CosÏ fan tutte from DG

The premiËre production was interrupted by
the death of Emperor Joseph II and the subsequent period of mourning that
closed Viennese theatres.† Not long thereafter, Mozart’s own death was nigh,
and the increasingly ill and paranoid young composer was hard at work on both
La clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflˆte.† As a result of
this redistribution of resources relatively soon after its premiËre,
CosÏ was less subject to revisions than either of Mozart’s other
operas set to libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte, Le nozze di Figaro and
Don Giovanni.† There are considerations of which passages, if any,
are to be cut, but the primary complication of CosÏ concerns its plot
and the implications thereof.† Da Ponte’s examination of the supposition
that absolute fidelity among amorous partners is a state that is contrary to
human nature was considered insightful and entertaining by the Viennese in
1790, but later generations—even extending well into the 20th Century—found
the story considerably less palatable, deeming it immoral, uncouth, and
unworthy of Mozart’s genius, many of the few performances between Mozart’s
lifetime and the revival of interest in the opera in the mid-20th Century even
substituting ‘improved’ libretti that softened or wholly eliminated the
sting of da Ponte’s social criticism.† Virtually from the time of its first
performance, the looming question has concerned to what extent the opera is to
be taken seriously.† Whatever the social implications of da Ponte’s
libretto, neither the significance nor the quality of Mozart’s contributions
to CosÏ fan tutte can be doubted: the composer lavished on the score
some of his most inspired music for the stage, and despite the complexities of
its dramaturgy the musical legacy of CosÏ fan tutte is one of true

Recorded during concert performances in Baden-Baden, this CosÏ
benefits from the wonderful sound quality for which Deutsche Grammophon
recordings are justifiably legendary.† There are only the faintest hints of
audience noises in the form of laughter during recitatives, and these enhance
the listening experience rather than in any way detracting from one’s
enjoyment of the performance.† DGG’s engineers have carefully recreated a
natural theatrical ambiance in which the performance plays out without ever
sounding artificial.† Critical to the success of passages of secco
recitative is the accompaniment of fortepianist Benjamin Bayl and ‘cellist
Richard Lester.† Rather than seeming to inhibit the progress of the
performance, the secco recitatives in this recording flow with the
semblance of spontaneity.† Though their opportunities are few, the choristers
of Vocalensemble Rastatt sing with fine tone and winning involvement.† The
players of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe again prove themselves to be worthy
of comparison with the most celebrated of their colleagues.† Anyone who feels
that the demands on orchestral players in Mozart’s operas are less daunting
than those of later repertory has never played any of Mozart’s scores; or has
not played any of them as well as the instrumentalists of the Chamber Orchestra
of Europe play CosÏ fan tutte, at least.

Perhaps more so than in any other of Mozart’s mature Italian operas,
CosÏ cannot be successful when it is conducted indifferently.† With
a charismatic singer in the title rÙle and a trio of ladies who are sensitive
to the musical and dramatic pitfalls of their parts, Don Giovanni can
easily survive wayward conducting, and Le nozze di Figaro has proved
almost immune to poor conducting and pedestrian singing.† Perhaps because of
the complicated psychology of da Ponte’s libretto and the brilliance with
which Mozart depicted the ambiguities in his score, CosÏ is a
different matter entirely.&bbsp; Pacing of the opera is crucial to the ability
of the singers to both deliver the music correctly and connect with the
audience effectively.† From the first bars of the Overture, Yannick
NÈzet-SÈguin displays complete affinity for CosÏ, his choices of
tempo unfailingly reflecting an insightful perception of the opera’s dramatic
progress and an alertness to the needs of the cast.† Even the most
accomplished Fiordiligi needs the absolute support of her conductor in order to
meet the formidable demands of ‘Come scoglio immoto resta’ and ‘Per
piet‡, ben mio, perdona,’ two of the most fearsome arias in the soprano
repertory.† Maestro NÈzet-SÈguin proves a master of dramatic timing within
the confines of good taste, shaping the performance with the sure hand of a
practiced Mozartean.† It has become fashionable to entrust CosÏ to
conductors—and casts—that specialize in historically-informed performance
practices, and while ‘period’ performance ideals yield valuable results in
Mozart’s operas, not least among which is clarity of ensemble that can reveal
Mozart’s extraordinary gifts for counterpoint and orchestration, conductors
with experience in later music can bring to CosÏ a welcome sense of
the opera’s importance in the development of the genre.† Maestro
NÈzet-SÈguin, whose repertory is quite vast despite his youth, synthesizes
elements of historically-appropriate practices with broader sensibilities born
of acquaintance with operatic and symphonic repertories of the 19th and 20th
Centuries.† Phrasing is adapted to the needs of the singers, who, having the
support from the podium that allows them to focus on the details of what Mozart
asked of them, avoid the willful distortions of line that mar so many
performances.† Maestro NÈzet-SÈguin exhibited great promise with his
leadership of the performance of Don Giovanni that launched DGG’s
series of recordings of Mozart’s mature operas: that promise is fully
realized in this performance of CosÏ fan tutte.† Few conductors have
achieved the balance of lightness and seriousness that elucidates the
description of CosÏ as a dramma giocoso.† Supporting his
cast with dedication both to their success and to Mozart’s music, Maestro
NÈzet-SÈguin makes it unusually clear that there are very serious, perhaps
even life-altering emotions hiding behind the smiles and laughter of

