However, he does not let matters drag when momentum is required; his Finale is just as urgent and absorbing. He uses a relatively small, fleet orchestra which is light on its feet, and thus successfully counteracts any suggestion of heaviness arising from his unhurried tempi.

Te Kanawa has absolutely everything in her vocal armoury required for the role of Fiordiligi: trills, runs, soaring top notes, seamless legato, breathtaking loveliness of tone, clear, idiomatic enunciation of the Italian text. Nor can she be criticised for any lack of involvement – a favourite accusation of her detractors; this is a performance to stand alongside her Countess for Solti and is the recording which I think best preserves her virtues as a lyric soprano. The only problem is that Te Kanawa makes an aria like “Come scoglio” sound almost too easy. Von Stade is not far behind in quality; her tone is golden and she manages to suggest Dorabella’s coquettishness without sounding arch. This is a partnership to set beside that of Schwarzkopf and Ludwig, even if the older singers have the edge in verbal acting.

Both Bastin and Huttenlocher have slightly woollier voices than is ideal; we have become accustomed to a certain Italian bite provided by the likes of Taddei or Panerai, which gives Guglielmo’s outbursts of rage and hurt betrayal more impact. Similarly, Walter Berry and even the lighter-voiced Bruscantini for Karajan suggest more of the wily old fox than Bastin can summon up with his soft-grained bass, but his comic timing and artful inflection are that of a seasoned basso buffo.

Reactions to David Rendall’s tenor vary; I love it. The very individual, slightly constricted tone, the fast vibrato and easy top with just a hint of steel when required, seem to me to be ideal. Singers such as Simoneau give us a gentler soul, but I like the hint of passion, volatility and even potential violence with which Rendall invests his Ferrando. No other tenor creates so rounded a character or sings with such a winning combination of mellifluousness and virility.

Huttenlocher almost over-compensates for the lack of edge in his tone by consistently ensuring that he is acting with voice. Just occasionally the could be accused of over-egging the pudding but he manages to be both droll and sly; better this close attention to verbal nuance than a mere dutiful sing-through. His baritone is otherwise warm and steady.

A potential pitfall is Stratas’s assumption of very obviously comical “funny voices” for her disguises as doctor and notary. Personally, I find her hilarious even on repeated listenings; she could be an extra on the “Goon Show” – and she is hardly the first to seize enthusiastically upon the comic possibilities of such a golden opportunity to ham it up.

One oddity about this new edition is that the analogue sound, while perfectly acceptable, has been made very slightly duller by this digital remastering than on my original 1995 issue, which has more definition in upper frequencies without harshness. Another reason for my hanging on to my older issue resides in that penny-pinching practice, now standard amongst in recording companies, of directing you either to a website (as in this case) or a CD-ROM for the libretto; inconvenient and irritating – although I shall not miss the absurdly precious and pretentious essay which appeared in the original booklet.

If you need convincing of the merits of this set, I direct you to the sublime quartet in Scene 16 of Act 2, “E nel tuo, nel mio bicchiero”. No matter how many times I hear it, I am transfixed by this little gem: it affords the most extraordinary combination of ethereal beauty, dramatic irony and vivid characterisation, especially when sung which such purity, as it is here. It encapsulates the bewildering allure and fundamental ambivalence of this extraordinary work. Those who try to reduce it to crude misogyny miss its gentle good humour and affectionate mockery. How often in this opera, if it is performed with due attendance to its subtlety, is the audience unsure whether to laugh or cry; we are both moved to mirth and discomforted by the gentle exposure of the frailties inherent in human nature – and all the time the music whispers to us of a transcendent state where all manner of things shall be well.

Ralph Moore

The music whispers to us of a transcendent state where all manner of things shall be well