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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Nikolaus Harnoncourt - Opera Collection: The Mozart Da Ponte Operas from Zürich
Le Nozze De Figaro, K492 (1786)
Don Giovanni, K527 (1787)
Così fan tutte, K588 (1790)
ARTHAUS MUSIC Blu-ray 109236 [197:00 + 211:00 + 211:00]

Recorded respectively in 1996, 2001 and 2000 these three Mozart masterpieces to Da Ponte libretti have, along with the venue, conductor, director and designer, a number of things in common. They also share some distinct idiosyncrasies. The only singer to appear in all three works is the excellent Liliana Nikiteanu; others appear in either two or only one production. This is the outcome of the policy, explained in one of the bonus interviews by the Intendant, of having singers on flexible contracts allowing them to sing elsewhere when available and also casting other, often renowned, invited guests.

To start, the directorial input of each production is by Jürgen Flimm. His production ideas tend towards the fairly traditional whilst others often seem to lack a cohesive vision. The best of them, and exhibiting interesting stage-effects, is the Così Fan Tutte the idiosyncrasies of which are in the casting of three mezzo-sopranos in the female roles. The other major constant is Nikolaus Harnoncourt on the rostrum whose tempi vary widely from the turgid to the over-quick in several instances. As noted above a number of singers appear in two of the productions, fine if the casting is successful and they are at one with the composer and conductor.

To be more specific in my comments in respect of each of the three operas. The staging of the Figaro is a mish-mash of ideas and not always sympathetic to the casting. In the opening scene (CHs.2-10), as Figaro measures the room allocated to the couple, it is evident that he is distinctly older than his bride to be. This is even more evident when he is alongside Marcellina, his supposed mother (CH. 6), when he looks as though he could be her father, and by some distance. Having measured the small space of the room he erects the marriage bed, which if bought from Ikea would scarcely do as a single; too cosy even for a honeymoon night. The best part of the first act of this performance of Figaro is the singing and acting of Liliana Nikiteanu as Cherubino who excels in both arias (CHs. 7 and 13). Isabel Rey’s Susanna is pert but without much vocal distinction, her Deh vien non tardar in Act Four lacks any vocal allure or magic. As to Carlos Chausson’s Figaro, apart from looking too old, his vocal tone is rather grey.

In Act Two, idiosyncrasies continue albeit the set is more appropriate. However, I have never before seen a Figaro who, contrary to the sung words, has to climb a ladder to a skylight to jump out of the Countess’s room; from that height he might have broken his neck let alone strained his foot. Also, I have never seen a production where the Countess and Cherubino nearly make out on her bed. As a singer I found Eva Mei’s soprano thin and even wavery in tone in both her arias (CHs.11 and 28). Through all this mediocrity Rodney Gilfry sings and portrays Count Almaviva with sonority and sincerity, he is a beacon along with Nikiteanu who I have mentioned, in respect of both singing and acting (CH.26).

Act Four includes the arias for Barbarina (CH.36) and Marcellina (CH. 39) along with Basilio and Bartolo (CH. 42). The actual mise-en-scène I found confusing with moving trees and Figaro hiding behind deckchairs. Overall the trees did not help me follow what was supposed to be happening between the couples and the observers.

As to the Don Giovanni, the star is the singing and acting of Cecilia Bartoli as Elvira. It is not unheard of to cast a high mezzo in the role. With her flashing eyes, facial expressions fully in tune with the action, she is the star of the show. Whenever she is on-stage she has visual as well as vocal impact, those flashing eyes even evident behind a mask. In this performance, she is not alone in her sung and acted quality, but is joined by Rodney Gilfry as Don Giovanni and László Polgár as a rather seedy Leporello. The way the two change the tone and weight of their voice as they interchange cloaks and pretend to be the other is excellent operatic artistry. Gilfry loses out in the Don’s Champagne Aria as Harnoncourt takes it too fast, a deliberate policy he attempts to justify in the bonus interview. As the lovelorn Don Ottavio Roberto Saccà shows himself to be a less than ideal Mozart tenor, something he confirms in the last of the three operas when singing Ferrando. Elsewhere, and except for Nikiteanu, the singing is undistinguished.

