Così fan tutte

SEMYON BYCHKOV, 2018
Corinne Winters (Fiordiligi), Angela Brower (Dorabella), Sabina Puértolas (Despina), Daniel Behle (Ferrando), Alessio Arduini (Guglielmo), Johannes Martin Kränzle (Alfonso), Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Semyon Bychokov

In Jan Philipp Gloger’s production for the Royal Opera House, Fiordiligi, Dorabella and their fiancés are watching an opera at… the Royal Opera House, where their friends Don Alfonso and Despina are acting on a play. When the old man makes a bet with his younger friends about the girls’ fidelity, the limits between what is on and off stage are blurred. It is a clever staging with many play-inside-the-play situations to solve the many unlikely turns of the plot. Halfway into act 2, when the story reaches its point of seriousness, the director prefers to entertain the audience than to deal with, but at this point this staging has score more points than most others in a title admittedly hard to stage. The success of Semyon Bychkov’s conducting is related to a series of sensible compromises. The house orchestra is not the most immaculate Mozart ensemble, its strings particularly problematic in what regards accurate passagework. Therefore, the conductor plays safe with regular, almost flowing but still comfortable tempi, no surprises in terms of accelerando or ritardando effects. Clarity is achieved through a very cautious approach to phrasing, you can hear the violins play every single note in runs, one after the other, almost mechanically. Singers are allowed some ornamentation, especially when it’s easier than singing come scritto. Ensembles seem on the verge of going wrong – the impression is not of exhilaration or virtuoso quality, but rather of making do – but you can hear all the notes, the recorded sound is very clear and well-balanced too. Anyone in the theatre would deem this a very good performance of a tricky score. In home listening, one tends to compare every aspect with the very best. It is not fair, but that is why labels do not release every single new production even in major opera houses. Corinne Winters is an above-average Fiordiligi. No matter how difficult the phrase is, she is in charge. When she has to sing forte in the upper side of her range, there is some lack of focus and she swallows a bit her coloratura rather than letting it out, but even then the voice sounds healthy. What she lacks – and she is not alone in that department – is the true Mozart soprano’s ability of making time stop with the sound of their voices. This is rare today, but you just have to scroll down for the likes of Margaret Price or Lucia Popp and you will see what I am talking about. Actually not entirely: Angela Brower’s high, creamy mezzo is tailor-made for the role of Dorabella. Her stylish, glitch-free and utterly musicianly singing makes her one of the best Dorabellas in this discography. And she has a charming stage presence to match too. Sabina Puértolas is a born comedy actress and makes the most of a soprano rather monochrome, unsubstantial in low notes and a bit grating in its higher reaches. Daniel Behle understands what is required from a Mozart tenor in this repertoire and he works hard in order to accomplish that. His Ferrando is, however, more about the mechanics of singing the part than about the singing itself – Un’aura amorosa is mostly sung in a glassy mezza voce, except when the phrase leads him above a high g – than the sound is forced and abrupt.  In Tradito, schernito, almost every phrase involve a high g or a high a. Then, acting with the voice makes the strain an Ersatz expressive tool. Legato is not included in the package. Alessio Arduini’s baritone can be pleasant on the ear and, being Italian, really savors the text. He has many patches of tremulousness and artificially darkened tone – and is too fond of parlando effects. Johannes Martin Kränzle is a firm-toned, surprisingly idiomatic and spirited Don Alfonso. He is also a bête de scène and is always steals the scene whenever he is on stage. As usual, Ah, lo vegg’io and Al fato dan legge are cut. The excision in the finale ultimo, however, is unacceptable.

PHILIPPE JORDAN, 2017
Jacquelyn Wagner (Fiordiligi), Michèle Losier (Dorabella), Ginger Costa-Jackson (Despina), Frédéric Antoun (Ferrando), Philippe Sly (Guglielmo), Paulo Szot (Alfonso), Choeur et Orchestra de l’Opéra de Paris, Philippe Jordan

The video from the Paris Opera shows a curious staging by choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, in which every small gesture not only from singers, but also those from a group of dancers who mirror all characters, is precisely blocked. There are no sets and the stage action is less about the depiction of the characters are supposed to be doing but rather about the emotional landscape. Without the help of cameras, I reckon it must have been less effective in the theatre than on video. The main interest here, though, is Philippe Jordan’s analytic conducting. At first, the absence of parti pris gives the impression of facelessness, but soon one realizes that nothing is imposed on this score – the conductor lets Mozart’s voice be heard even in its minutest details. It is easy to be tempted to let violins take pride of place among other string instruments in this repertoire, but the way violas and cellos are here given equal footing makes some passages sound entirely fresh to my ears. Passagework is rendered with absolute accuracy – and woodwind are made to fit in right along with singers as they should. Ensembles are crystalline. This is music-making of the highest order. Truth be sad, it does not have much sense of humor in its rather cerebral approach.  The recorded sound is praiseworthy – with singers moving around as they do here, it must have been difficult to keep the ideal level of balance heard in these DVDs. Jacquelyn Wagner is, without any shadow of doubt, a Mozart soprano. Her soprano does have a splash of saccharine and it is a bit on the light side for Fiordiligi, and yet she phrases with poise and sensitivity, handles the coloratura with elegance and effortlessness and is deeply rooted in classical style. Michèle Losier’s tone is rather grainy and not really beautiful, and that is all one could fault in her musicianly and poised Dorabella. It is hard to believe that Ginger Costa-Jackson is a mezzo soprano based on this performance. Her voice is not particularly warm, but almost metallic, high notes with a hint of harshness. She is an energetic, spirited Despina who has the virtue of being easily heard in ensembles. Frédéric Antoun is a firm-, dulcet-toned, gimmick-free Ferrando, who has reserves of strength for Tradito, schernito and accurate divisions in his difficult duet with Fiordiligi. Philippe Sly’s baritone is pleasant and firm too and he has the right attitude for Gugliemo. However, his intonation is perfectible and his high register not always smooth. Paulo Szot’s velvety baritone and phraseologic variety makes him an ideal Don Alfonso, whose cynical fashion expressions add zest to the performance. The choral singing, however, is subpar.

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 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 disguises (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 Fritsch, 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.

CHRISTOPH ESCHENBACH, 2013
Malin Hartelius (Fiordiligi), Marie-Claude Chappuis (Dorabella), Martina Janková (Despina), Martin Mitterrutzner (Ferrando), Luca Pisaroni (Guglielmo), Gerald Finley (Alfonso), Konzervereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Christoph Eschenbach

Sven-Eric Bechtolf staged Così Fan Tutte in Zurich a couple of years before he (and his creative team) concocted for the Salzburg Festival a higher-budget version of what one can see in the video from Switzerland (SEE BELOW for Welser-Möst). One just need to look at the opening of act 2 to find Despina and Fiordiligi in the exact same places around a table they had before (not to mention that we are seeing the same sopranos both times) – costumes and sets look here more expensive though. To be honest, the Personenregie shows development, a more economical use of slapstick in Salzburg, for instance. The director has a surprise development of the story in the end – and I won’t spoil the fun by telling it. As in his Don Giovanni at the Festival, Christoph Eschenbach offers a competent transversal of the score, with reasonably forward moving tempi and absolutely transparent playing from the Vienna Philharmonic. There is not a great deal of intelligence behind the notes, though. It is a performance one follows with pleasure but won’t bring any marginal gain for someone who owns other performances more imaginatively conducted. 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. Marie-Claude Chappuis is a reedy-toned, poised Dorabella whose high register is entirely pinched. She blends well with her FIordiligi and sounds like a younger sister. Martina Janková’s bright-toned, sparkling Despina savors the text both in recitative and in aria. A spirited performance, earthy in approach without making violence to Mozartian style. Martin Mitterrutzner’s slightly nasal tenor, often excessively covered in tone on a high g and above is dying to sing a different repertoire. His Ferrando doesn’t include a honeyed Un’aura amorosa and Tradito, schernito is drawn with large brushstrokes, but in compensation he offers a fluent, unproblematic Ah, lo vegg’io. Luca Pisaroni is probably the most recorded Guglielmo in the discography – and his pleasant-toned baritone, native Italian, sense of style and acting skills easily explain why. Gerald Finley – Guglielmo in Simon Rattle’s recording (SEE BELOW) – is a firm-toned Don Alfonso whose mezza voce is all one needs in Soave sia il vento – and he delivers the text in crispy Italian and imagination.

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.  Angela Brower is again an ideal Dorabella, here less comfortable with the Italian language as he would be in London (SEE ABOVE FOR BYCHKOV). 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, 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 again huge liberty taken in the closing minutes of this staging (which differs from what would be done in Salzburg), but I wonder why it was deemed import to take it at all. Malin Hartelius’s soprano is marginally fresher and in her first recording as Fiordiligi. One may miss a slightly more comfortable low register as heard in Salzburg, but the first performance is preferable for the extra smoothness. 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 too sounds brighter and clearer in her first recording as Despina. 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, but rather accompany what happens on stage in comfortable, somewhat restrained tempi and rather 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. In her first recording in the role, 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 discreet for the right impression. It is not difficult for Anke Vondung to call attention to her vivacious and engaging Dorabella in these circumstances. Her fresh, velvety and sexy mezzo is always pleasant on the ear and she is at home in this repertoire. 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 John Eliot Gardiner’s recording (SEE BELOW) 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 Nederlandse 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 encouragement of 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.

