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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Così fan tutte, dramma giocoso in two acts, K. 588 (1790)
Libretto: Lorenzo da Ponte
Margaret Price (soprano) – Fiordiligi; Brigitte Fassbaender (mezzo) – Dorabella; Wolfgang Brendel (baritone) – Guglielmo; Peter Schreier (tenor) – Ferrando; Reri Grist (soprano) – Despina; Theo Adam (baritone) – Don Alfonso
Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper
Bayerisches Staatsorchester/Wolfgang Sawallisch
rec. 25 February 1978, Nationaltheater, Munich
No sung texts
ORFEO C918182I [79.58 + 69.15]

Over the years I have attended a number of performances of Così fan tutte (Women are like that) most recently reporting from both an inconsistent staging by Andreas Kriegenburg at Staatsoper Dresden in 2014 and an entertaining student production directed by Thomas Guthrie at RNCM, Manchester in 2016. What would I have given to have been at this stunning 1978 Bayerische Staatsoper performance, a new production with a stellar cast, conducted by its music director maestro Wolfgang Sawallisch. Part of Orfeo’s series of live recordings from Nationaltheater, Munich this performance of Così fan tutte is another example of the long and outstanding performance tradition of Bayerische Staatsoper. Nevertheless, when listening to these live opera recordings from Bayerischer Rundfunk which were recorded for broadcast it is wise to heed the explanation in the booklet to take the live experience “warts and all.”

Mozart’s opera with a preposterous plot about love, deception and loyalty contains many of the composer’s most irresistible arias and ensembles. It tells the story of a pair of young soldiers who test the fidelity of their fiancées for a bet with old philosopher Don Alfonso. The score although crammed with sparkling humour and pathos was one that failed to find favour with audiences for around a century after its première in 1790 at Burgtheater, Vienna. A major reason for this unpopularity was in nineteenth century Vienna the plot of swapping fiancées was frowned upon even considered immoral. By the Second World War the opera had gained popularity, securing a place in standard operatic repertoire and according to the latest operabase.com records in 2015/16 it was the fifteenth most performed opera worldwide.

The route to this 1978 Nationaltheater, Munich performance of Così fan tutte was a torturous one peppered with myriad revisions. In 1795 when Così fan tutte was introduced in Munich at Alten Residenztheater (Old Residence Theatre) what is now the Cuvilliés-Theater the libretto was based on a German translation with the title Die Wette oder Weibertreue keine Treue (The wager or the inconstant constancy of women) with later new productions being various revisions and often having other titles. It was conductor Hermann Levi (1839 –1900) who was mainly responsible for reviving the original musical setting of Così fan tutte togther with Mozart’s other two Da Ponte operas Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni and introducing a new German translation. Gradually the road was cleared for the Bayerische Staatsoper to introduce Da Ponte’s original Italian libretto with this February 1978 production under the music direction of Wolfgang Sawallisch. Rather than spoken dialogues here Sawallisch uses secco recitatives to harpsichord accompaniment. It was the popularity of this stellar cast that allowed the Nationaltheater with its large capacity to be used instead of a smaller Munich house such as Cuvilliés-Theater. Sawallisch said “with soloists like these we can sell out the great theatre” and he was right. Both approaching their forties at the time of this recording I’m not sure both Margaret Price and Brigitte Fassbaender sound especially girl-like but the quality of their performances more than compensate.

