Così fan tutte

TEODOR CURRENTZIS, 2013
Simone Kermes (Fiordiligi), Malena Ernman (Dorabella), Anna Kasyan (Despina), Kenneth Tarver (Ferrando), Christopher Maltman (Guglielmo), Konstantin Wolff (Alfonso), Orchestra and Chorus of the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre (Musicaeterna), Teodor Currentzis

In our commented discography of Le Nozze di Figaro, Teodor Currentzis is praised for his understanding that an atmosphere of tension is required by the plot in the play by Beaumarchais and his ability to portray that in his conducting. Now I see that the nervousness has nothing to do with Figaro and Susanna, but are rather the Greek conductor’s basic modus operandi. Here Fiordiligi, Dorabella and her fiancés receive the same nuclear-crisis-level intensity. Ferrando and Guglielmo asking for a kiss provoke a thunderous response from the orchestra: violins screech as if tortured, drums explode as if the world would end in the next second and trumpets could be announcing the apocalypse. Despina prepares her mistresses’ wedding party as if threatened by gunpoint among vortexes of raspy strings. Any attempt of charm is replaced by some sort of aural slapstick comedy involving chuckles, funny voices and bizarre instrumental effects. It would be unfair not to mention that the orchestral playing is extremely adept, following their conductor’s demand for bombast and noise without flinching. Also, there is clarity aplenty, some passages particularly revelatory in their immediate transparency. However, there is very little naturalness here, Currentzis’s omnipresent little touches are strongly underlined, shift of tempo are often extreme and the fortepiano continuo that added some zest to the orchestral sound in Figaro here sounds as the seventh soloist. The artificiality seems to be the keynote of the Simone Kermes’s Fiordiligi. Her performance is so coy and cute that one would wonder how Guglielmo could have ever found her sincere in the first place. Although she still croons and lets some puffs of air in the end of phrases instead of rounding them off, her singing is here far more consistent than as the Countess Almaviva. Come scoglio is even noteworthy for the way she uses her low register to show that she has indeed lost her temper, but she only skates around Per pietà without ever truly meeting tits formidable expressive and technical demands. Malena Ernman is usually an impeccable singer, but here surprisingly rather faceless one in terms of interpretation. Her Dorabella is so discrete that you barely notice that she is there. Anna Kasyan’s Despina has personality in plenty and the probably the only truly crispy Italian in the cast, but, for all her dexterity, her voice is light for the role: the tone is too soft centered and the low register has no color. Kenneth Tarver’s Ferrando is entirely free of technical drawbacks and yet the tonal quality is nasal and short in appeal and seduction  (Un’aura amorosa clearly exposes the problem) and his Italian is lifeless. Considering his ease with high notes, I wonder why Ah, lo vegg’io was not recorded. Konstantin Wolff is a reliable Don Alfonso, who could do with more vivid Italian and a fruitier voice. I leave the best for last: Christopher Maltman is an ideal Guglielmo, tackling Mozart’s music and Da Ponte’s text with directness and imagination and real sense of theatre and understanding of Mozartian style.

SYLVAIN CAMBRELING, 2013
Anett Fritsch (Fiordiligi), Paola Gardina (Dorabella), Kerstin Avemo (Despina), Juan Francisco Gatell (Ferrando), Andreas Wolf (Guglielmo), William Shimell (Alfonso), Coro y Orquesta del Teatro Real de Madrid, Sylvain Cambreling

The main source of interest in the DVD from the Teatro Real is the controversial Austrian director Michael Haneke. In many of his movies, self-deluded or hypocritical characters are submitted to cruel games or charades produced by other characters in some sort of superior level of understanding of reality. From that point of view, Così fan tutte is a story in which Haneke could have a say. In his reading, Don Alfonso and Despina are like visiteurs du soir, dressed as if sprung from a painting by Watteau, in a costume ball in a hôtel particulier furnished with a nespresso machine and a brushed-steel refrigerator. The young couples have contemporary outfits. Fiordiligi and Dorabella listen while her boyfriends talk about women with their older friend. When they are told that the young men were conscripted, their desperation is real. However, when Ferrando and Guglielmo come back thinly disguised as Albanians (a bow-tie as a mustache), they are offended by the insensitive practical joke. They decide to play along just to find a way to punish them – and this is making them jealous by showing a cross-interest in the  each other’s boyfriends. To that point, this seems an unusually effective way of dealing with the problem of the girls not recognizing their own fiancés under their disguise (in a world where there are movies about dragons and flying super-heroes, I find this quite believable in comparison). However, the approach increasingly acquires surrealistic features – Despina’s appearances as the doctor and the notary are supposed to be self-evident, characters do not see each other when they are 20 cm apart etc. In the end, the whole Dramaturgie seems just contrived and overambitious. Although the assumption that Fiordiligi and Ferrando are made for each other is entirely justifiable by Mozart’s score, I am afraid that the director’s care for the music ends there. First of all, Haneke’s Heiner-Müller-esque angle does not match the comedy timing of Da Ponte and Mozart’s work. The most immediate result is that recitatives are sung very slowly, with an added-upon weight and depth that make them musically awkward and pointless. Although Sylvain Cambreling is hardly anyone’s idea of Mozart specialist, I am afraid that the staging might have demanded from him a more considerate pace (than usual): the result is that the conducting is graceless, heavy, unclear and uncongenial. The recorded sound is helpful to separate singers’ voices in ensembles, but this sounds almost irrelevant in a musical  performance so structurally awry and uncommunicative in terms of expression. In any case, Haneke does deserve praise for his detailed and thoughtful Personenregie, convincingly rendered by all members in the cast. In purely vocal terms, although casting seems to have been made in terms of waistline, it is still very much acceptable. Anett Frisch, for instance, has many elements of a very good Mozart singer: the basic tonal quality is pleasant if a bit anonymous, she is capable of producing a very clean line even in florid passages and handles the passaggio most commendably (a requirement for any Fiordiligi). That said, her high register still needs to be developed – as it is, high-lying passages and exposed high notes are too taught and colorless. In any case, considering her possibilities, she deals with this difficult role’s challenges very cleanly and honestly. Paola Gardina’s mezzo too is not particularly memorable, but again she deals with the part of Dorabella with competence. Kerstin Avermo’s voice is not truly in focus and she is almost invariably effortful, but once again her soprano has an attractive smokiness and she handles the text expertly. Also, she is a terrific actress. Juan Francisco Gatell’s tenor is everything but dulcet and his phrasing is not liquid as it should. Mozart does not seem to be his natural repertoire either. Andreas Wolf is well cast as Guglielmo – his baritone has a very pleasant “German” sound and he is stylish and musicianly. He could only have a little bit more nuance, especially in the duet with Dorabella. William Schimmel is a wholly unidiomatic Don Alfonso, and this is a serious blemish in this role.

YANNICK NÉZET-SEGUIN, 2012
Miah Persson (Fiordiligi), Angela Brower (Dorabella), Mojca Erdmann (Despina), Rolando Villazón (Ferrando), Adam Plachetka (Guglielmo), Alessandro Corbelli (Alfonso), Vocalensemble Rastatt, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Yannick Nézet-Seguin

As the Don Giovanni from the same series, DG has recorded Così Fan Tutte live during concert performances in Baden-Baden, but there are no audience noises and the recorded sound is quite natural and clear, especially in ensembles. It seems that the last Mozart-Da Ponte has not inspired Yannick Nézet-Seguin as the adventures of the Burlador de Sevilla had before. Although the performance does not lack conviction – pace is natural, the orchestra has a pleasant sound and recitatives are animated – it is hardly illuminating in terms of conducting. Articulation is not its strongest feature, accents often lack sharpness, there is not much meaning beyond the notes and, although tempi are not slow, one has the impression of lack of forward movement out of its interpretative blankness. In any case, these CDs’ selling feature are supposed to be its cast, which is indeed above the average of recent recordings. Miah Persson’s third Fiordiligi show extra depth of tone and yet less purity in comparison to her video from Glyndebourne (SEE BELOW). It is commendable that her long experience in the role hasn’t brought about any lack of spontaneity, even if her voice operates on a rather limited color palette.  Although Angela Brower’s Italian has a hint of an accent, her high, creamy mezzo is tailor-made for the role of Dorabella. Actually, her stylish, glitch-free and utterly musicianly singing makes her one of the best Dorabellas in this discography. Mojca Erdmann is very much at ease with the vocal demands of the part of Despina, but her oversweet soprano does not suggest anything close to the character. She does not seem to be a very playful person and sounds a bit out of her comfort zone trying to seem streetwise. The upward decoration and high-note effects are not very helpful either. It is true that Rolando Villazón has some mannerisms – emphatic attack, lachrymose turns of phrase and a hint of Donizetti in his Mozart – but he brings so much to the role that the balance is more than positive – he dispatches his fioriture with absolute security (the trill in the end of Un’alma amorosa included), does not resent the high tessitura and still offers dark, pleasant low notes, means his words and sings with emotional generosity. Although he does not sing Ah, lo vegg’io, he is probably the most interesting Ferrando in a long while. Adam Plachetka too is a characterful Guglielmo, but his vibrant (overvibrant?) bass-baritone is sometimes rather lugubrious in sound. Alessandro Corbelli, Guglielmo both in Mackerras’s studio recording and Muti’s video from La Scala (SEE BELOW), is an ideal Don Alfonso.