MANFRED HONECK, 2006
Ana María Martínez (Fiordiligi), Sophie Koch (Dorabella), Helen Donath (Despina), Shawn Mathey (Ferrando), Stéphane Degout (Guglielmo), Thomas Allen (Alfonso), Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Manfred Honeck

In the context of the 250 Mozart anniversary program in Salzburg, Ursel and Karl-Ernst Herrmann’s production is a dubious item of celebration. It is a remarkably ugly staging that shows Don Alfonso as a Mephistophelian figure, with the help of an elderly Despina, develop a plot of what seems to be corruption of minors, since the young lovers are shown as teenagers (what makes a cast far older than that look silly). Although the airport-lounge sets and children’s tv costumes are painful to look at, the idea of showing the sisters and their fiancés as very young help making more believable some awkward turns of the plot, particularly when the girls here are aware who the disguised Albanians really are. Manfred Honeck leads an almost driven, rhythmically rigorous performance that would test almost any other orchestra, but not the Vienna Philharmonic, which responds with glittery and accurate playing, the stings particularly supple. The precision of ensembles is particularly praiseworthy, if one has in mind that this is a festival cast, singing together with clockwork synchrony. Ana María Martínez’s creamy soprano has reserves of resonance in its lower reaches and copes reasonably well when required to sing the upper voice in ensembles. Even if her high notes do not always truly blossom, she sings with faultless legato and affection, manages runs and trills and nothing sounds awkward in her voice. Sophie Koch’s mezzo sounds a tad thick for Dorabella, but she works hard and rarely fails to deliver what is expected from her. Helen Donath was 66 as recorded here. A soprano famous for her bell-toned high notes, she still is in good shape here, but the middle register had by then acquired a puffed-up slightly raspy sound very much in evidence here. Shawn Mathey is a stylish Ferrando, who finds Innigkeit in Un’aura amorosa with the help of falsetto (and that is how Mozart probably heard it anyway) and kept admirable firmness of tone in Tradito, schernito. Stéphane Degout is a faultless Guglielmo, firm and pleasant of tone. A regular in this discography both as Don Alfonso and Guglielmo, Thomas Allen sings here with a voice deprived of some of its juice and often gives the cavalier treatment to note values. Again and most regrettably the finale ultimo is cut.

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. Even if Barbara Bonney has developed a quite plausible earthy attitude for Despina, her once pure 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’s Ferrando would be more finished in Salzburg, but still his Ferrando is stylishly sung. Stéphane Degout seems more at ease in Salzburg, where the larger auditorium elicits a fuller sound from him. Ruggero Raimondi knows all the tricks of the role of Don Alfonso, and yet the juice in 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. Daniel Barenboim has not been involved in 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 sounds like a Bach tenor lost in Mozartland. He has a splash of nasality and may become unfocused in his high register. Hanno Müller-Brachmann (Guglielmo) has an easy, healthy, not entirely smooth baritone,  while Roman Trekel is a forceful Don Alfonso who could do with a little bit softness, especially 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

Live in Zurich, Nikolaus Harnoncourt seems less keen on proving his theories but rather involved in offering an actual performance. It still lacks forward movement and some ideas are too artificial for comfort, such as the entirely disfigured Donne mie a tanti. However, framed by state-of-the art recorded sound and adept orchestral playing, one finds much to enjoy, especially the ensembles, where the level of clarity is praiseworthy. The extra slow Di scrivermi ogni giorno, for instance, proves to be unusually moving, gaining increasing harmonic tension and benefiting from floated mezza voce from both sopranos. There are unacceptable cuts in the Fiordiligi/Ferrando duet and in the finale ultimo. Cecilia Bartoli succeeds in the role of Fiordiligi (she had previously sung Dorabella – SEE BELOW for BARENBOIM –  and Despina) in an unexpected way. She shines in lyric moments throwing lovely mezza voce and singing with Innigkeit. The high tessitura rarely causes her strain, although the voice does not blossom in the top notes as with full-fledged sopranos. There is no need to mention that she makes the best of recitatives in her native Italian. Her Dorabella, Liliana Nikiteanu, has a warm velvety voice that soars in soft dynamics where necessary. Agnes Baltsa’s Despina too shines 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, when she sounds firm enough. Roberto Saccà’s vibrant tenor and full in the part of Ferrando and generally remains within the limits of Mozartian style. A more pleasant tonal quality would have offset the absence of shading. As it  Un’aura amorosa sounds here rather banal. Oliver Widmer’s baritone is rather lackadaisical for Guglielmo, but Carlos Chausson’s Alfonso benefits from the warmth and lightness of tone. In Jürgen Flimm’s underwhelming staing,  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 in style. The direction involves a great deal of slapstick.

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

Although Bertrand de Billy’s could be called a “safe” choice in budget price I wouldn’t probably recommend it as a first option. 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 numbers, sometimes illuminatingly so, but not necessarily right for the forces involved. Even if 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 this has something to do with the lack of clarity in faster passages. Regina Schörg’s voice lacks the last degree of individuality, especially in top notes, but she has considerable resources – a good bottom register, decent coloratura, some trills and a sense of Mozartian style. She also is a bit inexpressive, yet elegant most of the time. Heidi Brunner brings a bright yet warm soprano for the role of Dorabella. Birgid Steinberger is a vivid Despina, a voice a bit brittle and cold though. Jeffrey Francis finds no difficulties in the role of Ferrando, but the voice lacks naturalness, especially in top notes, and he sounds as if he were dying to sing Rossini. Martin Gantner lacks some warmth and yet he is a congenial Guglielmo. Kwangchul Youn is a rich-voiced, spirited Don Alfonso. Recitatives involve kitsch sound effects, such as “cheerful company” and “birdsong”.

ALAIN LOMBARD, 1999
Michèle Lagrange (Fiordiligi), Liliana Nikiteanu (Dorabella), Laura Cherici (Despina), Domenico Ghegghi (Ferrando), Nicola Ulivieri (Guglielmo), Marcos Fink (Alfonso), Coro della Radio Svizzera, Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, Alain Lombard

Alain Lombard’s second recording, made in Lugano, has many immediate disadvantages. First, the recording venue is too reverberant and singers sound recorded rather far from the microphone, all voices enveloped in a halo that suggests rather sacred music than opera.  Second, the conductor has a fondness for some extremely slow tempi (the last section of the first finale is almost stactic), with very small gain in clarity – the orchestral playing, even in these tempi, is not extraordinarily articulate. It is very difficult for the cast to sustain dramatic interest in such a sluggish pace (and this is a comedy, let’s not forget it) and there are moments when everybody seems to be sleepwalking. Michèle Lagrange has the elements of a good Fiordiligi, but she has poor discipline and the results can be rather hit or miss. In Come scoglio, it is a clear “miss” – she croons, produces guttural sounds in bottom register, tiptoes in high notes. Per pietà is almost a hit, on the other hand – she handles the long lines admirably and with sensitivity and only at the very end gets nervous with everything she has to do. Liliana Nikiteanu is again a fruity-toned, stylish Dorabella. Laura Cherici’s bell-toned soprano is sometimes breathy and, although she is Italian and has very clear diction, there is little spirit behind her idiomatic pronunciation. At first, Domenico Ghegghi’s tenor sounds too Donizettian  but his absolute control of dynamic and emission make him an entirely accident-free Ferrando, entirely on top of the game, including what regards Mozartian style. Nicola Ulivieri has a beautiful, velvety baritone three inches below the limit of woolliness. His Guglielmo is curiously restrained, almost a second Ferrando. Marcos Fink’s Don Alfonso is almost entirely sung in a pleasant but almost whitish tone and, in his strife for elegance, sounds rather uninvolved.

RENÉ JACOBS, 1998
Véronique Gens (Fiordiligi), Bernarda Fink (Dorabella), 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 rushed midway in 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. Both Véronique Gens and Bernarda Fink display warm and appealing voices and sing with elegance and technical finish. It is also true that both operate on a narrow tonal palette and, if they are both stylish and musicianly, they are hardly unforgettable in a discography where you can find more distinctive singers, even when they are not as accomplished as Gens and Fink. Graciela Oddone’s soprano does not have much color, and yet she makes a fair stab at the part; she does not cheat with her low notes, to start with.  She tries too hard to be funny, though. Fours years before his performance recorded live in Berlin (SEE ABOVE for Barenboim), Werner Güra seems more comfortable in studio at lower pitch. Here, the tone is more relaxed and the discolored low notes fit the leaner sound of historic instruments. He gets to sing – with surprising naturalness – Ah, lo vegg’io. Marcel Boone’s baritone is rather on the dry sound. He sings the role in true mezzo carattere style and sounds sometimes too buffo audiences used to richer voices and cleaner phrasing. Pietro Spagnoli is an idiomatic, young-sounding Don Alfonso. The whole team sings their recitatives with sense of theatre and are imaginatively accompanied by Nicolau de Figueiredo at the fortepiano.

RICCARDO MUTI, 1996
Barbara Frittoli (Fiordiligi), Angelika Kirchschlager (Dorabella), Monica Bacelli (Despina), Michael Schade (Ferrando), Bo Skovhus (Guglielmo), Alessandro Corbelli (Alfonso), Chor und Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper, Riccardo Muti

Recorded at the Theater an der Wien, Riccardo Muti’s third Così Fan Tutte on video features a production by Roberto de Simone the garish sets and costumes of which have not aged very well, and yet the Personenregie is very detailed in a unashamedly buffo approach and the cast responds with gusto. Muti had conducted this opera with the Vienna Philharmonic in four editions of the Salzburg Festival since 1982 (SEE BELOW), and his experience shows in his well-judged tempi, alertness to shifts of mood, theatrical accents and control of ensembles. At first, the recorded sound seemed to blame for the less than optimal level of clarity, but comparison with the same conductor in his video from Salzburg (SEE BELOW) shows that here the Vienna Philharmonic was made to produce a more pellucid and richer sound that, expressive as it is, is less neat in divisions as in their performances at the Kleines Festspielhaus. Barbara Frittoli is an ideal Fiordiligi, rich-toned throughout the whole range, almost mezzo-ish in her low register and capable of floating high mezza voce without flinching. She sings in absolute legato, invariably offers musical solutions for the most testing moments and shifts to the serious mood of act 2, offering a sensitive account of Per Pietà and the duet with Ferrando. Angelika Kirchschlager is a fruity toned, stylish Dorabella, who blends well with her Fiordiligi. In a cast with so many Italians, one hardly notices that she was not born on the other side of the Alps. A mezzo Despina, Monica Bacelli has no problem with high notes. The tonal quality is rather matte, but that does not prevent her from shining in her masterly delivery of the text in the right buffo tradition. Michael Schade is a stylish, unproblematic Ferrando, once you adjust to the pronounced nasality of his tenor. Bo Skhovus (Guglielmo) too has a hint of nasality, but he was in strong voice and too sings with good taste and animation. Alessandro Corbelli, Guglielmo both for Muti at La Scala (SEE BELOW) and Mackerras (SEE BELOW), leaves nothing to be desired as Don Alfonso.