Mozart created in Despina and Don Alfonso two of opera’s most enigmatic
but endearing schemers.† The impetus for Despina’s all-too-willing
participation in Don Alfonso’s plot to embarrass his friends’ blind faith
in their paramours is made most clear: ‘Ë l’oro il mio giulebbe,’ she
sings—‘gold is my weakness.’† Don Alfonso’s deep pockets facilitate
Despina’s complicity in deception, but precisely what inspires Don
Alfonso’s duplicity is never revealed.† In this performance, Alessandro
Corbelli’s Don Alfonso sounds too good-natured to intend any serious damage
to his friends’ happiness, but the conspiratorial relish with which he sets
his business in motion is unmistakable.† Traditions gleaned from 19th-Century
opera dictate that lovers should be baritones and world-wise rouÈs basses, and
many productions of CosÏ adopt this arrangement.† Mozart’s music
for Don Alfonso has a slightly higher tessitura than that for
Guglielmo, however, and the casting of this performance tellingly contrasts the
timbres of Mr. Corbelli’s baritone and a bass-baritone Guglielmo.† A veteran
of Italian opera buffa, Mr. Corbelli knows his way round a part like
Don Alfonso, and the wry humor that he brings to his performance is
delightful.† He never pursues laughs at the expense of musical integrity,
however, and his contributions to ensembles—whether comedic or more serious
in tone—are adroit and carefully judged.† Don Alfonso is given only one
aria, ‘Vorrei dir e cor non ho,’ which Mr. Corbelli sings well, but it is
the ensembles in which his finest work is done.† Mr. Corbelli’s voice is no
longer as firm or as smooth as it was earlier in his career, but the skill with
which he uses his voice is unimpaired.† Indeed, the artistry with which he
builds performances around articulation of text has only become more pointed
with time, and in this performance the rare moments in which the security of
the voice falters slightly are put to touching use by Mr. Corbelli.† The
Despina of Mojca Erdmann is rather more daft than cunning or charming.† The
brightness of Ms. Erdmann’s timbre gives both the voice and the character
decidedly hard edges, and the excursions into the vocal stratosphere that the
singer employs whilst disguised as the mesmerist and the notary are not
improvements on more conventional performances of the music.† Ms. Erdmann’s
command of Despina’s notes is never in doubt, but her understanding of
Mozartean style is seemingly a work in progress.† Both of Despina’s arias
are delivered capably but without the elegance that shapes performances by the
most accomplished Mozart singers, even in broadly comic rÙles.† Like Mr.
Corbelli, Ms. Erdmann is at her best in ensembles, in which she responds to her
colleagues with increased sensitivity and vocal warmth.† She possesses a good
natural voice and a technique capable of meeting the challenges of virtually
any rÙle within the scope of her voice type: as her career as a Mozartean
develops, she will hopefully learn to place more of her trust in the composer
and his music.