Standing out is Wales soprano Margaret Price who makes a ravishing Fiordiligi standing out strongly in her two big arias. Particularly outstanding is her act one, scene three aria Come scoglio as Fiordiligi displays her determined side emphasizing her loyalty and dedication to her fiancé. Memorable is Price’s expressive and colourful voice, cystal clear enunciation and satisfying coloratura. Although not entirely comfortable here in her low register, impressive is Price’s abilily to swiftly slide up to her high range. Although a noted Mozartian the more I hear Price on record the more I’m convinced that she doesn’t fully get the acclaim a voice of her quality deserves. German tenor Peter Schreier is also a distinguished Mozartian who excels here and is especially succesful in Un aura amorosa his celebrated act one, scene three aria as Ferrando looks forward to his reunion with his fiancée. In fresh and lyrical voice Schreier displays his attractive tone and technical security. The role of Dorabella is taken by renowned German mezzo-soprano Brigitte Fassbaender, now an opera director who I had the pleasure of interviewing in 2014. Convincingly portraying Dorabella’s state of mental torment in her act one, scene three aria Smanie implacabili Fassbaender with excellent clarity sings impressively revealing her noted ability for infusing character with emotion.

German baritone Wolfgang Brendel sings Guglielmo throughout with considerable assurance. From act two, scene two his aria Donne mie, le fate a tanti sees Guglielmo bewildered to detect the fickleness of women with Brendel in steady, mature voice, so richly expressive. Reri Grist the American coloratura soprano sings the role of Lady’s maid Despina with a rewarding bright and sparkling voice, often conveying appropriate humour. In her act one, scene three aria In uomini, in soldati with Despina encouraging the sisters to take advantage of the absence of their fiancés Grist demonstrates how comfortable she is in her high register. Renowned German bass-baritone Theo Adam is experienced in the role of Don Alfonso a philosopher. Adam displays his rich and clear tones effectively in Alfonso’s act two, scene three aria Tutti accusan le donne expressing his conviction that women are fickle. As Don Alfonso is an old man the noticeable unsteadiness in Adam’s voice does not prove a problem to me. Fiordiligi and Dorabella’s duets Ah guarda sorella from act one, scene one and Prenderò quel brunettino from act two, scene one are quite beautifully rendered. Delivered most impressively is the famous act one, scene one trio Soave sia il vento from Fiordiligi, Dorabella and Don Alfonso as the three implore the wind and waves to bring the two soldiers back home safely; evidently a popular choice for playing at funerals. With singing of a rapt tenderness the contrasting voices blend together so well.

The Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper is in convincing voice revealing exceptional unity. Under Wolfgang Sawallisch’s direction one senses an intense relationship with Mozart’s music and the Bayerisches Staatsorchester provides a glow to its stylish playing. Recorded forty years ago at the magnificent Nationaltheater, Munich the sound engineers for Bayerischer Rundfunk have overall achieved clear stereo sound quality and reasonable balance. Although during this live performance, remembering “the warts and all” warning there is, not surprisingly, some wavering in the stage balances and stage noise in the background for example I can even detect some faint talking during the overture. The audience do clap after some of the arias, sometimes there is laughter after humorous episodes and there is considerable applause at the end of each act. Sadly, there is no German libretto and English translation however some consolation is provided by a helpful synopsis linked to track numbers.

Of the competing recordings of Così fan tutte there are two that I feel stand out and greatly appeal to my taste. From 1973/74 there is the characterful studio recording from Kingsway Hall, London conducted briskly by Sir Georg Solti with London Philharmonic Orchestra on Decca. Solti’s cast is Pilar Lorengar (Fiordiligi), Teresa Berganza (Dorabella), Ryland Davies (Ferrando), Tom Krause (Guglielmo), Jane Berbié (Despina) and Gabriel Bacquier (Don Alfonso) on Decca. Drawn from live 2012 concert performances at the Baden-Baden Festival there is the consistent and often sparkling recording from Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Chamber Orchestra of Europe. The cast Nézet-Séguin has chosen is Miah Persson (Fiordiligi), Angela Brower (Dorabella), Rolando Villazón (Ferrando), Adam Plachetka (Guglielmo), Mojca Erdmann (Despina) and Alessandro Corbelli (Don Alfonso) Deutsche Grammophon. Under Wolfgang Sawallisch’s direction I enjoyed every minute of this live 1978 Bayerische Staatsoper recording of Così fan tutte which ranks up there with the finest in the catalogues.

Michael Cookson




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