SIMON RATTLE, 1995
Hillevi Martinpelto (Fiordiligi), Alison Hagley (Dorabella), Ann Murray (Despina), Kurt Streit (Ferrando), Gerald Finlay (Guglielmo), Thomas Allen (Alfonso), The Choir of the Enlightenment, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, 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. It is a performance where nothing is left to chance – the conductor’s analytic approach, structurally transparent and rhythmically alert approach serves both music and drama. The level of precision in both finally – even in very fast tempi – is reason enough to single out these CDs. The period-instrument orchestra is surprisingly rich-toned, its violins adept in passagework, but one cannot expect the deluxe sound of a Vienna Philharmonic. One can see that the sound engineers were a key element to the level of balance and clarity in this live recording, yet at moments one feels that the sound picture could be a little bit more atmospheric, especially in what regards the singing. Hillevi Martinpelto is a young-sounding, vulnerable Fiordiligi, who sings with naturalness and sensitivity and handles the low tessitura commendably without producing a guttural or overdark sound. Alison Hagley is probably the lightest-toned Dorabella in the discography. She was not in good voice in these concerts, her soprano sounds edgy and her squeezed high notes grate a bit. Ann Murray, Dorabella for both Levine and Muti (SEE BELOW) is here an earthy Despina. The tone is predictably vibrant and her high register spreads uncomfortably. The only remaining singer from Glyndebourne, Kurt Streit is as always a model of Mozartian style, unfortunately past his prime, his high notes grainy and less than ideally firm. He sings the role without cuts. Gerald Finley, on the other hand, is a solid, vocally fresh Guglielmo. He is granted Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo in appendix (making this more than a complete edition). Thomas Allen lacks some space in the lower reaches, but that is all one could complain about his characterful and elegant Don Alfonso.

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 has an extremely flexible beat and organizes each number of the score in a way that it will be sung and played with clear articulation without any loss in forward movement. The orchestra, however, has a rough-edged sound, especially the brass section, and its strings are very close to scrawny. The recorded sound too lacks space and ensembles may sound congested. The cast has no outstanding performance, but works well 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 effective instead. Laura Polverelli is not the best friend of soft dynamics, and yet her flexible sexy mezzo is entirely at ease in the role of Dorabella. Together with the congenial Guglielmo of the smooth-toned French baritone Nicolas Rivenq, she tends to steal the show. Sophie Marin-Degor’s fruity light soprano is easy on the ear, but her Despina is rather anonymous in terms of interpretation. Even if Simon Edwards has a pleasant round-toned tenor, he sings without much affection. His lackadaisical Un’aura amorosa remains the most notable example of that. As Don Alfonso, Patrick Donelly is a rather a singing actor who makes do in high notes and other difficulties. The edition here adopted involves 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 altogether deleted.

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

Georg Solti’s second Così was recorded live in two concerts at the Royal Festival Hall. The fact that he has an orchestra often conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, sometimes using valveless brass, is probably the main difference from his first recording with the London Philharmonic (SEE BELOW). The performance itself is what one could expect from Solti in Mozart – forward movement, rhythmic rigour and a good ear for the balance between singers and orchestra. There is enough clarity here, but maybe a combination of the hall acoustics and the recorded sound prevents absolute transparence (and the domestic atmosphere this opera demands). Some find it lacks some repose, but I would rather have a disciplinarian in this repertoire than a conductor missing the sense of pulse one needs in Mozart. Renée Fleming is a capable, creamy-toned Fiordiligi who tries all he trills if rather generic in terms of interpretation. Anne Sofie von Otter (Marriner’s Dorabella – SEE BELOW) is rather matte of tone here and one rather notices she is there. Adelina Scarabelli’s bell-toned Despina (a role she sang for Muti at La Scala – SEE BELOW) is vivacious and delivers crispy recitatives in her native Italian. Frank Lopardo has many assets as Ferrando – a Rossini tenor, he finds no problems in coloratura or trills, shades his tone to perfect mezza voce and is attentive to the text – but the liability is hard to overlook, an unattractive nasal basic tone that acquires a certain graininess in his top notes. The edition is uncut and he sings Ah, lo vegg’io. Olaf Bär (Guglielmo) baritone sounds here rather dry and his attempt of interpretation involve overly open vowels. Michele Pertusi’s bass is a bit opaque, but, being Italian, he has a natural advantage in the role of Don Alfonso.

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 experienced Mozartian who keeps a comfortable but not too relaxed pace and has an analytic eye for every element in the structure devised by Mozart, and he has an orchestra nurtured in the right style. Then why is this recording not a full recommendation? First, the acoustics at the Usher Hall are impossibly reverberant, ruining ideal balance and making the orchestral playing short of a blur. Singers are recorded as if they were singing through a tunnel. There is also a fancy for overornamentation here that almost disfigures the flow of music. Felicity Lott is obviously a musicianly and sensitive singer a bit out of her depth as Fiordiligi. The tone lacks substance, low notes often sound hoarse and the recorded sound adds a ghostly halo around her voice. She has beautiful moments – you probably won’t find a Soave sia il vento as ideally balanced and certainly no other two sopranos who blend as perfectly in their high pianissimo as here. Marie McLaughlin is ideally cast as Dorabella. Her soprano has a warm, sensuous color and a solid low register. Yet it comes in that single color, and for some with a spirited Despina (SEE BELOW for Levine) in her resumé, she sounds too much the serious sister here (and that’s not what the libretto tells us). Nuccia Focile’s high notes are a bit edgy and explosive, but other than this she is a vivacious Despina who avoids sounding too cute or too poised “just because this is Mozart”. Jerry Hadley tends to cover his high notes in a way that tampers with the flow of Mozartian phrasing – and Un’aura amorosa is here entirely devoid of Innigkeit – but he compensates in truly healthy Ah, lo vegg’ioTradito, schernito is a bit muscly, but, after a long line of tenors who seem to be holding for their dear lives, it is refreshing to hear someone in charge of the murderous tessitura. Alessandro Corbelli finds no difficulties in the role of Guglielmo (and he sings Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo in appendix) and yet one misses a more youthful tone (as in Muti’s video from La Scala – SEE BELOW). Actually, Gilles Cachemaille (Guglielmo for Harnoncourt – SEE BELOW) sounds younger in comparison. As his Don Alfonso is not really idiomatic, maybe they should have traded roles. This edition is more than complete, offering both options for Guglielmo’s first aria.

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 adeptly 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 and tackles lower notes without ado. 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, 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. He avoids excessively fast tempi, and yet one never feels that  they could be faster, given the crispness of accent and the ideal balance and transparence, recorded with immediacy. Truth be said, his orchestra tends to be monochromatic, even if 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 sensitive 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

In Sigiswald Kuijken’s CDs recorded live in Budapest, one finds a performance of consistently fast tempi, lean and light orchestral sound with an omnipresent harpsichord. At first, one tends to find Kuijken too keen on keeping the tempo, but he proves capable of flexibility. The first finale, for instance,  steadily becomes faster and is almost hectic in the episode of Ferrando and Guglielmo’s staged poisoning only to suddenly relax for the last ensemble. Soile Isokoski is an utterly musicianly Fiordiligi who sails through her role with complete nonchalance. Maybe to comply with a conductor imbued with historically informed practices and a period-instrument orchestra, she sings here with very little vibrato. As a result, Some may point out that her voice lacks substance or variety, but the purity of tone and the technical abandon are above criticism. Monica Groop is a clear toned Dorabella whose mezzo blends beautifully with Isokoski’s soprano, and yet she too lacks tonal variety. Moreover, she misses her character’s playfulness. 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 ensembles – not to mention that she is a vivacious, spirited Despina. 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. As the edition is complete, he sings a trouble-free Ah, lo veggío. Per Vollerstad is a bit dry-voiced, non totally idiomatic as Guglielmo. Huub Claessens’s Don Alfonso, however, comes across as rather white-toned. The chorus too sounds on the white side, but that did not disturbs me too much. 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 second studio recording is probably his most exotic performance of Così Fan Tutte. First, tempi are unacceptably slow and the usual fussing with pace here happens rather on the ritardando side. The pellucid strings of the Concertgebouw Orchestra do not help much in this context, articulation largely impressionistic. I usually praise prominence of woodwind in Mozart, but here they are not complementing singers as they should, but rather supplanting them in upclose perspective. The conductor’s fondness for highlighting detail has a perverse effect on forward movement. Furthermore, Harnoncourt fastidiousness seems to boost mannerisms and pointedness in his singers, especially his Don Alfonso. It all sounds insincere and dispirited. Charlotte Margiono’s smoky soprano moves comfortably through the challenges of the part of Fiordilig if a bit anonymously. Delores Ziegler, Dorabella in Hartnoncourt’s first studio recording, in Haitink’s CDs and in Muti’s video from La Scala (SEE BELOW) is a fruity-toned, stylish Dorabella. An earthy Despina, Anna Steiger has an earthy, slightly metallic soprano, the low register with reserves of zest. Deon van der Walt, a light, poised Ferrando, sings a beautiful Un’aura amorosa. He sounds rather tenorino-ish in the most outspoken moments, but dispatches Ah, lo vegg’io with absolute ease. Gilles Cachemaille too is a light, velvety-toned Guglielmo, a bit sabotaged by the slow pace of his arias. Thomas Hampson, a youthful Don Alfonso, sounds here like the heir to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s Feldmarschallin. 

