Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
The Da Ponte Operas from the Salzburg Festival
Le Nozze di Figaro
Figaro – Ildebrando d’Arcangelo (bar)
Susanna – Anna Netrebko (sop)
Count – Bo Skovhus (bar)
Countess – Dorothea Röschmann (sop)
Cherubino – Christine Schäfer (mezzo)
Marcellina – Marie McLaughlin (mezzo)
Bartolo – Franz-Josef Selig (bass)
Basilio – Patrick Henckens (tenor)
Antonio – Florian Boesch (bar)
Nikolaus Harnoncourt (conductor)
Recorded 2006 [202:00 + 26:00 documentary]
Don Giovanni – Christopher Maltman (bar)
Commendatore – Anatoli Kotscherga (bass)
Donna Anna – Annete Dasch (sop)
Don Ottavio – Matthew Polenzani (tenor)
Donna Elvira – Dorothea Röschmann (sop)
Leporello – Erwin Schrott (bar)
Zerlina – Ekaterina Siurina (sop)
Masetto – Alex Esposito (bar)
Bertrand de Billy (conductor)
Recorded 2008 [177:00]
Così fan Tutte
Fiordiligi – Miah Persson (sop)
Dorabella – Isabel Leonard (sop)
Despina – Patricia Petibon (sop)
Guglielmo – Florian Boesch (bar)
Ferrando – Topi Lehtipu (tenor)
Don Alfonso – Bo Skovhus (bar)
Adam Fischer (conductor)
Recorded 2009 [191:00]
All operas staged by Claus Guth and designed by Christian Schmidt
Recorded live at the Salzburg Festival
Chorus of the Vienna State Opera
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Region: 0; Aspect Ratio: 16:9; Sound: PCM Stereo, Dolby Digital, DTS 5.1 Surround
EUROARTS DVD 2058818 [6 DVDs: 9:30:00]
This set gathers together as a cycle the three operas composed by Mozart with Da Ponte’s libretti, in performances from the Salzburg Haus Für Mozart. There are some good things here, especially in the singing, but too often Guth’s stagings are so bizarre as to be distracting.
On paper this Figaro should have been a knockout, but to me it represented little more than a missed opportunity. Guth’s staging takes place in a large room of a decaying country house, each act (except the second) dominated by a large staircase. Apart from that, and a couple of doors, the stage is entirely empty. Without some essential props, such as a chair for Act 1, this makes a nonsense out of much of the action of the plot, and there is no garden for Act 4, merely a suggestion of some leaves outside the window. For me, then, the setting lacked atmosphere. Guth’s main idea for his staging was to add the extra figure of a cherub, presumably a kind of Cupid, who is invisible to the characters on stage but who seems to be directing the action and orchestrating the lovelorn chaos. It’s an inoffensive idea, but it doesn’t add anything either. To his credit, Guth is very much in touch with the serious side of the work, something directors neglect at their peril, and he is very good at drawing out the erotic tension between the characters, most notably between the Count and Susanna, and between Cherubino and just about anybody. However, he does so in an utterly unsmiling way so that most of the action turns into a heavy plod through the human soul rather than a light-hearted portrayal of foibles we all share. Such an approach is mirrored in the pit. I’ve always been a little sceptical of Harnoncourt’s approach to Mozart and I find his Teldec Mozart recordings unbearably mannered, especially in their choice of tempi. Regrettably, the same is true here. He tries to approach the work in a new way and sometimes it works: his slow tempo for Venite, inginocchiatevi makes the aria sound refreshingly erotic, not inappropriately for its context. Elsewhere, however, his tempi struck me as just plain wrong, and he seems to want to draw attention to himself rather than to serve the drama. Nowhere is this more serious than in the finale of Act 2 where the quickfire comic moments go at a terrible plod while the more reflective aspect are dispatched at a gallop. On the whole he tends to take his time over speeds so that he tries to elicit a more sensual sound out of the orchestra, but too often this is misjudged and inappropriate to my ears, and I just don’t think I could stick repeated hearings of it.
The vocal performances are all OK but few are classic Mozart performances. D’Arcangelo is a good bass singer but he isn’t a natural buffo and he takes himself far too seriously to convince as Figaro. Netrebko’s voice is, bluntly, much too big for Susanna and here she sounds woefully miscast. Her sultry, smoky soprano is beautiful in its own way but it’s entirely inappropriate for this role and too often it feels as though Tosca has wandered into the wrong opera. Bo Skovhus has lost the sensuality that used to make his voice such a winner and his Count sounds raw and desiccated. Only from Röschmann and Schäfer do we get truly Mozartian class, both excellent in their own way, managing to combine grace and beauty in excellent character portrayals. Marie McLaughlin brings a touch of luxury casting to Marcellina, though Selig is rather underwhelming as Bartolo. All told, then, this is a Figaro that just doesn’t add up and, paradoxically, is far less than the sum of its parts.