ADAM FISCHER, 2009
Miah Persson (Fiordiligi), Isabel Leonard (Dorabella), Patricia Petibon (Despina), Topi Lehtipuu (Ferrando), Florian Boesch (Guglielmo), Bo Skovhus (Alfonso),Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Adam Fischer

The last installment in Claus Guth’s Salzburg Da Ponte trilogy is also the most unsatisfactory in a series that, in spite of two or three good ideas, never came close to find any real connection with Mozart and Da Ponte’s work. Set in our days, the staging shows Fiordiligi and Dorabella as grown-ups who behave as 10-year-old girls and Ferrando and Guglielmo as two zombie-like stiff creatures whose disguise is either African masks or just a splash of mud in their suits. The unbearably sly Despina never disguises as a doctor, but people call her “mister”. If you wonder what happened to recitatives, they were mercilessly butchered to fill the concept; after all, why do we need Lorenzo da Ponte’s words when we have someone like Claus Guth to tell the wheat from the chaff? But nothing here is so annoying as the Mephistopheles-like Don Alfonso who can light the fireplace with a hiss, makes Jedi hypnotic tricks and has the power to freeze the other members of the cast, even in the middle of ensembles (yes, they can sing even “magically” frozen). Have I forgotten to mention the Tony Manero-like steps? This looks even more detestable as hammily performed by Bo Skovhus, who is entirely clueless about Italian pronunciation and whose idea of mezza voce is overshadowing his fellow singers in, of all moments, Soave sia il vento. The devil’s bride Despina is the crimson-haired Patricia Petibon who unconvincingly bounces about through the set and has narcissistic fits of “attitude” that invariably involve upwards decoration, while her low register has a rather puffy/breathy sound. Both Miah Persson and Isabel Leonard deserve praises for their serious attempt of making sense of this nonsense. Although Persson’s voice is here richer than in Glyndenbourne, it is also less crystalline. The naturalness and freshness of her first recording are no longer here, but she remains a commendable Fiordiligi with excellent coloratura and easy low notes. Isabel Leonard is delicious to look at and, in spite of an unspectacular voice, sings stylishly and agreeably. In any case, she is the most musically scrupulous person on stage. The graininess and nasality in Topi Lehtipuu’s tenor has developed in something a bit distracting, but he still has good taste and sense of style. He does not seemed fazed by the demands of Ah, lo vegg’io, but is tested in his duet with Fiordiligi. If you want to sample his Ferrando, check the Hytner/Iván Fischer DVD, an all-round more convincing performance as a whole. If Florian Boesch’s air of permanent dissatisfaction is an expression of his opinion on the proceedings, then he has my sympathy. The dyspeptic performance he offers here does not correspond to the usual high standard his singing usually has. Here his bass-baritone lacks resonance and crooning seems to be his basic expressive tool. Adam Fischer offers a clean, articulate and animated view of the score, adeptly executed by the Vienna Philharmonic. Sometimes, his fondness for fast tempi involve rough and inaccurate ensemble and less than beautiful sounds from all involved. Unfortunately, the recorded sound is so favorable to singers that any notion of structural clarity is lost. Maybe if Gwyneth Jones and Jon Vickers had sung Mozart in the Grosses Festspielhaus (rather than in the Haus für Musik, as here) decades ago, the results live could have been similar to those accomplished by the engineers here with a far less generous-voiced group of singers.

FRANZ WELSER-MÖST, 2009
Malin Hartelius (Fiordiligi), Anna Bonitatibus (Dorabella), Martina Janková (Despina), Javier Camarena (Ferrando), Ruben Drole (Guglielmo), Oliver Widmer (Alfonso), Opernhaus Zürich Orchester und Chor, Franz Welser-Möst

Although Welser-Möst is quite naughty with tempo fluctuation and rushes some numbers beyond the comfort zone, this Così fan tutte is the best among his Da Ponte operas from Zürich. His orchestra plays expressively, his phrasing is clear and sensitive and he understands the various musical-dramatic layers of meaning in this most sophisticated of Mozart operas. It is lucky that Sven-Eric Berichtolf’s production is unobtrusive, its sets and costumes simple and elegant and the stage direction intelligent and rich in telling details. I will not spoil the fun by explaining a huge liberty taken in the closing minutes of this performance, but I wonder why it was deemed import to take it at all. Malin Hartelius offers a technically accomplished, stylish, nimbly sung account of the role of Fiordiligi. She lacks a more individual tonal quality, but other than this, there is indeed nothing to fault here, rather to praise. Anna Bonitatibus is one of the best Dorabellas in the discography. Her mezzo is rich-toned without being heavy, her phrasing is extremely graceful and she makes use of her native language to produce crispy, varied recitatives. Martina Janková’s bright-toned, sparkling Despina knows how to keep some earthiness for her servant role without ever messing with her bell-toned soprano. Javier Camarena is a dulcet-toned Ferrando, unfazed by the high tessitura, who sings a sweet Un’aura amorosa and Ruben Drole’s straightforward and pleasant-toned Guglielmo only lacks a bit sensuousness in his duet with Dorabella. Oliver Widmer’s overperky Don Alfonso is hardly legato’s best friend, but he does have imagination. The cast has praiseworthy  sense of ensemble, both musically and scenically.

IVÁN FISCHER, 2006
Miah Persson (Fiordiligi), Anke Vondung (Dorabella), Ainhoa Garmendia (Despina), Topi Lehtipuu (Ferrando), Luca Pisaroni (Guglielmo), Nicolas Rivenq (Alfonso), Glyndenbourne Chorus, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Iván Fischer

Nicholas Hytner’s elegant production from Glyndenbourne is impressively accurate in its direction of actors. The talented cast’s stage performance is thoroughly timed and faithfully descriptive of the vertiginous shifts of moods in the libretto. Sample Guglielmo and Dorabella’s duet to see how believable Cosi Fan Tutte can be if the director only cares to read Lorenzo da Ponte’s text. When it comes to the musical aspects, Iván Fischer should be praised to build his conducting around the dramatic action, not in the sense that his musical gestures depict the events in the plot – they do not portrait, but rather accompany what happens on stage in comfortable, somewhat restrained tempi and somewhat unvaried phrasing. This considerate approach maybe could have worked eyes wide shut if rich orchestral sound filled in the blanks left by the absence of truly meaningful phrasing, but the nimble and svelte playing of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment craves for more animation. Miah Persson is the lightest Fiordiligi in the discography – her technique is faultless and the replacements she offers for truly serviceable low notes is often discrete and musicianly. Only she lacks leeway for tone coloring and the results may be too polite for the right impression. It is not difficult for Anke Vondung to call attention for her vivacious and engaging Dorabella in these circumstances. Her fresh, velvety and sexy mezzo is pleasant all the way. Ainhoa Garmendia has the right quicksilver soprano for Despina and, although there is nothing earthy in her voice, she never neglects the necessary touch of plebeianness. Topi Lehtipuu is a reliable Ferrando, but a little bit less nasality would make all the difference in the world. Just compare him to, say, Rainer Trost in Gardiner’s recording to hear the missing variety and loveliness of tone. Luca Pisaroni’s Guglielmo offers more sophisticated and technically accomplished singing – and he cannot help adding some spice to his Italian words being Italian himself. Finally, Nicolas Rivenq’s slim baritone is maybe too chic for the cynical Don Alfonso. The edition has the traditional cuts involving the part of Ferrando.

INGO METZMACHER, 2006
Sally Matthews (Fiordiligi), Maité Beaumont (Dorabella), Danielle de Niese (Despina), Norman Shankle (Ferrando), Luca Pisaroni (Guglielmo), Garry Magee (Alfonso), Chorus of the Nederandse Opera, Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, Ingo Metzmacher

In Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito’s production for the Nederlandse Opera, Fiordiligi, Dorabella and their boyfriends are guests in a summer camp on the beach in the 60’s, just like in a Sandra Dee movie. Despina is some sort of employee there, but, considering that decade’s mentality, I am not sure those kids’ parents would approve of Don Alfonso’s presence there encouraging promiscuity among young people… In any case, the concept is cleverly developed, with detailed stage direction adeptly carried out by the talented cast here gathered. As updated, it is true that the plot requires young people to make sense, but the teenage atmosphere does not always go with the hidden depths of Mozart’s music and Da Ponte’s cynical approach to the matters of the heart. I have the impression that Ingo Metzmacher is the wrong maestro for this production – his conducting is extremely down-to-earth and lacking affection. Although the recorded sound is very clear, the string section is often recessed and the important accompanying figures in the violins rather impressionistic than clearly interacting with soloists. It is true that woodwind are allowed to “sing” with singers (as they should), but brass are often unsubtle and detached from the orchestral picture. Even if the tempi chosen by the conductor are in principle never slow, phrasing tends to be sluggish and what should sound supple and vivacious often seems mechanical and spasmodic. Sally Matthew’s grainy round soprano deals athletically with all the challenges set by Mozart in the part of Fiordiligi – fioriture, pianissimi, large intervals and low notes are dispatched with technical assurance – but her voice is not intrinsically beguiling. One is rarely touched by her singing – and the directorial choices for Per pietà brings about a gutsiness that does not really goes with what is written on the score. Maité Beaumont is an ideal Dorabella – the best since… Teresa Berganza?, but Danielle de Niese is vocally unsubtle as Despina. Moreover, the microphone adds an edge to her high notes. Norman Shankle’s thick-toned tenor is not pliant enough for Mozart and his Italian needs some rethinking. He is allowed Ah, lo vegg’io, which turns out more confidently sung than Un’aura amorosa. Luca Pisaroni is again an exemplary Guglielmo and Garry Magee offers a smoothly sung Don Alfonso. The performance features some oddities - Bella vita militar is first played on a portable record player and recitatives are accompanied by a guitarist on stage.

