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Friday, August 5, 2011

DVD Review: The Old Switcheroo

Così fan tutte from La Scala.
Dolores Ziegler (left) and Daniela Dessì in a frame-grab from Così fan tutte.
Image © 1998 OpusArte/Teatro alla Scala.
As Mostly Mozart opens this week, it's time to blow the dust off this underrated 1998 film of Così fan tutte from La Scala. Made during Riccardo Muti's tenure as music director, this fizzy performance is notable for an excellent ensemble cast and the pert Despina of Adelina Scarabelli.

Despina is a complex role, the maid-servant who sets Da Ponte's whirling plot in motion. She must be trusted confidante, smart servant, and immediately the most appealing character to the audience. As the female equivalent of Figaro in the earlier collaboration between Mozart and da Ponte, Despina is a challenging part for even the starriest singer.

With her low-lying, rapid-fire soprano, Ms. Scarabelli meets all of the requirements. Her "Una donna a quindici anni" is marvelously delivered, earning deserved "bravo" cries from the Milan audience. But she is also strong when disguised as the mesmerist and the notary in the finales of each act, delivering the dialogue with good comic acting and a minimum of irritating vocal effect.

She is surrounded by an excellent cast. Daniela Dessì and Delores Ziegler are a compelling pair as Fiordiligi and Dorabella, generating onstage chemistry with both of their leading men. A regular singer at the house during the Muti years, Ms. Dessì leads off "A ugarda della sorella" with sweet, carefully formed tone. She is well-matched with Ms. Ziegler, and the two voices blend well.

Alessandro Corbelli and Josef Kundlak are the two fellas who dress up as Albanians and go through all sorts of plot contrivances in order to see if their partners are willing to trade. The tenor and baritone (respectively) make the most of Da Ponte's cynical humor. Mr. Corbelli is especially compelling in the later acts, as the would-be girlfriend-swappers discover that they may not want to switch back. Claudio Desderi plays it fairly straight as Don Alonso, the old gentlemen whose bet with these two cads sets the story in motion.

This production was shot in Mr. Muti's salad days, when the raven-haired conductor ruled Scala with an iron fist and a velvet baton. Michael Hampe presents a traditional production in authentic-looking period costume, keeping the opera in its correct geographical setting. In today's age of regietheater run wild, this simple approach makes this DVD refreshing. The only device is a blue curtain which creates a theater-within-a-theater. But even this serves a dramatic purpose, allowing for quick changes and theatrical asides to the audience from Despina and Don Alonso.

Riccardo Muti is an underrated Mozart conductor whose recordings were drowned in the flood of major label releases at the end of the 20th century. Here, he leads Mozart's music in a crisp, even style, driving the action forward and setting an expert pace for the singers. It's a little fast when it has to be, but the big lyric moments in this extraordinary score are allowed to blossom fully.

One complaint. In the finale, the maestro makes a ghostly appearance over the stage, burned in digitally so the viewer can watch both maestro and performers. But the effect distracts mightily from the fine staging presented here, coming as it does at the most inopportune moments.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.