Guth’s vision of Don Giovanni is even more unconventional than Figaro but, for me, it works much better. He sets the opera in the woods at night, tapping into our most basic childhood fairytale fears of the darkness and danger that lurks in the forest. The world he evokes is one utterly devoid of love: instead human emotions are to be bought and sold, just like human life. Elvira and Ottavio’s relationship is completely cold (she locks herself in the car and smokes a cigarette indifferently while he sings Dalla sua pace) and Masetto and Zerlina’s love is fatally compromised by her early capitulation to the Don, something they never get over. Elvira seems desperate for any human contact, throwing herself at the Don, or at Leporello, or at anyone who will take some notice of her. The closest relationship is between the Don and Leporello, and that one is characterised by violence and anger. This is a seedy world where the characters are out for themselves, indulging in sex, alcoholism and drug abuse with complete disregard for anyone else. At times, in fact, the staging was reminiscent of a Mafioso revenge drama: in the opening scene the Commendatore is wounded, not killed, and as that happens he shoots the Don in the stomach. Leporello tends the wound in the next scene, but the Don spends the rest of the opera trying to cope with the agony of the injury and at the end of the opera when the Commendatore returns, the Don succumbs to death and falls into the grave which the Commendatore has dug for him. Some might argue that the removal of the supernatural demeans the opera’s greater power, but for me it revealed a new, more earthy power that I had never seen tapped in this way before. It’s a dark, gritty view of the piece, but not an invalid one, and it made me re-evaluate the opera in its light, something any good production should do.
Musically, also, this production is superior to that of Figaro. Christopher Maltman’s Don is rich, vigorous and virile, and his singing is always good. I couldn’t shake off a feeling that he wasn’t quite ready for the role, though. This role is surely the most chameleonic in opera, but Maltman’s interpretation seemed fairly monochrome throughout, always beautiful and effecting, but the voice for the serenade was the same as that for the damnation scene, and there should be more distinctive colour in any great Don. Perhaps the staging plays its role in this as, after the gunshot wound, he spend the rest of the opera wincing and quivering as a consequence of his injury. Erwin Schrott, already a distinguished Don Giovanni, is a fantastic Leporello, singing with richness and all the colour that his master lacked. He is also a fantastic actor, playing Leporello as a seedy underworld figure with a stammer and a nervous tic. In fact, he put me in mind of Dustin Hoffmann’s character in Midnight Cowboy, slippery and unpleasant but ultimately quite likeable, and brilliantly sung. Here again, Dorothea Röschmann gives a masterclass not just in singing but in Mozartian style. Her pure, luxurious tone is a beauty to listen to and she acts Elvira as a wounded, vulnerable victim who seeks release in whatever small comforts life throws her way. Annete Dasch sings Anna like a fire-eater with hair-raising tone and power, but with a vulnerability and haunted quality that really works: it’s clear from the outset that she is all too willing to give in to the Don’s advances, and when she sings Non mi dir it isn’t immediately clear whether she is singing to Ottavio or to the Don. Matthew Polenzani is an outstanding Ottavio: colourful, clear and even a touch heroic. Dalla sua pace is magnificent, making it a terrible shame that Il mio tesoro is cut. Ekaterina Siurina sings Zerlina with pinpoint brightness and more than a touch of the vamp, while Alex Esposito’s Masetto successfully treads a line between buffo and serioso. I’ve heard better Commendatores than Anatoli Kotscherga, but he still has just about enough power to carry the role. Bertrand de Billy conducts with a keen ear for drama. His tempi are a touch on the fast side, but he uses them to increase the dramatic effect, nowhere more convincingly than in the Act 1 quartet, Non ti fidar, o misera. Of course, the Vienna Philharmonic play brilliantly for him. His edition of the score is an unusual and not entirely successful one, however: he includes the duet for Leporello and Zerlina but cuts Il mio tesoro and Leporello’s exit aria immediately preceding it. Most seriously, though not entirely without justification, he cuts the final sextet entirely so that the opera ends as the Don falls into his grave. It’s rather abrupt and I’d rather he hadn’t chosen the cuts he did, but it hasn’t put me off returning to this DVD for an altogether darker reading of Don Giovanni than you’ll find elsewhere.
Così has some of the finest singing out of any of the three operas, but unfortunately it is also the opera most blighted by the staging. Here Guth’s production displays some of the worst excesses of regietheater with none of the revelatory benefits. There’s nothing wrong with the setting – a modern luxury apartment in the aftermath of a boozy party – but Guth display little, if any, skill in directing the singers. Its main problem is its lack of clarity: by the time I got to the end I was entirely at a loss as to whether the girls knew about the deception and were going along with it, or whether they were unwitting victims, or whether they went back to their original lovers at the end. The only scene with even a modicum of comic sparkle was the end of Act 1, and even there the conventions and convulsions became tiresome. It’s such a shame because the singing in this opera is fantastic. Miah Persson’s Fiordiligi is even more noble and beautiful than she was for Hytner’s Glyndebourne production, and the same is true for Topi Lehtipu, whose Ferrando has mellowed and softened still further. His arias are superb, and he is staking a strong claim to be the finest Mozart tenor around at the moment. Isabel Leonard is well contrasted with Persson, darker of texture and richer of palette, and Boesch sings with more darkness and less burnish than I would normally expect of him. Patricia Petibon steals the acting honours as Despina, though her vocal contortions try the patience. Only Skovhus lets the side down, displaying the same breathy discomfort that marred his performance in Figaro. Adam Fischer conducts an uncut score and the Vienna Philharmonic enjoy responding to the fizz of his baton. However, this remains a performance to listen to with the TV turned off: the Glyndebourne DVD is a much better marriage of audio to visuals.
There are lots of things to enjoy in this set: it’s just a pity that you have to look so hard for them. I wouldn’t want to be without it entirely, mainly for the contributions of so many of the singers; but the productions are so problematic that they detract from enjoyment of the experience and for all three of the operas there are better DVD alternatives elsewhere. What’s more, the set isn’t exactly economically priced at the moment, and many collectors will find that their money is better spent on other, more satisfying stagings. Röschmann, Schrott and Lehtipu will live in my memory for a long time, but Guth’s productions contain too many things that I would rather forget.
There are lots of things to enjoy in this set: it’s just a pity that you have to look so hard for them.