DANIEL HARDING, 2005
Erin Wall (Fiordiligi), Elina Garanca (Dorabella), Barbara Bonney (Despina), Shawn Mathey (Ferrando), Stéphane Degout (Guglielmo), Ruggero Raimondi (Alfonso), Arnold Schönberg Chor, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Daniel Harding

If you find the Doris Dörrie’s production (see below) overdone, then you should try the video from Aix, where Richard Peduzzi’s sets are reduced to the words “Vietato Fumare” in the empty wall of a bare stage. Instead of discussing the whole idea behind that, one can perfectly concentrate on Patrice Chéreau’s vivid and varied direction, benefiting from a generally good-looking cast willing to act and beautifully dressed in contrasting colors by Caroline de Vivaise. Moreover, Daniel Harding proves to have matured since his Don Giovanni and seems less inclined to give pride of place to effect over clarity, offering a transparent, buoyant and intelligent account of this most complex among Mozart operas. It is only a pity that the recorded sound is a bit dry. The edition adopted involves the usual deletion of Ferrando’s Ah, lo vegg’io and a rather unusual cut in last part of the finale to act I. Although Erin Wall’s soprano is appealing enough and she floats beautiful mezza voce when this is necessary, her account of the role of Fiordiligi is expressively and technically quite sketchy. Under these circumstances, it is not difficult to be overshadowed by Elina Garanca’s velvety-toned and sexy Dorabella, probably the major performance in this cast. Barbara Bonney has developed a quite plausible earthy attitude for Despina, but her once heavenly soprano just does not work for this role – her vocal production is too soft-centered and the low register is simply not functional. Moreover, her Italian had to be more spontaneous. Shawn Mathey has the basic equipment for Ferrando all right, but has his clumsy and/or nasal moments. Stéphane Degout is a pleasant if rather vocally anonymous Guglielmo. Ruggero Raimondi knows all the tricks of the role of Don Alfonso, but the juice of his voice had already dried out when this video was recorded.

DANIEL BARENBOIM, 2002
Dorothea Röschmann (Fiordiligi), Katharina Kammerloher (Dorabella), Daniela Bruera (Despina), Werner Güra (Ferrando), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (Guglielmo), Roman Trekel (Alfonso), Chor der Deutschen Staatsoper Berlin, Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim

The DVD from the Berlin State Opera’s main interest is Doris Dörrie’s production set in the 60’s – Ferrando and Guglielmo disguised as hippies, Despina as an Indian doctor (speaking mock Hindu instead of Latin). Although one takes some time to get used to see Fiordiligi and Dorabella singing their recitatives while brushing their teeth and hair in the bathroom, the adaptation is successful and funny most of the time. The stage direction is a bit overbusy and even if you take it in the positive way – a kind of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown – it may disturb the singers in many key moments. Thank God the cast generally offers good acting, but not always the physique de rôle. It is a pity that Daniel Barenboim has not been contagiated by the light atmosphere, offering heavy and ponderous conducting. The rather dimly recorded orchestra does not help clarity, especially when singers, somewhat closely miked, are in action. Dorothea Röschmann dominates the cast, as a capable Fiordiligi, offering light creamy tone and technical fluency. Katharina Kammerloher has a sexy enough mezzo for Dorabella, while Daniela Bruera is a bright-toned and charming Despina. Werner Güra is far from ingratiating as Ferrando. The tone is a bit nasal but may get unfocused in his high register. Hanno Müller-Brachmann has an easy bass, not entirely smooth, but healthy enough, while Roman Trekel’s strong baritone could be dealt with a bit gentlier sometimes, such as in Soave sia il vento.

NIKOLAUS HARNONCOURT, 2000
Cecilia Bartoli (Fiordiligi), Liliana Nikiteanu (Dorabella), Agnes Baltsa (Despina), Roberto Saccà (Ferrando), Oliver Widmer (Guglielmo), Carlos Chausson (Alfonso), Opernhaus Zürichs Orchester und Chor, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

The circumstances of live performances were really helpful to Harnoncourt. In his latest recording, live from the Zürich Opera, his a priori approach seems to be more relaxed. It still lacks some forward movement and some ideas are too artifficial for comfort, such as the slowing down for Fiordiligi’s arpeggi in the middle of Dove sono? or the entirely disfigured Donne mie a tanti. However, framed by a sensational recording and excellent orchestral playing, things acquire utmost interest, especially in ensembles, where the level of clarity is amazing, helped by prominent woodwind. Di scrivermi ogni giorno, made extra slow, is, for example, extremely moving, gaining increasing harmonic tension and lovely mezza voce from the sisters. Nevertheless, I must record here my indignation with the cut made on the first section of Fra gli amplessi – exactly where Harnoncourt’s reading was particularly innovative, with bold and creative shifting of tempo. The finale ultimo is also inexplicably cut – this is a moment of utmost structural interest and of immense beauty. This is simply unforgivable. Cecilia Bartoli succeeds in the role of Fiordiligi (she had previously sung Dorabella and Despina) in an unexpected way. Whenever the role requires lyricism and delicacy, her Fiordiligi is most efficient, with some floating warm tones able to melt a heart of stone. The high tessitura rarely causes her strain, although the voice does not blossom in the top notes as usual with full-fledged sopranos. From the interpretative point of view, her Fiordiligi is of great interest – a passionate nature kept in place by conventions, unleashing beautifully in her duet with Ferrando. There is no need to mention that her recitatives are excellent. Her Dorabella, Liliana Nikiteanu, has a warm velvety voice that floats beautifully where necessary. The result is extremely sexy. She looks seductive enough too – though her blond wig looks camp. Agnes Baltsa’s Despina is excellent in recitatives, where her voice sound natural and bright. In the numbers, the tone is a bit unfocused, especially in the middle register. She is happier to sing full voice, where she sounds firm enough. With such characteristic (mezzo) sopranos, the male cast should have been more positive – although all performances are very decent, they lack the last sparkle of creativity. Roberto Saccà’s voice is healthy all the way as Ferrando, sung with Italianate vibrancy and ease, but kept within the limits of Mozartian style by his Viennese training. If his voice were more immediately beautiful, his absence of shading would be less noticed. As it is, his Un’aura amorosa sounds insensitive. He does n0t sing Ah, lo veggio. Oliver Widmer’s baritone is too discrete to cause any impression, but Carlos Chausson’s Alfonso has personality and a velvety light voice. The staging is really disappointing. The action takes place in a school (probably the “school for lovers” of the title) and the sisters are used as experiments in a weird setting that looks like a ruin or something like that. It is hard to tell – especially when costumes and most props are XIXth century. The direction involves some artifficially laugh-seeking situations (the stupidest of all involving Ferrando and Guglielmo eating “imaginary food” in Un’aura amorosa – it’s obvious, silly and unspontaneoous). With the exception of Widmer, all the singers have charisma, although not always the physique de rôle (especially Bartoli and Saccà – they look unglamourous, to say the least).

BETRAND DE BILLY, 2000
Regina Schörg (Fiordiligi), Heidi Brunner (Dorabella), Birgid Steinberger (Despina), Jeffrey Francis (Ferrando), Martin Gantner (Guglielmo), Kwangchul Youn (Alfonso), Wiener Konzertchor and members of the Wiener Singakademie, Radio Symphonieorchester Wien, Bertrand de Billy

The Naxos performance’s (see below) main rival is Arte Nova’s conducted by Bertrand de Billy, also in budget price. The word “rival” is actually complimentary to Wildner, since Billy’s is really really better all the way. Things are harder to frame, however, when one compares it to the distinguished recordings in the discography. Although this is definitely a “safe” recording, I wouldn’t probably recommend it as a first option, maybe because of its absence of glamour (in the lack of a better word) and the trade-off is very subtle if you think of adding an extra item in your collection. Basically, the main asset is the organic relationship the conductor establishes with tempo and dramatic situations. Some reviewers insist that it is too fast, but that’s a simplistic opinion. Those tempi are right for all the numbers, sometimes illuminatingly so, but not necessarily right for the forces involved. Although it is refreshing that woodwind has such prominence and are played with such sense of humour (the continuo fortepiano as well) articulation should be clearer (especially strings) IN THESE TEMPI. Also, the recorded sound lacks some intimacy and maybe has something to do with the lack of clarity in faster passages. The cast is entirely made of accomplished singers with nice voices, but personality is not there all the time. Regina Schörg’s voice lacks the last degree of individuality, especially in top notes, but she has considerable resources – good low notes, decent coloratura, some trills and a good notion of Mozartian style. She also is a bit inexpressive, although she is elegant most of the time. Heidi Brunner is my favourite member of the cast – her bright and warm voice goes with flowing phrasing and charm. Birgid Steinberger is very vivid as Despina, but the voice is far from charming. Jeffrey Francis is reliable as usual as Ferrando, but the voice is less beautiful than it uses to be. It lacks naturalness, especially in top notes and he is not very subtle – sometimes it seems as if he was singing Rossini here. Martin Gantner’s case is similar to the Despina’s – maybe if the tonal quality were a bit richter, he would have caused a better impression. Last but not least, Kwangchul Youn has an attractive voice and some verve. The recitatives are done with animation, but the sound effects (including “sea”, “cheerful company”, “birdsong” etc) are kitsch.