Czech bass-baritone Adam Plachetka brings to Guglielmo’s music more voice
than the rÙle has enjoyed in many performances.† Mr. Plachetka has no
problems with the lower reaches of Guglielmo’s tessitura, and the
darkness of his timbre lends his performance compelling seriousness.† ‘Non
siate ritrosi’ and ‘Donne mie, la fate a tanti,’ Guglielmo’s arias,
receive from Mr. Plachetka assured performances, the former in particular
benefiting from the virility of the singer’s timbre.† In turn bemused,
beguiling, and exasperated in ensembles, Mr. Plachetka responds to his
colleagues with finely-judged singing.† The brawny masculinity of his singing
makes his perceived betrayal and despair all the more touching, and the depths
of emotion with which Mr. Plachetka shapes his performance are consistently apt
to the texts that he sings.† His singing in the duet with Dorabella, ‘Il
core vi dono,’ is a model of Mozartean grace.† Occasional hints of bluntness
intrude into Mr. Plachetka’s delivery of secco recitatives, but his
excellent diction contributes meaningfully to the overall success of his
performance.† Guglielmo is the sort of rÙle that proves more complicated in
performance than it seems in a glance at the score, and admittedly the
CosÏ discography is not brimming with great performances of the part:
Mr. Plachetka brings Guglielmo to life with greater animation and musicality
than most of his recorded rivals, and ultimately his is an uncommonly
satisfying performance of this deceptively nuanced character.

In such an ambitious, well-prepared performance, it is disappointing that
the tradition of cutting Ferrando’s aria ‘Ah, lo veggio’ is perpetuated,
not least because this recording’s Ferrando could likely have given a
credible account of it.† The aria is not truly comfortable for any tenor, with
its cascades of coloratura and high tessitura centered in the
tenor’s passaggio (demanding more than a dozen top B-flats), and
would not have been easy territory for Rolando VillazÛn, but the winning
fortitude with which the Mexican tenor approaches Ferrando’s other challenges
suggests that, at least in the context of concert performances being recorded
for commercial release, he might have attempted the aria.† The presence of Mr.
VillazÛn in this performance of CosÏ is perhaps even more surprising
than was his appearance as Don Ottavio in the recording of Don
that launched this DGG series.† As he did as Don Ottavio, Mr.
VillazÛn approaches Ferrando’s music with energy, dedication, and legitimate
attempts at achieving and preserving Mozartean lines.† The singer’s natural
good humor is evident throughout the performance, especially in ensembles, and
the sparkle that he brings to secco recitatives is invaluable.† When
the emotions darken, the bronzed, slightly nasal timbre of Mr. VillazÛn’s
voice combines with a seriousness of approach to infuse the performance with
airs of genuine heartbreak and life-or-death intensity.† ‘Un’aura amorosa
del nostro tesoro,’ one of the most exquisitely beautiful and technically
demanding arias in the tenor repertory, receives from Mr. VillazÛn a lovely,
refined performance.† Though his approach to the upper register is cautious,
he avoids resorting to falsetto in high lines.† Bravura passages are
capably, even confidently handled, and he makes an appreciable attempt at
trilling.† ‘Tradito, schernito dal perfido cor’ is a brief cavatina in
which, like H‰ndel, Mozart stopped time with an outpouring of undiluted
emotion.† The directness with which Mr. VillazÛn sings of his lover’s
betrayal is tremendously effective.† His Ferrando is a man who wears his heart
on his sleeve, and the authentically Latin passion that Mr. VillazÛn brings to
his performance, though atypical for a Mozart rÙle, is superb.† It is clear
in this performance that, at least to Mr. VillazÛn’s Ferrando, the things
that transpire in CosÏ are of dire significance, and though his is
not the sort of voice that comes to mind as an ideal Mozart instrument Mr.
VillazÛn proves to be an exceptionally musical and uncommonly moving

Mezzo-soprano Angela Brower is a Dorabella who walks at the edge of peril
with every appearance of carefree glee.† Accomplished both as Dorabella and as
Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro, Ms. Brower is no stranger to Mozart
repertory, and her experience complements her natural abilities to produce a
most enjoyable Dorabella in this recording.† The voice has an attractively
rounded quality and evenness of tone that portend future success in heavier
repertory.† In this performance, Ms. Brower sings with great charm,
particularly in Dorabella’s first aria, ‘Smanie implacabili.’† Dorabella
is without question the more free-spirited of the sisters, and the smile in Ms.
Brower’s tone as she flirts and cajoles is captivating.† Like Ferrando, her
beloved, Dorabella’s high spirits also conceal a core of seriousness, and Ms.
Brower’s singing in the Quintet in which she and her sister bid their lovers
farewell and, especially, in the sublime ‘Soave il vento’ is poised and
tinged with sadness.† Dorabella proves less resilient than Fiordiligi when
under siege by the faux Albanians and expresses her philosophy of the
transient, tricky nature of love in the wonderful aria ‘» amore un
ladroncello,’ which Ms. Brower sings brightly.† Like the other characters in
CosÏ, Dorabella faces her greatest challenges in ensembles, and Ms.
Brower meets every demand unflinchingly.† To her credit, Ms. Brower creates a
more three-dimensional Dorabella than many performances enjoy, and such is the
youthful accomplishment of her technique that she needs to employ none of the
compromises that many singers must make in singing Dorabella’s music.