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 first career as a soprano (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 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 accommodate that (particularly in the end of Per pietà), but in spite of all that it is a charming, accomplished performance. 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. Laura Cherici is again a phlegmatic Despina, a little less substantial here in tone than in Alain Lombard’s recording. 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 taking a fair stab in Ah, lo vegg’io. Albert Dohmen is today known 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, though (such as in Donne mie). Sesto Bruscantini’s casting as Don Alfonso at that stage of his career 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. Joanna Borowska’s shimmering soprano encompasses the tessitura of Fiordiligi, and yet she sings without much affection and her coloratura is perfectible. Rohangiz Yachmi’s mezzo has a rather veiled sound and acquires a metallic edge in its high register. Priti Coles is a brittle Despina who does not make much of the text. John Dickie 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. Even if Andrea Martin’s Guglielmo has patches of greyish tone, his baritone is velvety enough. He tries hard as Guglielmo, but still it sounds like a student performance. Peter Mikulas is unsteady and has sketchy Italian, what is a no-no for Don Alfonso. n.

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

In spite of all talents involved, Neville Marriner’s CDs are a curiously joyless experience. First of all, the recorded sound is fussed over in a way that makes its clarity and immediacy seem gimmickry rather than artistry. The Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields offers polished and clear playing, but the conductor seems to sleepwalk through the entire opera and there is little spirit behind the notes. Although tempi are not the slowest in the discography, one has the permanent feeling of dragging – and some items are indeed inexplicably sluggish-paced. For instance, Despina’s arias. The cast is not immune to the absence of animation and the singing feels studio-bound. On paper, Karita Mattila at that stage in her career would be an ideal Fiordiligi, and she definitely holds her own decently – she knows the style, her lush soprano is appealing, but she was clearly not in her best voice. Most high notes are not ideally focused, the mezza voce sounds breathy and there are tiny intonation problems. Moreover, her heart seems to be elsewhere. This is probably her less compelling recording. Anne Sofie von Otter, on the other hand, offers here her best Dorabella. Hers is still too opaque a voice for Mozart, and yet she offers an intelligent and  polished performance. In purely vocal terms, Elzbieta Smytka leaves little to be desired. Hers is a pleasant, easily produced voice, but her Italian lacks crispness and, as said above, the conductor does not help her much. As a result, her Despina comes across as rather well-behaved. An experienced Ferrando (SEE BELOW for Muti), Francisco Araiza, even not at his freshest, sings a honeyed Un’aura amorosa, a juicy, strain-free Tradito, schernito and even takes profit of the slow pace in Ah, lo vegg’io to make an aria usually about its difficulty in something elegant and charming. For all his long history in this opera both as Don Alfonso (SEE ABOVE for Honeck and Rattle) and Guglielmo (SEE BELOW for Colin Davis and Pritchard), Thomas Allen sounds here somehow too savvy for Guglielmo, maybe more than his Don Alfonso, José van Dam, who is, on his turn, wittier and more spontaneous and varied than in Salzburg (SEE BELOW for Muti).

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 a curiously symphonic performance in the bad sense of the word. The conductor clearly conceives the performance around the orchestra, often drowning singers in overwhelming orchestral sound. Simply calling these proceedings “heavy” would fail to explain their shortcomings. Although some tempi are often a tad slow, at moments the performance can sound fast in a bombastic way – the last episode of the finale ultimo, for example. The excess of testosterone in the conducting does not help the chiaroscuro in Mozart’s more delicate textures, which just melt under the excessive heat. There is also a problem of balance – the performance is a bit bass-heavy and this involves the two singers in this Fach. Both Ferruccio Furlanetto’s and John Tomlinson’s voices are out of the scale of the remaining soloists. They preside over ensembles in a way that often reduce the ladies carrying the Hauptstimme to comprimario status – and I am not sure that this is what Mozart had in mind. Lella Cuberli has all the elements of a great Fiordiligi – rich top notes, a good low register, creamy pianissimi and flexibility – but she is not always capable of handling all that with the required poise. The 23-year-old Cecilia Bartoli offers an all round perfect Dorabella, one of the very best in the discrogaphy. Joan Rodgers’s soprano is a bit creamier than one is used to hear in the role of Despina – and that is all for the best. She is ideally vivacious in the role without indulging in any cuteness. Kurt Streit’s light, stylish Ferrando does not blend well with his Guglielmo, but is otherwise exemplary. Furlanetto’s performance in itself is spirited and rightly anchored in mezzo carattere style. John Tomlinson too is sensitive to the necessity of scaling down (notably in Soave sia il vento), but, as said above, his Don Alfonso is ultimately an exercise of restraint. The edition has all the Ferrando cuts and also the unfortunate excision in the finale ultimo.

RICCARDO MUTI, 1989
Daniela 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

Live at La Scala, Riccardo Muti finds an orchestra the bright and slightly dry sound of which makes his full-toned approach closer to what one expects in Mozart. Also – in the dry acoustics of the auditorium – their strings offer articulation in keeping with the demands of clarity in this repertoire. Unfortunately, the recorded sound is not analytic as one would wish, but rather natural in its balance. Actually, the level of polish of ensembles in this live performance is admirable. Only the chorus leaves something to be desired. Again Muti has an above-average cast, what makes this a win-win recommendation. Daniela Dessì sings the role of Fiordiligi with disarming naturalness, her soprano always creamy, her low register natural and soprano-ish in sound, her phrasing always musicianly and expressive. She makes the role sounds almost easy. And, being Italian, delivers the text always with the right inflection and weight. Delores Ziegler, here in top form, is again a perfect Dorabella, entirely at ease with the language of Dante. Saying that Adelina Scarabelli offers here an impeccable Despina is an understatement. Her quicksilvery soprano finds no problems in this music – but what makes her special is her crispy, witty, intelligent interpretation, another example of the extra advantage of having Italians singing Mozart. At first, Josef Kundlak sounds a bit on the shadow of his colleagues – his tenor somewhat monochromatic and a tiny bit on the nasal side and Un’aura amorosa rather matter of fact.  However, one increasingly realizes he is a trouble-free, solid Ferrando, who delivers (unlike almost everyone in the competition) an exemplary Tradito, schernito. Alessandro Corbelli’s Guglielmo is an all-round satisfying performance. Claudio Desderi, a bit past his best, his high register quite juiceless, is not legato’s best friend. That said, his take on Don Alfonso is spot on in terms of characterization. And he fares better in Soave sia il vento than most other singers in their primes. Michael Hampe’s production is a memento of how good a masterly traditional performance can be. Sets and costumes are pleasant to look at (if a bit too soft in colors) the director makes the best of what every singer can offer in the acting department. As a result, the detailed Personenregie comes across as spontaneous, every character sharply defined without exaggeration.

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

Although Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s film looks almost helplessly kitsch in its low-angle camera shots, milky lighting and garish costumes, it is also very well directed, with excellent acting from all involved. Once you get used to the plethora of artificial details, it is even quite funny. It is also one aspect of an unusual assortment of talents from different aesthetic milieux. In his first recording of Così fan tutte, given this enterprise’s high profile, Nikolaus Harnoncourt was probably not allowed too much experimentalism – here he is contented with the conviction that this comedy requires slow tempi, sometimes very slow. Differently from the Concertgebouw Orchestra (SEE ABOVE), the Vienna Philharmonic has a long experience with Mozart operas and fills in the blanks of the often lethargic beat with crispy, crystalline sounds. However, what makes the musical performance an acquired taste is the bizarre recorded sound, who keeps orchestra and singers in different perspective, the former distantly captured and the latter too closely. Also, maybe in an attempt of sonic stage, the miking of singers’ voices vary sometimes during ensembles, making for odd balance. Recitatives also have entirely different acoustics, as if recorded in the sets in Munich (and not in studio in Vienna) with the lifeless accompaniment of a harpsichord. Usually heard in roles higher in tessitura, Edita Gruberová is surprisingly comfortable with the low-lying arias in the part of Fiordiligi. Her performance could stand in the dictionary as the example of Mozartian singing. No matter how difficult the phrase is, she sings it with instrumental poise, complete technical control, purity of tone, clarity of text and feeling for her lines. Per pietà sounds almost fresh in its variety of expression, vocal ease and abundance of perfect trills. She finds an ideal partner in Delores Ziegler’s faultless, fruity Dorabella. Even for someone with a repertoire ranging from Valencienne to Mimì (via Lulu and Salome), the role of Despina was a surprising choice for Teresa Stratas in 1988. She is not as sweet-toned as in the first part of her career in which she sang roles like this, and yet the slightly nasal and acidic tone makes her naughty chambermaid even spunkier and earthier. Luís Lima too is the last tenor one would expect in the role of Ferrando. Here he sounds like someone who would rather be singing Verdi, and his attempt to soften the tone for Un’aura amorosa is rather awkward and involves some dubious intonation. Ferruccio Furlanetto was not foreign to buffo roles back in the 1980’s and yet the tonal quality sounds sometimes too important for someone as debonair as Guglielmo. On the other hand, Paolo Montarsolo cannot help sounding rusty and emphatic here. Yet he uses it in his cynical grandfatherly approach to the role of Don Alfonso. The edition has the usual Ferrando cuts plus the regrettable deletion of a couple of bars in the finale ultimo.