RENÉ JACOBS, 1998
Véronique Gens (Fiordiligi), Bernarda Fink (Dorbaella), Graciela Oddone (Despina), Werner Güra (Ferrando), Marcel Boone (Guglielmo), Pietro Spagnoli (Alfonso), Collegium Vocale Gent, Concerto Köln, René Jacobs

Although I certainly agree with René Jacobs’s opinion on the importance of baroque Italian opera for the understanding of Mozart Da Ponte operas, Jacobs’s concept is so exaggeratedly underlined that his performance finally seems rather a collection of parts than a coherent whole – just compare it with Arnold Östman’s CDs to see the concept more convincingly put into practice. First of all, the orchestral sound is oddly balance: brass and drums have such pride of place that one cannot often clearly hear the violins, not to mention some disconcerting harmonic effects. Then there is the fussing with tempo. For instance, Ah, guarda sorella starts with no charm at all, heavy and slow and then we have singers caught by their necks for a supersonically fast Ah questo mio core mai cangia desio. Also Sento, o Dio is whimsically hurried and slowed down in a way that really would make sense in Cavalli, but simply ruins the rhythmic pulse of a Mozartian piece. Jacobs also explains in the booklet about how legato was not as valued in Mozart’s time as it is today – but I wonder if this is the reason why some chords are simply jerked one after the other to mark a point that a more balanced orchestra would have done more effectively.  Maybe the problem is that the point of view is rather germanic – it lacks some Mediterranean tinta, the sensuous charm the work cries for. It is rather Delft than Naples that we see here. One must nonetheless recognize that the level of clarity in ensembles is impressive. Véronique Gens is an appealing warm-toned Fiordiligi, who phrases expressively and and shows absolutely no effort to accomplish Mozart’s most difficult demands. Werner Güra has a most pleasing natural tenor and sings with consistent good taste, imagination and ease – he only lacks a bit brightness in his top notes. Bernarda Fink and Marcel Boone are very accomplished as Dorabella and Ferrando – she is particularly successful with mezzo carattere, sounding alternately sensuous and funny. Graciela Oddone has a charming voice, used with intelligence and verve. Only she tries too hard to be funny as Despina. Pietro Spagnoli is an accomplished Don Alfonso – younger and more positive than most. The whole team produces marvellous recitative, imaginatively accompanied by Nicolau de Figueiredo on the fortepiano.

RICCARDO MUTI, 1996

SIMON RATTLE, 1995
Hillevi Martinpelto (Fiordiligi), Alison Hagley (Dorabella), Ann Murray (Despina), Kurt Streit (Ferrando), Gerald Finlay (Guglielmo), Thomas Allen (Alfonso), Orchestra of the Age of Enlightment, Simon Rattle

Although the booklet informs us that Simon Rattle’s live recording of Così fan tutte is linked to staged performances, the truth is that some four years separate the staged performances in Glyndenbourne from the concert in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall captured by EMI’s microphones. The years have not erased the sense of theatre, though. Rattle’s Così is animated and intelligent. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is in great shape, offering rich and transparent orchestral sound. The individual members of the cast have strong competition to deal with, but work beautifully as a team. More than that – their spontaneous and musicianly way with the score is most commendable. I like the fact that Hillevi Martinpelto’s Fiordiligi is undemonstrative and hence she sounds more believable than most her rivals. The only remaining singer from Glyndebourne is Kurt Streit. His vocal production lacks here some purity in high notes, but he is always a stylish and imaginative singer. Gerland Finley is a superlative firm-toned and elegant Guglielmo. Fortunately, he is granted Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo in appendix (making this more than a complete edition). Ann Murray is an earthy Despina, her vibrant mezzo making for a more mature character than usual. Thomas Allen lacks some space in the lower reachers, but that is a minor flaw in a witty and charming performance. Unfortunately, Alison Hagley forces her light soprano too often for comfort as Dorabella.

JEAN-CLAUDE MALGOIRE, 1995
Sophie Fournier (Fiordiligi), Laura Polverelli (Dorabella), Sophie Marin-Degor (Despina), Simon Edwards (Ferrando), Nicolas Rivenq (Dorabella), Patrick Donelly (Alfonso), La Grande Ecurie et la Chambre du Roy, Jean-Claude Malgoire

Jean-Claude Malgoire offers an intimate performance with corresponding close recording, in a context similar to Kuijken’s, but his understanding of Mozartian tempi, phrasing and structure are far superior to the Belgian conductor’s. Malgoire masters the art of organizing each number of the score in a way that it will be crystal clear, singable and beautifully played. How many conductors could boast that? Also, the slightly rough-edged orchestral sound helps to add some zest and, if you are not allergic to historically informed performance, this might be a recording to figure in your collection. The cast has no outstanding performance, but works beautifully as a team. Sophie Fournier’s blond soprano encompasses Fiordiligi’s impossible tessitura better than most and she is an engaged expressive singer. Florid passages are not her forte, but she always offers something musical and charming. On the other hand, Laura Polverelli’s flexible sexy mezzo is entirely at ease in the role of Dorabella, and together with the congenial smooth-toned French baritone Nicolas Rivenq tends to steal the show. Sophie Marin Degor fruity light soprano is a delight to the ears, but she could be a bit more teazing. Her recitatives lack some zest too. Simon Edwards has a pleasant round-toned tenor, but lets too many opportunities go. His lackadaisical Un’aura amorosa is the most notable example. Patrick Donelly is certainly spirited as Don Alfonso, but he is a rather a singing actor who makes do in high notes and other difficulties. The edition here adopted has some excentricities, such as the internal cut in the finale ultimo and the option for the longer aria for Guglielmo in act I, while the duettino Al fato da legge and Ferrando’s Ah, lo vegg’io are simply wiped out of the score.

GEORG SOLTI, 1994
Renée Fleming (Fiordiligi), Anne Sofie von Otter (Dorabella), Adelina Scarabelli (Despina), Frank Lopardo (Ferrando), Olaf Bär (Guglielmo), Michele Pertusi (Alfonso), London Voices, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Georg Solti

One of Georg Solti’s greatest qualities was his constant development as a musician and his second recordings are almost always improvements on the first ones. This is the case here. Not only did he learn to relax more but also absorbed some good ideas about period practices. His conducting is very energetic and purposeful and his orchestra is one of the best. The cast was supposed to be the best possible in the time of recordings, but I have my doubts. Renée Fleming is constantly giving the impression of adapting herself into a Mozartian soprano, with varied levels of success. Not amazingly, she works better when the demands on her are more extreme and, even if I would not pick her arias as examples of how one should sing Mozart, both of them are most capably sung. Frank Lopardo’s performance could be described in the same way, except for the fact that his voice is not pleasant as Fleming’s. Even tough Anne Sofie von Otter and Olaf Bär are stylish Mozartians, they were clearly not in their best voices when they recorded it. Adelina Scarabelli is actually the most satisfying singer in the cast, her bright-toned soprano and her native Italian being strong assets. Michele Pertusi also takes profit of being Italian and is entirely at ease in his recitatives. He is also in firm voice. The recorded sound is excellent.

CHARLES MACKERRAS, 1993
Felicity Lott (Fiordiligi), Marie McLaughlin (Dorabella), Nuccia Focile (Despina), Jerry Hadley (Ferrando), Alessandro Corbelli (Guglielmo), Gilles Cachemaille (Alfonso), Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Chorus, Charles Mackerras

Charles Mackerras is an experient Mozartian who achieves absolute structural clarity in the context of forward movement and animation. His orchestra plays expertly and affectingly and is warmly recorded. In spite of Felicity Lott’s musicianship and insight, the role is impossibly heavy for her delicate soprano. Marie McLaughlin is vocally reliable but too austere a Dorabella. Nuccia Focile is rough-toned as Despina. If Jerry Hadley is capable of honeyed tone, Mozartian style is something he does not master entirely.Both Alessandro Corbelli and Gilles Cachemaille are competent Gugliemo and Alfonso.