Jürgen Flimm's production and staging of Così fan tutte is more traditional. The set opens with Alfonso giving a lecture in a schoolroom complete with blackboard. His pupils include the two besotted lovers he intends to disabuse of their views as to the virtue of their fiancés and, indeed, all women. The upstage apex of the room later opens to reveal a delightful candle-lit garden where the male suitors disguised as Albanians pursue the supposedly virtuous sisters. The costumes are all appropriate and in period although that for Baltsa as notary and doctor in particular are somewhat overdone and hammy.

As indicated, the casting includes three mezzo-sopranos in the main female roles. As Fiordiligi, Cecilia Bartoli can sing all the notes even if her facial efforts in lifting her voice to the higher soprano range looks somewhat demanding. Nevertheless, her rendition of both great arias, Come scoglio (CH.28) and Per pieta (CH.52) is achieved with vocal facility and elegance as is her contribution to the many duets and ensembles. As her sister Dorabella, Liliana Nikiteanu looks wonderful as well as acting and singing with confidence and competence. The third mezzo, Agnes Baltsa, can still do the acting business as doctor and notary, the latter somewhat over-played, albeit her vocal tone is rather lacking. The main problem with the casting of three mezzos is the complete lack of brightness of vocal tone in the many duets and ensembles and which, to my ears, are an essential component of Mozart’s creation.

Of the men, Oliver Widmer is an adequate Guglielmo whilst Carlos Chausson, who I found mediocre as Figaro, comes into his own as actor and singer in the role of the cynical Alfonso. As to the management of the ending, often problematic, Despina looks sick of the whole cynical destabilising of the ideals and beliefs of the young lovers and goes off complete with suitcase looking thoroughly unhappy.

Throughout Nikolaus Harnoncourt keeps a brisk but not over-done pace, allowing his singers to caress Mozart’s text with vocal grace … where they have the necessary skills that is.

Robert J Farr

Full cast and recording details

1. Le Nozze Di Figaro
Susanna, maid to the Countess – Isabel Rey (soprano); Figaro, manservant to the Count – Carlos Chausson (baritone); Count Almaviva, Rodney Gilfry (baritone); Countess Almaviva – Eva Mei (soprano); Cherubino, a young buck around the palace – Liliana Nikiteanu (mezzo); Marcellina, a mature lady owed a debt by Figaro – Elisabeth Von Magnus (soprano); Don Basilio, a music-master and schemer – Volker Vogel (tenor); Don Bartolo – Robert Holl (bass); Barbarina – Lisa Larson (soprano); Antonio, gardener – Werner Gröschel (baritone)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Zürich Opera House/Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
Stage direction: Jürgen Flimm
Set Designer: Erich Wonder
Costume designer: Florence Van Gerkan
rec. live. Zürich Opera House, 1996
Video Director: Felix Breisach
Picture Format: 16:9. Resolution 1080i High Definition (upscale)
Sound Format: DTS 5.1, PCM Stereo
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Japanese
Released originally as 108180

2. Don Giovanni
Don Giovanni - Rodney Gilfry (baritone); Leporello - László Polgár (bass-baritone); Don Ottavio - Roberto Saccà (tenor); Masetto - Oliver Widmer (baritone); Anna - Isabel Rey (soprano); Elvira - Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo); Zerlina - Liliana Nikiteanu (soprano); Commendatore - Matti Salminen (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Opernhaus Zürich/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Stage Director: Jürgen Flimm
rec. Zürich Opera House, 2001
Video Director: Brian Large
Picture Format: 16:9. Resolution 1080i High Definition (upscale)
Sound format: DTS 5.1, PCM Stereo
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Japanese
Released originally as 108179

3. Così fan tutte
Fiordiligi - Cecilia Bartoli (soprano); Dorabella - Liliana Nikiteanu (mezzo); Despina - Agnes Baltsa (mezzo); Ferrando - Roberto Saccà (tenor); Guglielmo - Oliver Widmer (baritone); Don Alfonso - Carlos Chausson (baritone)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Zürich Opera House/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Stage Director: Jürgen Flimm
Set Designer: Erich Wonder
Costume Designer: Florence Van Gerkan
rec. live, Zürich Opera House, March 2000
Video Director: Brian Large
Picture Format: 16:9, Resolution 1080i High Definition (upscale)
Sound format: DTS 5.1, PCM Stereo
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Japanese
Released originally as 108178



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