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

James Levine’s CDs recorded in Vienna are a studio-bound affair in unnatural recorded sound. Singers and orchestra often sound in different acoustics. Also, strings are closely recorded and often sound as dense as a Wagnerian orchestra. As this is the Vienna Philharmonic, there is one advantage in the possibility of listening every note written by Mozart, even in the fastest passagework. Actually, the vertical clarity in ensembles, probably due to the artificial recording, is short of miraculous. Levine is a particularly heavy-handed Mozartian here – almost Beethovenian in its incisive accents and full orchestral sound. Tempi are flowing, but the maestro is too fond of a certain conductorial double cream when he slows a bit and adds an extra serving of strings for emphasis in order to boost expression.  Also, recitatives are sung with a fortepiano accompaniment that suggests rather Donizetti than Mozart. The performance ultimately sounds driven,  mechanical at times yet short in spirit. Also, there is a clear lack of chemistry in the cast, whose individual members seem to be each doing their thing. Creamy-toned and poised, Kiri Te Kanawa finds no technical problems as Fiordiligi and has a natural feeling for Mozartian phrasing and yet sleepwalks through the opera and is sometimes even careless – for example, she is completely out of balance in Soave sia il vento (while the other singers blend perfectly in mezza voce). Ann Murray’s tone spreads from mezzo forte on and, if the result is often too vibrant and a bit harsh, she is an intelligent and stylish Dorabella. Marie McLaughlin is a warm-toned Despina, fully in character, an all-round satisfying performance. Hans-Peter Blochwitz sounds at first too modest in scale compared to colleagues who sang Romantic Italian opera and his Italian sounds quite foreign. He is a musicianly and sensitive singer, who offers light-toned and fluent accounts of Ferrando’s three arias. Thomas Hampson’s baritone sounds quite unfocused here and his phraseological variety verges on affectation. He gets to sing Rivolgete a lui and Non siate ritrosi in appendix. Ferruccio Furlanetto offers here a puzzling performance.. On one hand, he sings  in an important bass voice that puts the Don in Don Alfonso; on the other hand, his delivery of the text is so emphatic and short on legato is too buffoon-ish for comfort.

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’s is the first historically informed performance in the discography. For the studio recording, the label L’Oiseau Lyre (Decca) gathered an international cast and filled the Drottningholm orchestra with members of British ensembles (Simon Standage, Roy Goodman, Michael Comberti, Trevor Jones et al). As a result, these CDs feature the best orchestral playing in the series. It is still lean, but – with the benefit of a warm, natural recorded sound – it ensures enough sound to wrap singers’ voices and absolutely transparent for clarity. Even if there are moments when one wishes he could relax a bit more and let the charm of Mozart’s music operate its sensuous charm, Östman’s absolute understanding of structure and phrasing still impresses me after repeated listenings. Not only all elements connect to each other and make unusual sense, but also – with the help of alert tempi – the theatrical effects in Mozart’s orchestra are rendered as in no other recording. The orchestra depicts everything you here in the libretto, be it the Mediterranean waves or birdsong and bees buzzing in Dorabella and Fiordiligi’s garden. The shift of moods in both finali are both musically and dramatically vividly rendered. Rarely has the staged poisoning sounded so exaggeratedly dark and worrisome as here. This is certainly not a listener friendly recording – it demands your undivided attention and is sometimes frustratingly straight-to-the-point – but if you want to keep your mind fresh about Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s genius, this should be on your collection. Rachel Yakar is a pure-toned, technically fluent Fiordiligi, consistently pleasing but for the occasional explosive top note. She delivers her recitatives with spirit, but sounds curiously detached in both her arias. Alicia Nafé’s mezzo is a tad monochromatic, but the one colour is warm and pleasing. She too is superb in recitatives and also shows some affection for her lines in song. Georgine Resick is a bell-toned, sprightly Despina. In spite of unidiomatic Italian, Gösta Winbergh is simply one of the best Ferrandos in the discography. This is an important voice, dulcet in tone, flexible and ductile, never tested by the tessitura, the coloratura, you name it. He sings a honeyed Un’aura amorosa, a trouble-free Tradito, schernito and a flowing, charming Ah, lo vegg’io. Tom Krause sounds somewhat mature in comparison as Guglielmo, and yet he too sings with spontaneity and absolute ease. He gets here both Rivolgete a lui and Non siate ritrosi . Carlos Feller is a mercurial, clean-toned Don Alfonso, a role he sang for John Eliot Gardiner too (SEE ABOVE). 

RICCARDO MUTI, 1983
Margaret Marshall (Fiordiligi), Ann Murray (Dorabella), Kathleen Battle (Despina), Francisco Araiza (Ferrando), James Morris (Guglielmo), Sesto Bruscantini (Alfonso), Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Riccardo Muti

Michael Hampe’s production, as seen in Riccardo Muti’s video from La Scala (SEE ABOVE), was actually first seen in Salzburg and was taped in its second year. This is probably Muti’s best Così, the Vienna Philharmonic giving a resplendent performance – brighter in tone and clearer in articulation than in their second video from Vienna with the Italian conductor. Although the conducting is actually similar to what one hears at La Scala – rhythmically alert, crispy in ensembles in dazzling if occasionally too luxuriant an orchestral sound (especially in lyric numbers) – here with a superb orchestra in service, Muti dares a little bit more, trying even faster tempi in difficult ensembles and often employing a little bit richer sonorities. In that sense, the drier acoustics and slimmer tone of the La Scala orchestra make the passages in which the maestro strays towards a more Romantic perspective less Romantic. In any case, the recorded sound in Salzburg is better balanced and clearer than in Milan. This could mean that the 1983 video is the clear winner among Muti’s recordings, but the cast at La Scala is preferable, distinguished and far above-average as this is. Margaret Marshall is a highly capable and stylish Fiordiligi who deals with the difficult tessitura, the coloratura, trills and high mezza voce without any ado. She has her hooty and droopy moments and sometimes seems to be at the limit of her possibilities. Here Ann Murray offers her best Dorabella – the characteristic vibrancy still under control either in full tone or in floating pianissimo. In the role of Despina, Kathleen Battle embraces the naughty, sly chambermaid stereotype with gusto. The soubrette role suits her vocal nature and she is more comfortable with the low tessitura than one could have imagined. In fresh, firm voice, Francisco Araiza is an ideal Ferrando, a model of Mozartian singing. With a Wotan voice to his favor, James Morris can fill the auditorium without going above a mezzo forte. His singing in the part of Guglielmo comes across as relaxed and warm-toned, and he rarely indulges in the excess of nasality that sometimes robs his voice of its natural nobility of tone. Sesto Bruscantini’s veteran performance as Don Alfonso has the advantage of idiomatic spontaneity (and at this point he knew the ropes of buffo singing) and yet he clearly is the member of the cast less concerned by the conductor’s disciplinarian beat. In comparison with the La Scala revival, the cast – with one or two exceptions – is superior in the acting department. Marshall and Murray, especially, are particularly funny in their ladylike demeanour worthy of a Jane Austen adaptation movie.

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

The première of the Muti/Hampe staging of Così Fan Tutte in Salzburg was recorded in audio only, unfortunately in noisy and boxy recorded sound, what makes the 1983 video the obvious choice if you want to hear Muti’s first recording in the discography. The obvious detail in the original cast is that Agnes Baltsa is quite big voiced for this company – even if her singing per se is accomplished and reasonably stylish. In her duet with a Guglielmo also bulky in tone, one can hear how happy they sound when finally not having to scale down. José Van Dam’s Alfonso is somehow too chic for the circumstances,  stylish and intelligent as his performance is.

COLIN DAVIS, 1981
Kiri Te Kanawa (Fiordiligi), Agnes Baltsa (Dorabella), Daniela Mazzucato (Despina), Stuart Burrows (Ferrando), Thomas Allen (Guglielmo), Richard Van Allan (Alfonso), Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Colin Davis

Colin Davis’s studio recording of Così fan tutte  (SEE BELOW) is one of the references in the discography. As most items in his recordings for Phillips, it usually involved a remake from live performances at the Royal Opera House albeit with more glamorous casts. That was not the case with Così – the LPs with Montserrat Caballé and Nicolai Gedda were recorded in 1974, and yet Davis had conducted the work only one season with the company in 1971 with an entirely different cast (Elisabeth Söderström et al). That is probably why BBC released the 1981 performance with a cast almost as glamorous as the official release (and even the same Don Alfonso). Davis’s Mozartians credentials are widely acknowledged – he finds the right compromise between expression, rhythmic alertness and structural clarity, but the truth is that you can find all that in more ideal conditions in studio. Live, the Royal Opera House orchestra does not live up to what is heard on Phillips. Articulation and balance are variable, the broadcast sound is good for a broadcast from the 1980’s (no body microphones), woodwind are often a bit distant and ensembles sound a bit tangled (and there’s the prompter – whispering rather than shouting, thank God). In any case, the greatest disadvantage with the 1974 recording is the fact that one can feel that, in many a tricky passage, the conductor shifts into first gear just to keep it on the safe side. This is probably Kiri Te Kanawa’s most animated Fiordiligi. She inhabits the text in a way she never did in her studio recordings,  except in her two arias, when she sounds curiously detached, as if she were sight-reading. The evening BBC caught this performance, her voice was not willing to delve into its low register. The lowest phrases are almost spoken, but other than this her velvety, flexible soprano is always a pleasure to the ears. Agnes Baltsa is better matched to her Fiordiligi this time. Although she still makes a great effort to tame her naturally penetrating voice (and is unusually adept in soft singing), her Dorabella is always very much hearable even in ensembles, not always in a way one usually expects in this repertoire. If it is always an advantage to find a native speaker as Despina – and Daniela Mazzucato delivers the text in crispy Italian – her singing here sounds almost like the musical theatre. She is not very keen on legato, pecks at high notes and barely supports her low notes. Stuart Burrows does not seem really acquainted with the role of Ferrando; he makes many textual and musical mistakes (Tradito, schernito is all over the place) and his tenor is afflicted by a pronounced flutter in Un’aura amorosa. He is one of the few singers who does not sing both high a’s in “incoMINcia a vacillar”  in falsetto in his duet with Fiordiligi. Thomas Allen is at his youthful best – his Guglielmo the all-round best performance that evening. Most reviewers snob Richard Van Allan’s Don Alfonso. I disagree. He has a smile in his voice that makes the character at once charming and cynical. The edition involves all the usual cuts and the unjustified one in the finale ultimo.