JOHN ELIOT GARDINER, 1992
Amanda Roocroft (Fiordiligi), Rosa Mannion (Dorabella), Eirian James (Despina), Rainer Trost (Ferrando), Rodney Gilfry (Guglielmo), Carlos Feller (Alfonso), The Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Elliot Gardiner

John Eliot Gardiner’s recording was made live in a run of live performances. There is a good amount of stage noises and applauses, but this is not obtrusive. Actually, the theatrical experience only helps the distinguished cast gathered here – one of the strongest in the discography. First of all, Amanda Roocroft and Rosa Mannion are probably the best Fiordiligi/Dorabella team around – nobody rivals them in the sustained pianissimi in their opening number. Although they are both sopranos, the tones are nicely contrasted, but also blend beautifully. Amanda Roocroft’s mezzo-ish voice in not immediately beautiful, but takes splendidly to the virtuosistic demands. Her two arias are sung with outstanding accuracy. Also, she is very vivid in her recitatives and offers an interpretation in the great manner. Rosa Mannion’s Dorabella is sung in brighter tones, but deals very well with lower notes. She is also charming and spirited. Eirian James’s mezzo is bright and sexy enough for Despina. Rainer Trost’s light tenor cuts very well in the more outspoken moments and he is stylish and sensitive all the way, offering fully satisfying accounts of his arias (including Ah, lo vegg’io – this is the complete edition), all of them sung in firm and sweet tone. Rodney Gilfry is a high baritone Guglielmo who phrases beautifully and has the necessary charisma. Carlos Feller is a solid and animated Alfonso, here less fresh than for Östman. Gardiner offers an animated and theatrical performance, full of intelligent and imaginative pieces of phrasing. However, his orchestra tends to be monochromatic, although much of the playing in period instruments is very much alert. The video is taken from a different performance, where Claudio Nicolai offers a rather woolly-sounding Alfonso. Also, the stage direction is really charming and funny – and the whole cast has physique de rôle. Finally, those who have only the CDs need to know that, because of the staging, Dorabella sings some of Fiordiligi’s lines and that the notary is actually sung by a tenor dubbing Despina on stage.

SIGISWALD KUIJKEN, 1992
Soile Isokoski (Fiordiligi), Monica Groop (Dorabella), Nancy Argenta (Despina), Markus Schäffer (Ferrando), Per Vollerstad (Guglielmo), Hubert Claessens (Alfonso), La Petite Bande, Sigiswald Kuijken

Sigiswald Kuijken offers an animated performance recorded live in Budapest. Although his tempi are consistently fast, this is always put in perspective by the concern with clear and articulate phrasing. It is also remarkable the way the orchestra mirrors the stage events in what regards both tempo and accents. Another remarkable feature is the omnipresence of the harpsichord, particularly in the most outspoken moments, where it adds some zest to the Petite Bande’s energetic playing. The cast is fresh-voiced and responds vividly to recitatives. Soile Isokoski is an utterly musicianly Fiordiligi who sails through her role with complete nonchalance. Some may point out that her voice is not really substantial or varied (sometimes she gives the impression of being in permanent mezza voce), but the flute-like tone and technical fluency are admirable nonetheless. Monica Groop is a clear toned Dorabella whose mezzo blends beautifully with Isokoski’s soprano, but she could be a bit more saucy. It is true that Nancy Argenta’s soprano lacks low resonance and is on the tiny side, but the very brightness of her voice helps her out in the ensembles – not to mention that her inspired and intelligent interpretation is top class. It is also admirable the way how Markus Schäffer adapted his Peter Schreier-like tenor to a more Italianate sound, what makes him an ardent Ferrando, albeit not an entirely ingratiating one. Per Vollerstad is a bit dry-voiced as Guglielmo and Huub Claessens is, as usual, white-toned as Don Alfonso. The recorded sound is immediate and natural, but – at least on my speakers – there may be some distortions when sopranos sing high notes together.

NIKOLAUS HARNONCOURT, 1991
Charlotte Margiono (Fiordiligi), Delores Ziegler (Dorabella), Anna Steiger (Despina), Deon van der Walt (Ferrando), Gilles Cachemaille (Guglielmo), Thomas Hampson (Alfonso), Nederlands Operakoor, Concertgebouw Orkest, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s studio performance with the Concertgebouw is a strange affair – in some ways, it is more unconvincing than his video with the Vienna Philharmonic. First of all, it is rather unsmiling and and some numbers are really slow. Most of Harnoncourt’s interpretative points are artifficially “inserted” rather than naturally performed – naturally, lots of interesting details come to the fore, as if it was Così through a magnifying glass. However, a good deal of this is just whim, such as the ritt. and acc. in Una donna a quindici anni. Also, the tempi tend to be unflowing and, on stopping at each of Harnoncourt’s “finds”, overall structural sense is lost most of the time. The recorded sound also lacks some intimacy. Charlotte Margiono’s smoky soprano deals rather well with the difficulties of Fiordiligi, especially in Per Pietà, where Harnoncourt’s treatmenf of the recitative is dramatically handled. Delores Ziegler is, as always, a most successful Dorabella, but Anna Steiger is on the metallic sind. On the other hand, Deon van der Walt is a light and stylish Ferrando – a beautiful performance. Gilles Cachemaille is a capable Guglielmo, and Thomas Hampson, in spite of his affectation, offers a youthful Alfonso.

GUSTAV KUHN, 1990
Anna Caterina Antonacci (Fiordiligi), Monica Bacelli (Dorabella), Laura Cherici (Despina), Richard Decker (Ferrando), Albert Dohmen (Guglielmo), Sesto Bruscantini (Alfonso), Coro Lirico Marchigiano, Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana, Gustav Kuhn

Recorded live in Macerata in 1991, Gustav Kuhn’s Così cannot help sounding more attractive these days than at the time it was released, because the young cast then gathered features names that would be widely known later, especially the performance’s prima donna. Back then, Anna Caterina Antonacci was still in her early soprano career (she would soon convert into a mezzo and some ten years later back to soprano). Although she did not feature the command of her recent Mozart performances, the truth is also that her younger self had a far lovelier voice than she has today. I should clarify my opinion: the part is a bit high for her and sometimes she needs an extra breath or to abandon the text to accomodate that (particularly in the end of Per pietà), but in spite of all that I find her performance irresistible. Here her voice is bright and warm, rich and focused, firm and flexible – there is a pleasantly bitter aftertaste to the sweetness, a fierce temper made smooth by discipline – the very sound of this voice tells you everything you need to know about Fiordiligi. To make things better, she sings with unfailing sense of style, manages the shifting into low register as few other singers in this role and has a natural talent for accurate legato-ish coloratura. Next to her, Monica Bacelli’s matte mezzo-soprano goes almost unnoticed, but she too is a stylish and technically accomplished Mozartian. Although Laura Cherici’s bright soprano is taylor-made for Despina, one cannot help feeling that there is something missing here – her native Italian is clear, but there is little spirit behind her idiomatic pronunciation. Predictably, she is ill-at-ease in the disguise episodes as the doctor and the notary. Richard Decker is a reliable Ferrando, even if his tenor thins out at the top and disappears in ensemble. That does not prevent him from making a fair stab in Ah, lo vegg’io. I have to confess that I find it amazing that an undernourished Mozartian would venture into singing roles such as Lohengrin and Tristan (also in an undernourished way, of course). The same comment does not apply to the performance’s Guglielmo, Albert Dohmen, better know for his later Wagnerian roles. Here his forceful bass-baritone is fresh-toned and pliant. There are moments when he forces his tone for effect (such as in Donne mie), though. Sesto Bruscantini’s casting as Don Alfonso at that stage of his life was more emblematic than functional, more like a symbol of the Festival’s attempt to prove that Italy could claim a place in the field of Mozartian opera production. An experienced singer, he knows how to make the best of parlando effects and to save his energy for the rare moments when he does have to sing out. Although Gustav Kuhn does not have any new idea that would justify the purchase of another Così, this Austrian conductor must be praised for his clarity of purpose. I cannot avoid using the word “organized” to describe his conducting – the proceedings are always clean, clear, well-articulated and natural. The orchestral playing is not terribly beautiful, but there is not one note in the score you cannot hear. Also, the clarity of ensembles is impressive. Of course, the Tonmeister has lots to do with it – the orchestra and singers on stage are impressively clearly recorded. There is some stage noise and applause (not in annoying levels) and singers off-mike, but that rarely stands in the way in key moments.

JOHANNES WILDNER, 1990
Joanna Borowska (Fiordiligi), Rohangiz Yachmi (Dorabella), Priti Coles (Despina), John Dickie (Ferrando), Andrea Martin (Guglielmo), Piter Mikulas (Alfonso), Capella Istropolitana, Johannes Wildner

Although Johannes Wildner’s recording on Naxos is offered in budget price, saving a few more bucks for a competitive recording is advisable. The orchestral playing is unimpressive, the conducting is heavy, the phrasing is unclear, the acoustics are too reverberant… it has very little to do with Mozart. Joanna Borowska’s creamy soprano is functional for Fiordiligi, but her passagework should be more precise. Rohangiz Yachmi’s mezzo is rather veiled and acquires a metallic edge in the high register. Priti Coles is a decent Despina – nothing more. John Dickie really has easy top notes and sings all Ferrando arias (this is a complete edition), but his upper range can become nasal or pinched and his styles suggests rather Donizetti than Mozart, especially when he rolls his r’s exaggeratedly now and then. Andrea Martin is a solid Guglielmo, but Peter Mikulas is unsteady and has sketchy Italian.