Soprano Miah Persson is also an acclaimed Mozart singer, and her performance
as Fiordiligi in this recording verifies the legitimacy of the esteem in which
she is held.† From Hyacinthus and Melia in Apollo et
—composed for trebles—to Pamina and the Kˆnigin der Nacht
in Die Zauberflˆte, none of Mozart’s operatic soprano rÙles is
without musical difficulties.† Comparing Fiordiligi to her sisters in the
other da Ponte operas, she might be said to be a fusion of the Contessa in
Le nozze di Figaro and Donna Anna in Don Giovanni: possessing
both the aloofness and repose of the Contessa and the fire of Donna Anna,
Fiordiligi has music that requires both long-breathed lyricism and command of
rapid-fire coloratura and wide intervals.† The soprano who created
the part, Adriana Ferrarese, was appreciated by contemporary critics for both
her powerful lower register and her reliably steady upper extension, both of
which were exploited by Mozart in his music for Fiordiligi.† Taking the high
lines in ensembles demands of the singer great breath control, which Ms.
Persson displays impressively.† Though the voice occasionally sounds slightly
ungainly, the daunting slopes of both arias are successfully scaled.† ‘Come
scoglio immoto resta,’ an aria that rivals Konstanze’s arias in Die
Entf¸hrung aus dem Serail
and Donna Anna’s ‘Or sai chi l’onore’
and ‘Non mi dir’ in Don Giovanni in difficulty, inspires Ms.
Persson to splendidly alert, shapely singing.† The RondÚ ‘Per piet‡, ben
mio, perdona’ draws from Ms. Persson a very personal, introverted performance
that explores the conflicting emotions that Fiordiligi feels as her resolve
begins to crumble.† Ms. Persson’s voice is completely secure throughout the
wide range required by Fiordiligi’s music, and her technique—honed through
performances of H‰ndel rÙles—encompasses every musical weapon deployed by
Mozart.† Only a few of the lowest notes lack resonance and bloom.† Comparing
their timbres in their respective rÙles in this performance, it would be
interesting to hear Ms. Persson and Ms. Brower exchange parts.† This is
indicative of the levels of excellence that both ladies achieve in their music,
and Ms. Persson is an impeccably stylish Fiordiligi who clears every one of
Mozart’s hurdles with the skill of an Olympian.

It was not so long ago that death knells were rung for the Classical Music
recording industry.† Thankfully, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumors of the
demise of high-quality recordings of Classical and operatic repertory were
greatly exaggerated.† Deutsche Grammophon’s series of recordings of
Mozart’s mature operas began auspiciously with an excellent Don
: this recording of CosÏ fan tutte raises the bar for
the series to an even higher rung of achievement.† Superbly played,
intelligently conducted, and expertly sung, this is a CosÏ fan tutte
that ravishes the ears and touches the heart.

Joseph Newsome

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791): CosÏ fan tutte, ossia La
scuola deglia amanti
, K. 588—M. Persson (Fiordiligi), A. Brower
(Dorabella), M. Erdmann (Despina), R. VillazÛn (Ferrando), A. Plachetka
(Guglielmo), A. Corbelli (Don Alfonso); Vocalensemble Rastatt; Chamber
Orchestra of Europe; Yannick NÈzet-SÈguin [Recorded ‘live’ during concert
performances, July 2012, Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, Germany; Deutsche
Grammophon 479 0641; 3CD, 178:10]

This review first appeared at Voix des Arts. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.

image_description=Deutsche Grammophon 0289 479 0641 4 3 [CDs]
product_title=CosÏ fan tutte from DG
product_by=A review by Joseph Newsome
product_id=Deutsche Grammophon 0289 479 0641 4 3 [CDs]