ALAIN LOMBARD, 1978
Kiri Te Kanawa (Fiordiligi), Frederica von Stade (Dorabella), Teresa Stratas (Despina), David Rendall (Ferrando), Philippe Huttenlocher (Guglielmo), Jules Bastin (Alfonso), Choeurs de l’Opéra du Rhin, Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg, Alain Lombard

Nobody can accuse Alain Lombard of inconsistency. Although 21 years separate his two recordings, they are very similar in concept: the strife for clarity often involving tempi sometimes inexplicably and unacceptably sluggish. There is a big difference, though: the Strasbourg Philharmonic offers playing of superior level compared to the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana. Here, articulation is clear and, even within the context of absence of forward movement, there are moments when one feels what the conductor had in mind (but ultimately did not accomplish). For instance, the Fiordiligi/Ferrando duet starts in funereal pace, gains a little bit momentum and suddenly, when Fiordiligi surrenders to Ferrando, there is such richness of feeling that one cannot help being drawn to it The canon in the finale ultimo too sounds exquisite in a finale ultimo elsewhere almost devoid of energy. And there is a cast of an altogether different level from the one gathered in Lugano. Many reviewers snob Kiri Te Kanawa’s first recording as Fiordiligi. Even if one must recognize that she is indeed a bit bland in terms of interpretation, she could do no wrong in Mozart in 1978. Those were the days when she had one of the loveliest voices in the operatic scene. Her phrasing is impeccable, a lesson of poise and technical abandon. I’m afraid I find it simply disarming. Frederica von Stade, on the other hand, is an all-round perfect Dorabella, immune to criticism in any department. Her voice blends perfectly with Te Kanawa’s and her duets are some of the highlights in these CDs. On the other hand, Teresa Stratas’s soprano comes across as rather harsh. She would offer a more balanced performance for Harnoncourt some years later (SEE ABOVE). In any case, she is well contrasted to her mistresses and offers very funny solutions for both her scenes “in disguise”. If David Rendall’s high notes did not develop a curious rattling (more evident in Un’aura amorosa), he could have been called one of the best Ferrandos in the discography. His sense of style is admirable and he can keep a clean, pure line. Moreover, he has an extraordinarily long breath and easily shifts to mezza voce when needed. As mentioned above, he and Te Kanawa are just outstanding in their duet. The velvetiness in Philippe Huttenlocher’s baritone sometimes comes dangerously close to woolliness, but that is all I can observe in a satisfying if not memorable performance in the role of Guglielmo. Jules Bastin sings in a curiously colourless tone and, if his Italian is not really crispy, he manages to come across as a witty Don 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 Karl Böhm’s anniversary performance (see below) could be found live in Munich in 1978. I would say in better circumstances, since Wolfgang Sawallisch proves to have a good ear for Mozartian rhythms. Although his conducting still involves too plush an orchestral sound, the sense of forward movement, clarity and intelligence of phrasing are admirable. Moreover, the recorded sound (at least on Golden Melodram) is very good. The kind of full-toned purity of line Margaret Price offers here as Fiordiligi is something one rarely finds in Mozart. It does lack intimacy and her coloratura is often aspirated, but I wonder if one can boast to have heard live a similarly large-scale and accomplished performance, floating mezza voce and trills included. Brigitte Fassbaender’s approach to Dorabella is rather heavy-handed – and classical poise would not be the words I would use to describe it. Here she never lets me forget that she was Brangäne to Margaret Price’s Isolde in Carlos Kleiber’s recording of Tristan und Isolde. She does not get to sing È amore un ladroncello. There is little to fault in Reri Grist’s Despina. If the tone is a bit metallic and nasal,  her singing is stylish and accomplished. Yet it is too well-behaved and lacking crispness in delivery of the text, what is a requirement for this role. Peter Schreier gets to sing a little bit more of the role than he did in Salzburg (he still sings only Un’aura amorosa, but the duet with Fiordiligi is uncut). His nasal, open-toned tenor and the emphatic phrasing is the opposite of 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 desperately unidiomatic.  Other than the loss of  Dorabella’s and Ferrando’s arias, there are still the usual Ferrando cuts plus the internal nipping in the finale ultimo

JOHN PRITCHARD, 1975
Helena Doese (Fiordiligi), Sylvia Lindenstrand (Dorabella), Danièle Perriers (Despina), Anson Austin (Ferrando), Thomas Allen (Guglielmo), Frantz Pétri (Alfonso), The Glyndebourne Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra, John Pritchard

The 1975 video from Glyndebourne is a curiosity in the discography and won’t appeal to anyone but a die-hard Thomas Allen fan. First, Adrian Slack’s production is the perfect example of “period” style as understood in the 1970’s. As it is, it looks designed by someone under the effect of hallucinogenic drugs. The choice of colors alone is almost almost vertigo inducing. John Pritchard presses hard forward and one can almost feel how disappointed he is when his soloists insist on keeping a more leisurely tempo (except in Un’aura amorosa, when the tenor really wants to see the whole thing done as quickly as possible). As neither the orchestral sound nor the vocal soloists (with two exceptions) offer something truly memorable, this seems a sensible choice for live performances – but not for home listening. Helena Doese was vocally immature when she recorded this. Her big soprano sounds unfocused and she is often below true pitch. And there is nothing to speak of in terms of interpretation. Sylvia Lindenstrand’s mezzo is a bit thick for Dorabella and yet she generally copes well with the high tessitura. Anson Austin’s Ferrando is probably the less accomplished in the discography. There are too many problems with note values, intonation, technique, phrasing, style. In comparison, Frantz Pétri’s sound like an important performance. However, if his pronunciation is correct, he delivers the Italian recitatives in a machine gun style that robs them from spontaneity and the wit the role of Don Alfonso requires. Danièle Perriers is in an entirely different level – her Despina checks all the items of a soubrette performance in a bell-toned soprano, a cute but effective interpretation and her episodes in disguise are really funny. And there is Thomas Allen in his youthful best, firm of tone, at home with Mozartian style and very alert in his acting.

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 recording of Così fan tutte for Phillips has legendary status and its many remarkable features cast a spell over the listener and it takes a while before one can take it at face value. First of all, in terms of clarity and structural coherence, this is arguably Davis’s best Mozart studio release. The recorded sound is short of miraculous – and the engineering team should be praised for the illusion of naturalness in a sound picture in which  voices and instruments are perfectly are balanced in a way one seldom finds in a live performance. Colin Davis’s conducting itself is a model of Mozartian elegance – all emphases are in place, the unglamorous contribution of the Covent Garden house band is a most acceptable Ersatz for legitimate classical orchestral playing, the starry cast teams up for flawless ensemble. I am tempted to say that all this is rather studio-bound, but I hesitate – recitatives are lively rendered and the numbers are sung and played with spirit, albeit one guided rather by a fastidious attention to detail than to theatrical atmosphere. In a nutshell, there is much to cherish in this carefully prepared performance with many impressive parts but “revelatory” is not the word I would use to describe it as a whole. This is Montserrat Caballé’s only studio recording of a complete Mozart opera. Two months later, in a studio 35 km away from Watford (where the sessions for Così took place), she would be recording the title role in Verdi’s Aida with Riccardo Muti. This means that, although she really makes sure to keep a clear line in truly Mozartian style, this is not Caballé at her lightest with ethereal pianissimi and a smooth passaggio to her lower register. That (and the absence of trills) is what one could find fault with in an otherwise highly accomplished performance. To be honest, what I really like about Caballé here is her interpretation – especially the recitatives – in which she show as few other sopranos the self-important, snob and emotionally repressed sides of Fiordiligi’s personality. Janet Baker is not a singer I would have imagined in the role of the playful Dorabella. She too makes great use of recitatives and even finds some sexiness to the duet with Guglielmo. The tone quality is a bit vinegary and she can come across as rather grand at moments, and yet it is admirable how well she blends with Caballé in their duets. Ileana Cotrubas is simply my favourite Despina. She has it all – the earthiness, the streetwise charm plus the absolute sense of style and the vocal appeal. Nicolai Gedda was very busy in the early 70’s. Those were the days in which he was singing some strenuous roles around the world – Arnold in Guillaume Tell, Arrigo in I Vespri Siciliani – and one can feel that in his voice here. He is at his less honeyed and most emphatic, often sounding a bit dark in tone and less than ideally firm around the passaggio. This is a complete edition, and he finds no problem with the many high b flat in Ah, lo vegg’io and is not fazed by Tradito, schernito. Yet Un’aura amorosa hangs fire. Wladimiro Ganzarolli’s approach to Guglielmo is too buffo to produce the right effect – and the tonal quality does not flatter the ears. He and Gedda sound quite unsubtle when singing together. As much as live at the Royal Opera House (SEE ABOVE for C. DAVIS), Richard Van Allen is a characterful Don Alfonso. 