NEVILLE MARRINER, 1989
Karita Mattila (Fiordiligi), Anne Sofie von Otter (Dorabella), Elzbieta Szmytka (Despina), Francisco Araiza (Ferrando), Thomas Allen (Guglielmo), José van Dam (Alfonso), Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields, Neville Marriner

Recorded in crystal-clear sound, Neville Marriner’s performance displays absolute transparence and immediacy. The first impression is positive in its polish and graciousness, but after a while the prettiness seems to be all about it. Although there is nothing heavy in the playing of the orchestra of Saint-Martin-in-the-Fields, the lack of dramatic point and zest in the conducting makes one feel that things could use a bit more animation. Luckily there is a glamourous cast to save the day, even if the Fiordiligi seems affected by the general blandness. Maybe the fact of being uncomfortable while recording in the studio with tracked-in partners (as she has complained in an interview) has something to do with her absentmindness, for this is probably Karita Mattila’s less exciting performance. Of course her voice is the irresistible lush flexible soprano we are used to admire and she deals with the intricacies of her part with relative ease, but the whole affair sounds too uneventful nonetheless. On the other hand, Anne Sofie von Otter is an entirely successful Dorabella. Her mezzo soprano is at its prime and her unexaggerated but spirited performance is altogether exemplary. The same cannot be said of Elzbieta Szmytka, whose lack of familiarity with Italian language results in a generic performance, even if her voice has the right kind of sparkle for this role. Francisco Araiza is again a model Ferrando, here more positively recorded than for Muti (see below). Thomas Allen is also a young-sounding commanding Guglielmo and José van Dam is here a witty Alfonso, far more spontaneous and varied than in Salzburg.

DANIEL BARENBOIM, 1989
Lella Cuberli (Fiordiligi), Cecilia Bartoli (Dorabella), Joan Rodgers (Despina), Kurt Streit (Ferrando), Ferruccio Furlanetto (Guglielmo), John Tomlinson (Alfonso), RIAS Kammerchor, Berliner Philharmoniker, Daniel Barenboim

Daniel Barenboim’s Così with the Berlin Philharmonic is not as helplessely heavy as his Don Giovanni. Sometimes, when the primary concern with rich orchestral sounds is put aside, as in Alla bella Despinetta, one can perceive a stylish performance in the distance, but the proceedings generally lack forward movement and lightness. The Philharmonic is clearly recorded with singers in natural perspective – it is only a pity that the edition has not only the “Ferrando” cuts, but also an unforgivable excision in the finale ultimo. Lella Cuberli has all the elements of a great Fiordiligi – rich top notes, a good low register, creamy pianissimi and flexibility – but at moments she finds it a bit difficult to handle all that at the same time, such as in the stretta of Come scoglio, here accomplished rather out of panache than from technical security. The 23-year-old Cecilia Bartoli offers an all-round perfect Dorabella, one of the very best in the discography, and Joan Rodgers is a sprightly clear-toned Despina. Kurt Streit’s light stylish Ferrando does not blend well with Ferruccio Furlanetto’s rather heavy Guglielmo. John Tomlinson is hardly lightweight himself, but he is more sensitive to the necessity of scaling down in ensemble (notably so in Soave sia il vento).

RICCARDO MUTI, 1989
Daniella Dessì (Fiordiligi), Delores Ziegler (Dorabella), Adelina Scarabelli (Despina), Josef Kundlak (Ferrando), Alessandro Corbelli (Guglielmo), Claudio Desderi (Alfonso), Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala, Milano, Riccardo Muti

Riccardo Muti’s second attempt at Così, caught live on video in Milan, is a pleasent entry in the discohraphy, his superb rhythmic and structural sense benefit from natural perspective and adept playing of La Scala’s orchestra. Daniella Dessì is a commendable Fiordiligi, Delores Ziegler and Adelina Scarabelli are faultless and stylish as Dorabella and Despina and Josef Kundlak, although he’s not really creative, is most reliable, while Alessandro Corbelli is an idiomatic and vivacious Guglielmo, in spite of an uninteresting voice. It is a pity that Claudio Desderi is more inclined to speaking than truly singing his lines. Michael Hampe’s staging is traditional, insisting on pale colours and unfussed acting. Although nothing exceptional happens, it is quite likable and elegant. Also, the singers have proper physique for their roles, especially the young Dessì, who makes a charming couple with Kundlak.

NIKOLAUS HARNONCOURT, 1988
Edita Gruberová (Fiordiligi), Delores Ziegler (Dorabella), Teresa Stratas (Despina), Luís Lima (Ferrando), Ferruccio Furlanetto (Guglielmo), Paolo Montarsolo (Alfonso), Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Besides the fact that Jean-Pierre Ponelle’s film looks kitsch to modern audiences and suffers from some serious misconception, the performance under Nikolaus Harnoncourt per se lacks forward movement and ultimately conviction. It also has unforgivable cuts. The shining feature of the film is Edita Gruberová’s exemplary Fiordiligi, one of the best in the discography. Delores Ziegler and Ferruccio Furlanetto are also most engaging, but Teresa Stratas is not entirely comfortable and Paolo Montarsolo is well past his prime. As to Luís Lima, he is so foreign to Mozartian style that one does not really regret the cuts in the part of Ferrando.

JAMES LEVINE, 1988
Kiri Te Kanawa (Fiordiligi), Ann Murray (Dorabella), Marie MacLaughlin (Despina), Hans-Peter Blochwitz (Ferrando), Thomas Hampson (Guglielmo), Ferruccio Furlanetto (Alfonso), Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, James Levine

James Levine’s Vienna performance is a weird affair. My “in a nutshell” comment would be “not bad”, but I think that this deserves to be explained, considering the forces involved in this recording. First of all, the recorded sound is very weird – singers and orchestra seem to be in different acoustics and singers have a clear advantage all the time. Also, although strings are clearly recorded, woodwind are too backward. However, the vertical clarity in ensembles, probably due to the unnatural recording, is simply miraculous. Recitatives are a bit eccentric – the fortepiano continuo sounds more Donizetti than Mozart – and they do not often connect with the ensuing numbers. Levine was not in very good hand when he recorded it – sometimes it is too heavy – and clearly allows the singers to do whatever they want. The tempi are natural and flowing, but you often feel that the bond which unavoidably leeds note “a” to note “b” is not always there. I cannot decide what I should say of Kiri Te Kanawa’s Fiordiligi. Interpretatively, it is quite tame and she is careless in some key moments – for example, she is completely out of balance in Soave sia il vento (while Ferruccio Furlanetto and Ann Murray are perfectly blended in mezza voce). However, she is in creamy voice and deals beautifully with Come Scoglio and Fra gli amplessi. In Per pietà, she is a bit unconcerned. Once there, her coloratura and trills are quite appealing. Ann Murray’s tone spreads whenever she sings from mezzo forte on, but she’s 100% inside her role and particularly seductive in her duet with Guglielmo. Marie MacLaughlin is an excellent Despina – in pretty voice and really funny without resorting to tricks. Hans-Peter Blochwitz has sketchy Italian and is too modest for the scale of this performance. However, he is a creative and sensitive artist and does beautiful things now and then. His lightness and elegance in Ah, lo vegg’io is even admirable. Thomas Hampson and Ferruccio Furlanetto are both in unfocused voice and rather exaggerated in expression.

BERNARD HAITINK, 1986
Carol Vaness (Fiordiligi), Delores Ziegler (Dorabella), Lilian Watson (Despina), John Aler (Ferrando), Dale Duesing (Guglielmo), Claudio Desderi (Guglielmo), Claudio Desderi (Alfonso), Glyndenbourne Festival Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernard Haitink

Bernard Haitink’s performance, based on live performances at Glyndenbroune, is essentially an affair of polish and elegance. The rich orchestral sound, the rather slow a tempo approach, the clearly articulate phrasing, the search of a gentle immaculate building makes me think of a musicbox ballerina: it certainly has a certain outdated charm and poise, but cannot avoid a mechanical unfeeling quality. The stage feel seems to have survived almost entirely in the recitatives, done in idiomatic Italian and with feeling for words, albeit the pace is rather calculated even then. Those who have a nostalgia for the old way of playing Mozart will certainly enjoy this performance; those used to more animated and theatrical Mozart will delight in the scrumptious crystal clear delicacy (aided by transparent recording) of numbers such as Soave sia il vento, but may eventually meet with a certain sensation of sameness and dramatic shallowness. The cast achieves marvelous team work and is entirely consistent with the smoothness of Haitink’s approach. In fresh voice, Carol Vaness is a deluxe Fiordiligi, leading her sumptuous appealing soprano with refinement and virtuoso quality. Delores Ziegler’s bright fruity mezzo-soprano is musicianly and charming. Sometimes their voices sound quite similar, but that only reinforces the point that Fiordiligi and Dorabella are sisters. Lilian Watson is a vivacious quicksilvery Despina. John Aler’s golden-toned flexible Ferrando is a constant source of pleasure. Dale Duesing is also a pleasing Guglielmo, if not necessarily rich in tone. Claudio Desderi is a superior Alfonso who sings his line as admirably as he deals with his recitatives. The text is complete, what allows us to listen to Aler’s beautiful account of Ah, lo vegg’io.

