We've had a "Summer of Love" Così with Ferrando sporting a Che Guevara t-shirt, and one set in "Despina's Diner" by the sea. This one, as staged at the Glyndebourne Festival during the summer of 2006, is comfortingly traditional. Comfortingly? A poor choice of words, because Così is never quite comforting (if you do it right!). Even if the sets and the costumes are strictly according to Hoyle, as they are here, Mozart's dramma giocosa should leave you feeling vaguely unsettled when the final curtain comes down. As conductor Iván Fischer reminds us during one of the bonus features here, almost everyone can be seduced. "That's what women do," is the opera's title, but "That's what men and women do" would be no less truthful.
This is a gorgeous production in every way. Stage and film director Nicholas Hytner (The History Boys, The Madness of King George) understands Mozart, and (in all cases but one) his direction follows the lead of Mozart's music, rather than forcing Mozart's music to correspond to his vision. The exception comes at the very end, where the two pairs of lovers clearly are not ready to let bygones be bygones, even though Mozart tells us otherwise. Guglielmo, in particular, seems to have been permanently scarred by Don Alfonso's experiment. Some productions return the lovers to their original partners, and others retain the "Albanian" pairings. Hytner leaves us guessing about what's going to happen next, which might be realistic, considering human behavior, but it is not Mozart, who always manages to insert a glimmer of idealism.
With such a beautifully sung production, it is perhaps wrongheaded to go on about the visual aspects and the acting. Even so, it hard to resist doing so. Persson, Vondung, Lehtipuu, and Pisaroni would fit right in on the cover of Vogue, and no listener with eyes can fail to respond to their youthful beauty. This is not an opera about middle-aged people after all, but about young people who lack experience in love. Expressions, gestures, postures, inflections during recitatives… all have been used by Hytner and Fischer to flesh out the characters, and to make them absolutely credible. One example of Hytner's insight comes in the scene in which Despina suggests that scandal could be avoided if she lets the neighbors know that the Albanians came not to see the sisters, but her. Fiordiligi's raucous laughter at this suggestion (as if to say "Came to see you? Not likely!") helps us to understand why Despina works so hard to put her mistresses' noses out of joint. It isn't just the money! Another great moment for Fiordiligi (and Hytner) comes near the start of Act Two, when she and Dorabella discuss which sister will get which Albanian. When Dorabella decides to take the brown-haired one (the disguised Gugliemo), Fiordiligi, unseen by Dorabella, capers happily, because she clearly prefers Ferrando!
Because, with the exception of Rivenq, this is a young cast, many of the singers may be unfamiliar outside of opera fandom. All have established themselves as specialists in Baroque music and in Mozart, however, and one looks forward to hearing how they will continue to develop. Persson, a Swedish soprano, reminds me of a young Barbara Bonney – a little bit visually and a lot vocally. Her authoritative "Come scoglio," for example, is one volley after another of evenly produced tone of the most attractive quality, and also of meaning. She has the gift of making singing seem easy, and yet doing it in such a way as to prevent one from taking her voice for granted. With her richer but similarly secure voice, Vondung complements Persson wonderfully, and their blend in ensembles is exquisite. Bringing up the female side of the cast is Garmendia, an adorably temperamental Despina who nevertheless remembers that she is singing Mozart, not musical comedy.
The men share the women's virtues of beautiful sound and intelligent vocal characterization. Lehtipuu is bewitching in "Un'aura amorosa" and "Fra gli amplessi." He seems quite happy to have swapped Dorabella for Fiordiligi, judging from the enthusiastic love-making during the wedding scene. One feels sorry for Pisaroni, though, because he clearly prefers Fiordiligi too, and all the pain and disappointment show not only on his face but in his voice. "Donne mie, le fate" is truly bitter. As Don Alonso, Nicolas Rivencq is coolly in control, and one regrets that Mozart did not give him more to do. Fischer's tempos are consistently well-judged, and he is not afraid to be a little rambunctious when the situation so dictates. (It helps that he is using an original instruments orchestra.)
Production values are high, although the picture is not always as clear as it might be in darker scenes. The image is wide-screen, and the sound is LPCM stereo or DTS digital surround. The English subtitles are witty and appropriate. There are three short bonus features: an interview with Hytner, one with Fischer, and a cute little montage of the different singers in makeup and costuming.
Drawbacks? None, really, except for my reservation about Hytner's (non-)resolution at the opera's end. The only other cavil I could make is that the score is not given absolutely complete. Fischer cuts Ferrando's "Ah, lo veggio" in Act Two (and Lehtipuu would sing it so well!) and the duettino for the two suitors before they board the military barge. I can live with it, though – this Così is a keeper!
Copyright © 2007, Raymond Tuttle