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

Twelve years after his studio recording for EMI, Karl Böhm re-recorded Così fan tutte in his 80th birthday 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 brings about an admirable sense of comedy and one almost “sees” the stage action in some moments, so integrated the gestures are in the music performance. This is a very particular recording – and it is even special compared to Dr. Böhm’s other recordings – and its fascination has to do with the fact that the parts here are greater than the sum. Every formidable element in this performance overwhelms it in a way that makes it almost a schyzophrenic experience. First, Karl Böhm here is pulling all stops and, at moments, tempi can sound considerate and accents on the heavy side (the overture is the most evident example) – and yet the very heaviness is used with the intent of parodying opera seria situations, exactly as Mozart and Da Ponte wanted. In other moments, the maestro presses forward in almost hectic way – and the contrast is always calculated for the right theatrical purpose. The recorded sound is also paradoxical in its clarity – you can hear what every singer is individually doing in the most complex ensembles – and at the same time, the Vienna Philharmonic as its warmest and fullest. That means, articulation is not really crystal-clear. And again you never miss any music-dramatic effect. Richard Strauss once said that the right way to conduct his Elektra would be “doing it as if it were Così fan tutte” – and this is the recording in which you see his point (especially if you have Karl Böhm’s DG studio set in mind). And there is the cast – although you find here some legendary Mozart singers, one should not expect immaculate, poised performances – here the stage action comes always first and poise fits in almost as an afterthought. Also, the singing is almost too German for this Neapolitan opera. Even the one Italian singer in the cast is on the heavy-handed side. As much as one sees the name of Gundula Janowitz in a Mozart performance with enthusiasm, one must also admits that the role requires a voice more agile than hers at this point of her career. There are many examples of exquisite singing here, especially when her soprano floats at the top of ensembles, but some turns of phrase are also awkward, many high notes sound constricted and the coloratura and some ornaments are rather perfunctorily and imprecisely managed. As one could hear in Munich (SEE ABOVE for Sawallisch), Brigitte Fassbaender’s paints in brushstrokes often too broad for Dorabella. I find her here marginally better-behaved than she would be at the Bavarian State Opera. Reri Grist’s metallic and nasal Despina sounds a bit older than what the role is supposed to be – and the slower tempi for her aria only make that more evident. Other than this, her singing is accomplished if not very characteristic. Peter Schreier’s tenor is hardly the voice one imagines for Ferrando. Here he sounds basically piercing and devoid of warmth and shows himself too fond of off-pitch comic effects that make one believe his character disguises himself as Donald the Duck rather than as a Turk or a Wallachian.  He sings only one aria, Un’aura amorosa, a bit more smoothly than in Munich. All other Ferrando cuts (including the stretta of the duet with Fiordiligi and the finale ultimo) are observed. Rolando Panerai is a boorish Don Alfonso, not in his best voice and too free about pitch. The only singer who can manage to balance musical and theatrical values equally adeptly is Hermann Prey, ideally velvety in tone, crispy in his delivery of the Italian text, mellow in phrasing and funny in interpretation. 

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

In his first studio recording,  Georg Solti offers a rather blunt performance in which forward-movement is entirely unrelated to animation. The conductor seems to press forward because this is Mozart and one should not linger. The orchestra sounds invariably thick and not truly adept in passagework, often unfocused in the recorded perspective, slightly favorable to voices, caught in absolute transparence. One does not even need a score to know exactly each singer’s part in ensembles. The performance lacks spirit as a whole and, in spite of individual talents, comes across as rather mute in expression. The edition is complete. Although Pilar Lorengar’s vibrato does not tamper with pitch, the invariably billowy phrasing is not what one would call immaculate legato. She proves to be technically fluent and very much in charge of trills, coloratura and the big intervals. If she indulges in some ornamentation even back in the 70’s, her singing sounds old-fashioned. Her Fiordiligi ultimately leaves a non-specific,  grand-dame impression. Teresa Berganza too sounds dignified as if she were performing concert arias in her best designer dress. That said, there is real allure and sense of style in her Dorabella. Jane Berbié’s soprano is a bit edgy and short in color – and yet she probably offers the most interesting interpretation in this cast. Her Despina is earthy, funny and naughty. The most Italianate of British tenors in the role of Ferrando , Ryland Davies keeps within the limits of Mozartian style a vocal production involving slightly covered tone on the passaggio,  glottal release in the end of phrases and preference for a biting vocal production. A capable, full-toned performance – and he sings a smooth Ah, lo vegg’io – but hardly mellifluous. Tom Krause sounds predictably more youthful than he would be a couple of decades later for Arnold Östman (SEE ABOVE) and gives here a subtle and charming account of the role of Guglielmo. Gabriel Bacquier is a characterful, tonally-varied Don Alfonso.

OTTO KLEMPERER, 1971
Margaret Price (Fiordiligi), Yvonne Minton (Dorabella), Lucia Popp (Despina), Luigi Alva (Ferrando), Geraint Evans (Guglielmo), Hans Sotin (Alfonso), John Alldis Choir, New Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer

Listening to Otto Klemperer’s recording is like examining a motion picture frame by frame instead of watching it. In his last complete opera recording, the German conductor seems to have exerted an obsessive compulsive examination of the score but for any sense of forward movement. The performance often sags in almost slo-mo pace, in which one can understand every little note written by Mozart dissociated of the musical or dramatic effect it was supposed to produce. At first, it produces a fascination close to watching an autopsy – there is nothing alive here – but after 20 minutes one just wants to hear a performance, and not the abstract series of sounds presented here. The Philharmonia orchestra offers transparent playing and the balance between sections is simply ideal, even if the recording  seems sometimes a bit too favorable to singers (and ensembles sometimes sound on the verge of congestion). The whole concept places an extra challenge for all singers. Sometimes one has the impression that they are uttering disconnected syllables rather than producing musical phrases. To make things worse, only two singers here offer truly crispy Italian. In such sluggish pace, almost all remaining members of the cast seem to be doing  listening and speaking practice in an Italian course. Margaret Price was not Klemperer’s first choice for Fiordiligi (he wanted Elizabeth Harwood, who sang the role in Salzburg the year before these recording sessions), and I can see his reluctance in having a less experienced singer. As heard here, Price is in its youthful best, offering a round soprano with rich low notes and perfect trills throughout. However, her healthy, full-toned singing suggests very little Innigkeit here. Per pietà, in particular, seems to be sung for the last row in the auditorium. Yvonne Minton is a firm-, reedy-toned Dorabella, a bit austere for the playful sister. Although her Italian here comes across a bit stiff, Lucia Popp offers a vivacious, warm-toned Despina with a smile in her voice. Both tenor and baritone are hardly the most mellifluous and youthful wooers in the discography. Luigi Alva sounds rather tremulous as Ferrando and his legato could be improved upon. Geraint Evans too is not the last word in firmness and the tone has an unattractive nasal quality. Next to these gentlemen, Hans Sotin’s velvety bass cannot help seeming more appealing and elegant. He sings with true Mozartian poise in a role that require a little bit more freedom – and his consonant “r” rings decidedly transalpine.

OTMAR SUITNER, 1970
Celestina Casapietra (Fiordiligi), Annelies Burmeister (Dorabella), Sylvia Geszty (Despina), Peter Schreier (Ferrando), Günther Leib (Guglielmo), Theo Adam (Alfonso), Chor der Deutschen Staatsoper Berlin, Staatskapelle Berlin, Otmar Suitner

Otmar Suitner’s recording with the forces of the Berlin Staatsoper is a memento of the Austrian conductor’s talents as a Mozart conductor. His understanding of the score’s structure and his control over his musicians result in clarity that does not only mean that “you can hear every little note”, but also which role each note plays in terms of phrases and the general structure of each number. Some items – Dorabella’s Smanie implacabili and Guglielmo’s Non siate ritrosi, for example – sound entirely fresh in their musical coherence and clarity of purpose. Sometimes, Suitner’s cerebral approach could do with a little bit more affection, but that’s a small price to pay in such revelatory music making. The Staatskapelle Berlin offers a tour de force in transparent articulation and balance. The recorded sound, understandably, is favorable to the orchestra (and this is a blessing in disguise here) and the supernatural level of clarity in ensembles is boosted by superanalytic miking. Alas, the cast requires consideration. In a horrendously unidiomatic cast, Celestina Casapietra’s native Italian cannot help being an asset. She is not a singer very specific in anyway – the tonal color is rather pale, her delivery of the text is indifferent and her sense of pitch is dubious. All that is true – and my first impression was far from positive – but once you get used to her singing, you increasingly realize that it is also very spontaneously produced in an almost pop-like way, including in the extreme low notes of her register. Actually, she handles the large intervals commendably – and even offers decent trills. One may wonder if her absolute poise in Come scoglio is dramatically effective, but one can only imagine what she would have done of Per pietà (entirely omitted in this edition). Annelies Burmeister, a name one usually associates with Wagner performances in Bayreuth, works hard for lightness as Dorabella and ends up sounding as droopy as her Fiordiligi. In her favor, one must acknowledge the absolutely glitch-free vocalism. But not much beyond that. Sylvia Geszty is probably the most accomplished soloist here – her Italian is crispy enough, she offers a spirited performance and for someone who sang roles like the Queen of the Night and Zerbinetta, her low register is healthy enough. This is without any shadow of doubt, Peter Schreier’s best Ferrando. His voice is at its lest metallic and the conductor straitjackets him to limit to the minimum in the disfiguring mannerisms that marred his subsequent performances. Here he sings Tradito, schernito and the Al fato dan legge. Günther Leib is a fraction above his German colleagues in terms of Italian pronunciation, but his baritone is so clear that evokes the musical theatre rather than the opera. Theo Adam sings here in a language faintly related to Italian – he clearly has no idea of how to pronounce the language of Dante and received no coaching at all. I wonder how Ms. Casapietra could hear all that and not offer any hints. The fact that he tries to be spirited makes the whole affair worse. Other than the cuts mentioned above, Ah, lo vegg’io is entirely excised and the finale ultimo has the usual trimming.

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 adept 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.