ARNOLD ÖSTMAN, 1984
Rachel Yakar (Fiordiligi), Alicia Nafé (Dorabella), Georgine Resick (Despina), Gösta Winbergh (Ferrando), Tom Krause (Guglielmo), Carlos Feller (Alfonso), Drottningholm Court Theatre Chorus and Orchestra, Arnold Östman

Arnold Östman introduced Così to period instruments. The orchestra he is using here is the Drottningholm only in name – a great of the musicians are English specialists – and maybe that is why it has the best orchestral playing in the series. Also, it benefits from the best recorded sound. The Swedish conductor is an absolute master in Mozartian phrasing and, even when it sounds a bit eccentric, a second look will show that he has a point. I only wish he could relax a bit more in moments such as Ah, guarda, sorella. The cast is a good one. Rachel Yakar is a bright-toned and technically fluent Fiordiligi, which is consistently pleasing with the exception of the occasional explosive top note. Alicia Nafé is an engaging Dorabella and Georgine Resick is an unexaggerated and charming Despina. Gösta Winbergh is in good voice for Ferrando and both basses are very nice too. There is a vivid sense of theatre here – Yakar and Nafé deserve special compliment for the understanding of their characters.

RICCARDO MUTI, 1982
Margaret Marshall (Fiordiligi), Agnes Baltsa (Dorabella), Kathleen Battle (Despina), Francisco Araiza (Ferrando), James Morris (Guglielmo), José van Dam (Alfonso), Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Riccardo Muti

Riccardo Muti’s performances in Salzburg could have been an easy recommendation, if the cast were more homogeneous and the recorded sound more immediate and less noisy. The obvious detail is that Agnes Baltsa and James Morris are too big voiced for this company – even if their singing per se is accomplished and reasonably stylish. Their duet, where they are alone at last, is really sexy. Margaret Marshall is a hard-working but competent Fiordiligi, Kathleen Battle is her charming self as Despina and Francisco Araiza is again a model of Mozart singing. Although he is an exemplary Mozartian singer, José Van Dam is too phlegmatic an Alfonso.

WOLFGANG SAWALLISCH, 1978
Margaret Price (Fiordiligi), Brigitte Fassbaender (Dorabella), Reri Grist (Despina), Peter Schreier (Ferrando), Wolfgang Brendel (Guglielmo), Theo Adam (Alfonso), Chor und Orchester der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Wolfgang Sawallisch

Roughly half the cast of Böhm’s anniversary performance (see below) could be found live in Munich in 1978. I would say in better circumstances, since Sawallisch proves to have a good ear for Mozartian rhythms. Although his conducting still involves too plush an orchestral sound and the “heavenly Mozart” approach, the sense of forward movement, clarity and intelligence of phrasing are indeed admirable. Moreover, the recorded sound (at least on Golden Melodram) is very good. For Margaret Price’s fans, this is an opportunity to listen to her Fiordiligi in a less arthritic event than Klemperer’s EMI recording. Her at once full- and pure-toned singing fits perfectly her role, and her stylishness and theatrical alertness are as always most welcome. Although there is some aspiration in her runs and her Per pietà lacks intimacy, one would hardly find such an accomplished rendition of this difficult role live as this one. As for Brigitte Fassbaender and Reri Grist, the same observations related to their Böhm performance apply here. On the other hand, Peter Schreier is more inclined to sing this time. He even has some endearing moments in Un’aura amorosa. However, when things get too emotional, he sounds like Jerry Lewis. Although this is a favourite singer, his Ferrando is definitely far from appealing. More so next to the honeyed Guglielmo of Wolfgang Brendel. His second aria is probably the highlight in this recording. As for Theo Adam, although he is more ready to sing Don Alfonso’s lines than most rivals, he is desperatley unidiomatic. Fassbaender, Schreier and Grist are not the only import from Salzburg – the edition reducing the parts of Dorabella and Ferrando to one aria each, plus the internal cuts in Fra gli amplessi and the finale ultimo, among other things – is also used here.

COLIN DAVIS, 1974
Montserrat Caballé (Fiordiligi), Janet Baker (Dorabella), Ileana Cotrubas (Despina), Nicolai Gedda (Ferrando), Wladimiro Ganzarolli (Guglielmo), Richard van Allan (Alfonso), Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Colin Davis

Colin Davis’s Così stands out among his other Mozart recordings, because of its surpassing level of clarity and theatrical sense. Considering the names invited for the cast, it is particularly admirable that he was able to make a team out of these singers, who produce wonderful ensembles and recitatives. The most accomplished member of the cast is Ileana Cotrubas, my favourite Despina – characterful, but always beautiful to the ears. One can understand the success of Montserrat Caballé’s Fiordiligi when one reads how carefully she prepared herself to the task. As a matter of fact, she was terribly afraid of being unstylish – but she did not have to worry that much, for her Fiordiligi is a superb piece of singing and interpretation. Let’s start with the minus – the strette of Come Scoglio and Per Pietà: she lacks the homogeneity of registers in the first and the trills in the later. The rest is wonderful throughout. Hers is a remarkable Fiordiligi and the famous legato, pianissimi and flexibility are all to the advantage of her performance. She also captures as few other sopranos the fact that Fiordiligi is quite exaggerated, snob and emotionally repressed. Her partnership with Nicolai Gedda is remarkable; their duet is one of the most moving in the discography. It is indeed a pity he was not in his freshest voice, even if one must acknowledge his remarkable sensitivity and flexibility. Janet Baker’s idiosyncratic voice does not immediately sound like Dorabella, but she establishes a nice competition with Caballé: their duets have this “look, my pianissimo is better than yours” atmosphere…. Wladimiro Ganzarolli is below standard, but the very much criticized Richard Van Allan sounds witty and charming to my ears.

KARL BÖHM, 1974
Gundula Janowitz (Fiordiligi), Brigitte Fassbaender (Dorabella), Reri Grist (Despina), Peter Schreier (Ferrando), Hermann Prey (Guglielmo), Rolando Panerai (Alfonso), Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Karl Böhm

Twelves years after his studio recording for EMI, Karl Böhm re-recorded the opera, now under familiar circumstances – more than that: in his 80th birthday celebration in Salzburg. This was a veteran production in the festival – one with very few cast changes during the years – only Dorabella and Alfonso had different singers. This long-time collaboration was most positive to Böhm. It has an admirable sense of comedy and one may almost “see” the stage action in some moments, so integrated the gestures are in this musical performance. Of course, in many moments, the tempi are still heavy (especially in the overture), but one can feel that the heaviness is used with the dramatic purpose of “mocking” – as parodies of opera seria situations. Even if the results are not always satisying, the point is effectively taken. The recorded sound is excellent and the Vienna Philharmonic articulates beautifully. In what refers to the cast, the long experience with the production is not always helpful – some of their “gestures”  lost the naturalness over the years, but no-one could deny it is a distinguished team assembled here. Although Gundula Janowitz was utterly stylish in this repertoire, the role of Fiordiligi requires a soprano more agile than hers. However, differently from Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (see below), Janowitz really took seriously the challenge and, even if one can feel how difficult the strette of her arias are, she convinces us with her determination to do it right. Also, her purity of tone, crystalline pianissimi and nobility of phrasing are always welcome. I am not so convinced about Brigitte Fassbaender’s blustery Dorabella. I find her a bit broad in her sense of humour and lacking finish in this repertoire. Her second aria was cut. If you are ready to endure Reri Grist’s metallic and nasal Despina, she is not that bad – her trills in In uomini, for example, are really accomplished. Peter Schreier’s tenor is at his driest and too often he resorts to comic effects, which, in his case, sound as if Ferrando desguised as a Nibelung instead of Turk. He only sings one aria -Un’aura amorosa. However, although I understand he would be awkward in Fra gli amplessi, the internal cuts (also in the finale ultimo) in the duet are regrettable because of Janowitz, who would have sung it beautifully. Hermann Prey is, above all, a congenial singer – especially in Mozart and it is endearing to sample his congenial Guglielmo once again. Rolando Panerai was not in his best voice and is too free about pitch, but his spontaneity is an asset for Alfonso.

GEORG SOLTI, 1974
Pilar Lorengar (Fiordiligi), Teresa Berganza (Dorabella), Jane Berbié (Despina), Ryland Davies (Ferrando), Tom Krause (Guglielmo), Gabriel Bacquier (Alfonso), Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Georg Solti

Georg Solti’s first Così would be the kind of recording everybody would be thankful for if it were the only recorded performance of an opera: it is a very decent affair and faithful to Mozart’s and da Ponte’s intents. However, there is strong competition all the way. First of all, in spite of an indifferent orchestra, Solti’s reading operates within the limits of Mozartian style and is lively enough. The recorded sound is rather lacking in atmosphere, but there is nothing heavy and unsmiling going on here. Although only Teresa Berganza is really memorable from the vocal point of view, everybody in the cast is aware of the dramatic situations and there is a real sense of team going on here, probably because this recording was connected to stage performances in London. Once one overlooks the fact that Pilar Lorengar’s vocal production – overvibrant in a rather out-of-fashion way – is unsuited to Mozart, there is much to commend in her performance, particularly the fact that she seems untroubled by the vocal demands of the role. Her trills, coloratura and low register are up to all those tasks. Interpretatively, she is very subtle and portrays an artless honest young Neapolitan lady in a believable way. Berganza is also a subtle Dorabella, but her performance is far more alluring than Lorengar’s. As Depina, Jane Berbié does not count with a remarkable voice, but she is funny in a pleasantly natural way. Ryland Davies’s tenor is similarly unexceptional, but the tone is agreeable and he is reliable, stylish and commited throughout – there are no cuts here and his Ah, lo vegg’io is cleanly done. Tom Krause is also an accomplished Guglielmo who never misses an interpretative point. Gabriel Bacquier has the personality required for Don Alfonso.

KARL BÖHM, 1969
Gundula Janowitz (Fiordiligi), Christa Ludwig (Dorabella), Olivera Miljakovic (Despina), Luigi Alva (Ferrando), Hermann Prey (Guglielmo), Walter Berry (Alfonso), Wiener Philharmonia Chor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Karl Böhm

Although Vaclav Kaslik’s film is the dictionary definition of kitsch, the attempt to overcome that serious drawback will be rewarded by some excellent comic acting by Christa Ludwig, Olivera Miljakovic and, above all, Walter Berry. Other than this, Karl Böhm offers an extremely well balanced and stylish account of the score. Some tempi are again a bit slow for our modern ears, but there is no sense of stagnancy here. On the contrary, the performance flows very naturally and one barely feels its length, especially with the delicious playing of the Vienna Philharmonic. It is only a pity that the then customary cuts have all been applied. Gundula Janowitz is more comfortable in the studio than live – if you want to sample her Fiordiligi, this is the recording you should check. Christa Ludwig would be an ideal Dorabella, if her Italian was a bit less accented. Olivera Miljakovic has an old-fashioned approach for Despina, but her basic tonal quality is pleasant enough. Although Luigi Alva has offered more affecting performances elsewhere, the naturalness of his upper register is extremely welcome. Hermann Prey is again a most winsome Guglielmo, but it is Walter Berry’s masterly Don Alfonso that makes this performance special – his understanding of the text and sense of nuance is truly the hallmark of a great artist.

ERICH LEINSDORF, 1967
Leontyne Price (Fiordiligi), Tatiana Troyanos (Dorabella), Judith Raskin (Despina), George Shirley (Ferrando), Sherrill Milnes (Guglielmo), Ezio Flagello (Alfonso), Ambrosian Opera Chorus, New Philharmonia Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf

Erich Leinsdorf’s is a puzzling recording – when it is good, it is excellent; when it is bad, it is infuriating. To start with, producer Richard Mohr has ensured perfect recorded sound – intimate, crystalline and natural. Rarely has the New Philharmonia played Mozart as stylishly as it does here. In the most playful moments, such as Guglielmo’s Donne mie or Dorabella’s L’amore è un ladroncello, the spirited orchestral playing is exemplary. Problems involve the conductor’s assumption that lyric passages require a more “serious” approach. When this happens, there come unflowing tempi and mechanical phrasing, disfiguring numbers such as Fiordiligi and Ferrando’s Fra gli amplessi. The situation is more serious in the finali, where the shifts in atmosphere often catch the conductor unprepared. Leontyne Price’s richness of tone and the immediate individuality and appeal of her singing are so seductive that one is inclined to overhear the occasional pitch imprecision and – what is most serious – a rebellious low register. On the other hand, even if Tatiana Troyanos does not seem to be having lots of fun, her singing is so disarmingly lovely that one is obliged to recognise her as one of the great Dorabellas in the discography. In her duets with Fiordiligi, her tone blends exquisitely with Price’s – and her duet with Guglielmo is probably one of the sexiest in recordings. It is a pity that someone like Anna Moffo had not been invited to complete this distinguished cast. Judith Raskin’s soprano is a bit acidulous and her whole attitude sounds a bit old-fashioned to modern listeners. As for George Shirley, the brightness, roundness, ease and ductility of his voice are rare qualities in a tenor in this repertoire. He benefits from one of the rare moments when Leinsdorf’s slow tempi are a positive surprise, the aria Ah, lo vegg’io, here more tender and appealing than formidable. He lacks a softer touch for moments like Un’aura amorosa, though. Sherrill Milnes’s generous vocal nature helps him to create the right impetuous and extravagant aural image for the role of Guglielmo, while Ezio Flagello’s chocolate-y bass-baritone may make Don Alfonso sound less fun than usual. Not only is this a complete edition, but all singers venture into decoration.

KARL BÖHM, 1962
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Fiordiligi), Christa Ludwig (Dorabella), Hanny Steffek (Despina), Alfredo Kraus (Ferrando), Giuseppe Taddei (Guglielmo), Walter Berry (Alfonso), Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus, Karl Böhm

Under most curious circumstances, EMI decided to remake this recording on stereo (see below). Karajan was not available anymore, so they produced Dr. Karl Böhm, who had previously released recordings of the work, most notably the Decca 55 with Lisa della Casa (although the live from Vienna with Schwarzkopf is still his most pleasant account). It is a rare occasion not only to hear him recording an opera for EMI, but also an exceptional collaboration with the Philharmonia Orchestra. On listening to this recording, one could guess he felt the odd man out there. Most members of the cast were also new to Böhm, at least in this opera. The result is incredibly impersonal and uninteresting. One hardly recognizes the famous Austrian conductor here – it is bureaucratic and rather heavy. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is a bit more concerned in trying to deal with the intricacies of Fiordiligi here, but now the voice is under less perfect control and she compensates with over-overinflection. If someone wants to sample her Fiordiligi, the Vienna State Opera performance with Böhm is still the one to listen to. Christa Ludwig is the saving grace of the performance – she is in velvety voice and seems to be the only one here concerned with Mozartian style. Hanny Steffek had not been told Così Fan Tutte was not composed by Johann Strauss and Alfredo Kraus was probably convinced that the opera was written by Donizetti. Under these circumstances, it is a blessing that Ah, lo vegg’io was cut. Giuseppe Taddei’s Falstaffian Guglielmo inhabits a world very distant to Mozartian style. As Don Alfonso, Walter Berry avoids these exaggerations and sounds therefore particularly pleasant in this context.

EUGEN JOCHUM, 1962
Irmgard Seefried (Fiordiligi), Nan Merriman (Dorabella), Erika Köth (Despina), Ernst Häfliger (Ferrando), Hermann Prey (Guglielmo), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Alfonso), RIAS Kammerchor, Berliner Philharmoniker, Eugen Jochum

Eugen Jochum’s studio recording for Deutsche Grammophon is an inspired affair: the phrasing is spontaneously intelligent, the Berlin Philharmonic is in splendid shape producing light, clear and articulated sounds, the atmosphere suggests that these singers were having a great time, the crystalline clarity with which complex ensembles are recorded is so admirable, the endearing moments when you discover new details such as the sweet cello phrases in Di scrivermi ogni giorno (that was the first moment when I realized these CDs are indeed special) are so many – all that makes you regret all the more that, with the exception of the baritones, a cast worthy of the conductor and the orchestra could not be found. Of course Irmgard Seefried is a stylish singer with a lovely personality, but even in her prime the role of Fiordiligi was outside her possibilities. It is true that she handles the low tessitura better than many other sopranos, but that’s it – high-lying passages are tense, top notes often abruptly ended, breathy pianissimi abound, trills are entirely absent, passagework generally hinted at, the tone itself is somewhat dry and devoid of sensuousness and cuteness appear now and then. Although she generally blends in discretely in ensembles – believe me – hers is the Come scoglio from hell. After a sample of Seefried, the first note of Nan Merriman’s voice immediately shows she is the playful sister. Her mezzo soprano has the right color for Dorabella, a role she knows from inside out, but she pecks too often at high notes for comfort. Erika Köth’s has more than a splash of those old-style doll sopranos in her and her Italian is definitely transalpine. However, she scores many points on producing the Viennese version of a Mediterranean attitude and convinces you of her Neapolitanity out of sheer animation. Ernst Häfliger’s pronunciation of Italian language also leaves a lot to be desired and his tenor is rather juiceless. One is prepared for the worse when he is about to sing Un’aura amorosa and Tradito, schernito, but he acquits himself commendably in both these arias with his clean gentle phrasing. The saving graces in these cast are, of course, Hermann Prey, probably the best Guglielmo in any set, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, in excellent voice and entirely adept at employing all his interpretative tricks to produce a particularly cynical and scheming Don Alfonso. The edition involves the cut of Al fato da legge and Ah, lo vegg’io.

HERBERT VON KARAJAN, 1954
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Fiordiligi), Nan Merriman (Dorabella), Lisa Otto (Despina), Léopold Simoneau (Ferrando), Rolando Panerai (Guglielmo), Sesto Bruscantini (Alfonso), Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra, Herbert von Karajan

In 1954, Herbert von Karajan’s tempi were plausible for Mozart, but the Philharmonia lacked the fluency of the Vienna Philharmonic in this repertoire. So the kind of natural articulation in fast tempi found in his Zauberflöte and Nozze di Figaro does not appear here. Moreover, there is producer Walter Legge’s perverse influence overall and this accounts for the lack of naturality going on here. Although Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was an acknowledged Mozartian, the role of Fiordiligi surpasses her technical possibilities and she simplifies too often what she has to do instead of really trying. Her temperament is ill-suited to the role. With such an obviously affected and unspontaneous Fiordiligi, no Guglielmo would swear she is a truthful fiancée. Nan Merriman and Lisa Otto are decent but unmemorable Dorabella and Despina. Léopold Simoneau is a sweet-sounding Ferrando – he does not sing Ah, lo vegg’io though. Rolando Panerai and Sesto Bruscantini are reliable Guglielmo and Alfonso, although they indulge in unwelcome funny effects now and then.