JOSEF KRIPS, 1968
Gundula Janowitz (Fiordiligi), Christa Ludwig (Dorabella), Olivera Miljakovic (Despina), Adolf Dallappozza (Ferrando), Walter Berry (Guglielmo), Eberhard Wächter (Alfonso), Chor und Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper, Josef Krips

The recording made live in Vienna could easily be labelled a “souvenir” of a night at the Staatsoper. It is the kind of performance in which one can almost see the stage action. That means that it might have been highly entertaining live. For repeated listenings, one feels that the cast is having more fun than the listener. First, the recorded sound is boxy, obscuring the adept if pellucid playing of the orchestra. Josef Krips probably would have conducted it in an entirely different manner in studio. One feels he is often accommodating the needs of the stage direction and the personalities of his distinguished soloists. Sometimes, he tries to move forward and impose some rhythmic regularity, but he soon gives up. There is a high level of mismatching between stage and pit – and the cast has a very broad approach, almost as if they were winking to the audience, highlighting their funny routines often in unidiomatic Italian. As recorded here, Gundula Janowitz’s soprano sounds often pinched, and she smears runs, produces extra breathing points and is sometimes emphatic in a way that tampers with legato. Let’s remember her Fiordiligi in Böhm’s studio recording. Christa Ludwig too is not at her best here, offering far more consistent Dorabellas in studio with Karl Böhm. Here her tone sounds nasal when she lightens it, there is too much “acting with the voice” and her Italian leaves something to be desired. Olivera Miljakovic’s Despina has a splash of operetta and yet she is the more appealing soprano in the cast.  Adolf Dallappozza too sings in accented Italian and often sounds crude, wayward with intonation, heavy in phrasing and lacking charm. He only gets  Un’aura amorosa, but it’s better that way. Here cast as Guglielmo, Walter Berry offers the best performance in the cast. His Italian is credible, he savours the text and the voice is warm and spontaneous. However, he embraces the buffo approach as his life depended on it, too often resorting to parlando effects and other little comic mannerisms. On the other hand, Eberhard Wächter sounds almost boorish as Don Alfonso. The edition is heavily cut. Other than the usual Ferrando cuts, the stretta to the duet with Fiordiligi is abridged, Dorabella has only one aria and the finale ultimo is shortened too.

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

When EMI decided to remake on stereo their mono studio release of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte with the Philharmonia Orchestra, Herbert von Karajan was no longer available and Karl Böhm accepted the invitation to a very rare opportunity to record with a British orchestra in London. The performance is similar in approach to his studio soundtrack to Vaclav Kaslic’s film – tempi are a tad too comfortable, but there is clarity aplenty. The Philharmonia orchestra cannot compete with the Vienna Philharmonic in terms of flexibility and lightness, but does a more than commendable job here. The recording is too favorable to singers, leaving the orchestral playing too often in the background, especially in softer dynamics. The chorus, on the other hand, sounds rather thick and big – one wonders how many servants Fiordilig and Dorabella had on their service. It is easy to understand why this item had a legendary status for so long. It features a starry cast, and Dr. Böhm offers a stylish and clear account of the score, rather on the dull and cute side though. The only repeater from Karajan’s recording, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was then an experienced Fiordiligi, not at the zenith of her vocal powers. There is a lot of crooning in tricky passages, and yet she is very much in charge of her role.  She handles the text with her costumery fussiness and, even if the voice sounds artificially darkened now and then, she offers many beautiful turns of phrase and soaring mezza voce. Christa Ludwig is at her best here as Dorabella. If she is still not truly idiomatic, what she offers here is far more credible than live at the Vienna State Opera (SEE ABOVE for Krips) and she is always characterful and warm-toned. Although Hanny Steffek’s singing suggests rather the Viennese soubrette than the Neapolitan housemaid –  especially the droopy end of phrases – her Italian is above average and she is unexaggeratedly funny. Alfredo Kraus, in one of his rare Mozart recordings, sings the part of Ferrando with absolute technical ease if little affection. Tradito, schernito sounds here particularly smooth here. As much as Christa Ludwig, Giuseppe Taddei sings the role of Guglielmo as a buffo part. Being Italian, this means he knows all the tricks of comic parts and is keen on using them. He ends on crossing the line of exaggeration, his arias sound as if he were in a sugar rush, trying all sorts of vocal colors and inflections. The voice itself is pleasant and warm, even if the upper register comes across too covered. Walter Berry is again a velvety-toned, witty Don Alfonso. All the usual Ferrando cuts are adopted, but the finale ultimo is intact.

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 Come scoglio takes her to her very limits. 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 in 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 dan legge and Ah, lo vegg’io.

HANS ROSBAUD, 1957
Teresa Stich-Randall (Fiordiligi), Teresa Berganza (Dorabella), Mariella Adani (Despina), Luigi Alva (Ferrando), Rolando Panerai (Guglielmo), Marcello Cortis (Alfonso), Choeurs du Conservatoire, Membres de l’Orchestre de la Societé des Concerts du Conservatoire, Hans Rosbaud

Così fan tutte is the single item among the Da Ponte operas conducted by Hans Rosbaud not released by EMI. It was broadcast by the Radiodiffusion Française in boxy acoustics, variable perspective and some distortion. It is not a bumpless release – the orchestra is below standard, the piano continuo is perfunctory to a fault, the chorus disappears in the second act and the singing proves that “characterful” is not always a compliment. It is a shame that Rosbaud could not record it in more appropriate circumstances. His sense of rhythm is admirable. With very few exceptions (a funereal Smanie implacabili being the most notable), each number is brought to life in colorful orchestral balance, natural sense of forward-movement and feeling for Mozartian phrasing. There are tiny mistakes everywhere, but the clarity of ensembles is admirable nonetheless. The first act finale – thanks to the sopranos’ clear divisions – is particularly transparent in its fast pace, what makes it even more praiseworthy.  Teresa Stich-Randall’s purity of tone and cleanliness of phrasing are undeniable assets for Mozart. At moments, she sings with disarming poise, and yet there are mannerisms hard to overlooking: pecking at notes, resorting to staccato when the score says otherwise, singing above pitch for “expressive” purposes and an interpretation that turns around a childish delivery of her lines. Her Dorabella, the young Teresa Berganza partners her ideally in duets and is invariably lovely and fresh-toned. Her performance here is preferable to her studio recording (SEE ABOVE for SOLTI). As almost every Italian Despina, Mariella Adani handles her dialogues with crispy pronunciation and earthy wit. Although she operates in soubrette mode , her soprano is creamy enough to avoid the one-dimensionality that afflicts many singers in -in roles. In spite of his flexibility and ease with mezza voce, Luigi Alva’s phrasing is still emphatic and unappealing. In any case, his performance here is firmer in tone than in both his studio recordings (SEE ABOVE for BÖHM and KLEMPERER). Here cast as a Guglielmo, Rolando Panerai’s performance live in Aix-en-Provence must have been funny and engaging. As recorded, there is too much acting in his voice, the parlando effects disturbing intonation and legato too often. Marcello Cortis is an example of multitasking – not only was he in charge of stage direction, but he also takes the role of Don Alfonso. His singing is not particularly remarkable and his upper register sometimes has a rough edge. His alert delivery of the text is often disruptive to the flow of Mozartian phrasing, but one takes that in the context of his vivid interpretation   . The edition involves all the Ferrando cuts (the tenor sings only Un’aura amorosa), internal trimmings in the duet with Fiordiligi and in the finale ultimo.

KARL BÖHM, 1955
Lisa della Casa (Fiordiligi), Christa Ludwig (Dorabella), Emmy Loose (Despina), Anton Dermota (Ferrando), Erich Kunz (Guglielmo), Paul Schoeffler (Alfonso), Chor der Wiener Staatsoper, Wiener Philharmoniker, Karl Böhm

With Karl Böhm and Così fan tutte, one could say first time was a charm. This performance goes beyond clarity; here the Austrian conductors offers something similar like cracking the code of Mozart’s score. An attentive listener will find here more than entertaining, one easily understands the relations between musical themes that build this work’s structure. Also, Dr. Böhm finds a rhythmic alertness here not entirely available in his subsequent recordings. Only occasionally one feels that a little bit more animation would do the trick – generally the Fiordiligi/Dorabella duets. But even then, the conductor will surprise you with a sudden change of tempo that settles the record straight. To make things better, Decca recorded it in analytic perspective – you won’t miss one single note in each number. One might point out, that this prevents an ideal blend between singers’ voices – but this is hardly a recording in which the cast takes pride of place.  The selling feature here is the playing of the Vienna Philharmonic, offering a sound entirely free of Romantic fluffiness, ideal balance, immaculate articulation and dramatic intelligence. The dry recording makes it even more aptly Mozartian. Although one finds here what one would call a Viennese dream-team in 1955, the cast has more than a splash of museology. First, although there is nothing horrible going on in terms of Italian pronunciation, all singers deliver accented Italian and exude a glamour closer to the operetta than 18th century comic opera. Lisa della Casa has many assets for the part of Fiordiligi. First, she sings with absolute purity of tone. The naturalness of her high register is a thing of marvel, and many will be surprised by the ease with the lower end of her range. In terms of interpretation, it is all quite generalized, often emphatic and sometimes her phrasing could be described as one-note-after-the-other rather than phrases. In the role of Dorabella, Christa Ludwig seems to be repeating the Italian text phonetically here, but her singing is more appealing in homogeneity of tone, warmth of sound and flowing legato. Emmy Loose’s Despina belongs to the world of Johann Strauss, but that is all one could find fault with in her pearly soprano and witty performance. Anton Dermota’s tenor is often nasal in an old-fashioned way, but he can float his high notes to the manner born in moments like Un’aura amorosa. Erich Kunz’s light, velvety baritone is always at home in Mozart. His singing is irresistibly spontaneous – and yet there is a poshness in his attitude that makes him too chic and mature for the role of the testosterone-high Guglielmo. The lack of idiomatic quality does not prevent Paul Schoeffler from offering a vivid account of the role of Don Alfonso. He has his rusty moments – and pretty much compromises Soave sia il vento with faulty control of dynamics and intonation. The edition involves the extensive version of the Ferrando cuts (only Un’aura amorosa survives, the duet with Fiordiligi is simplified) plus the deletion of È amore un ladroncello and the loss of the usual bars in the finale ultimo.

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.