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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Superconductor Opera Guide: Cosí fan tutte

"Boys versus girls in the World Series of love.".
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A scene from Così fan tutte as staged in 2005 by the Comic Opera of Berlin.
Image © 2005 The Comic Opera of Berlin.
Cosí fan tutte  is the last of the three operas Mozart wrote in close collaboration with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. But unlike their preceding collaborations, this opera is an original story by da Ponte, its impetus coming from a phrase in their earlier Le Nozze di Figaro. The title translates loosely as "Women are like that." It comes from the longer phrase "Così fan tutte la belle", uttered by the sarcastic Don Basilio in that earlier opera. Unfortunatly for Mozart and Da Ponte, the death of Emperor Joseph II squashed enthusiasm for their new opera in Vienna, and it closed after only five performances.

On the surface, this is an intimate comedy, where two callow soldiers decide to test the fidelity of their girlfriends by disguising themselves and temporarily switching partners. But deep down, there is something cynical and disquieting about this opera, where love is sacrificed on an altar of 18th century rarionality. Small wonder that Cosí waited until the later 20th century to secure its place in the operatic repertory. Since it can be done without a chorus, it is popular with smaller opera companies who rely on young talent to fill its difficult leading roles.

The plot is simple. Ferrando and Gugliemo are hanging out in a tavern bragging about their fiancées: two sisters named Fiordiligi and Dorabella. The elderly Don Alfonso challenges the young bucks to a bet, that their women will not remain faithful to their lovers. The boys disguise themselves as "Albanians" and with the help of the Don and Despina (the girls' cynical maid) woo each other's lady-friend. The women not only capitulate but even sign marriage contracts with their "new" fellas. Then the two men exit, remove their disguises, find the marriage contract and act all offended. In some productions, all is forgiven. In others, Fiordiligi and Dorabella embrace their new partners. And in others, the whole thing ends on a cynical question mark.

The appeal of Cosí lies not in its plot but in its music, some of the most enaging and energetic that Mozart ever wrote. The arias are exposed and very challenging, with Mozart reportedly writing Fiordiligi's Act I "Per pietà" to make it as difficult as possible for a soprano (Adriana Ferrarese, who also created the role of Susanna) he didn't particularly like. In this aria and others, Fiordiligi comes across as a character from opera seria that happens to be in the leading role in an opera buffa, and her genuine pathos in the second act gives the last scenes of Così much of their power.

There's plenty of comic business here, with the pairing of tenor and baritone, soprano and mezzo engaging in lots of duets, trios and quartets. The scene where the girls send their men off to war is a parody of the opera seria style, and the very next scene where they reject the now-disguised boys is very funny indeed. Each of the two long acts climaxes in gorgeous ensembles. Each finale culminates in an extended finale centering around Despina disguising herself, first as a doctor of "mesmirism" and then as a notary public to take down the marriage contract. Only the finale, with its praise of rationality over love, feels forced.

Recording Recommendations: 
Many of the great Mozart recordings from major labels have been bundled into box sets of "complete Mozart operas" or "complete Mozart and Da Ponte operas." That means it's hard to buy an individual recording of Cosí fan tutte. That said, of the ones available, there are two ways to go: modern, and "period", with instruments from the 18th century. Here is a survey of five good recordings from different decades.

Philharmonia Chorus cond. Karl Böhm (EMI/WBC 1960)
Mozart expert Karl Böhm made three studio recordings of Cosí, with two in Vienna and this one in London. It is lauded for the combination of Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Christa Ludwig as Fiordiligi and Dorabella and the tender performance of the young Alfredo Kraus as Ferrando. There are cuts taken.

Berlin Philharmonic cond. Eugen Jochum (Deutsche Grammophon, 1963)
This is a very fine German stereo recording from the 1960s, with an all-star cast of singers. Eugen Jochum's crystalline, old-school conducting and the smooth DG analog sound are selling points, along with the superb performance of Ms. Seefried in the key role of Fiordiligi. Interestingly, this set features Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Hermann Prey, the two greatest baritone lieder singers of the 20th century as Don Alfonso and Gugliemo. There are a few small standard cuts.

London Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Georg Solti (Decca, 1973)
This recording has been eclipsed by Solti's star-studded remake from the 1990s but it is the better of the two--with the top-notch pairing of Pilar Lorengar and Teresa Berganza as the very put-upon sisters. The men are not quite as strong, with Ryland Davies and Tom Krause workmanlike casting as the two soldiers. The orchestra and chorus are superb.

English Baroque Soloists cond. John Eliot Gardiner (DG Archiv, 1992)
This ensemble recording was the first of the Da Ponte comedies that John Eliot Gardiner recorded and another highlight of his outstanding Mozart cycle on period instruments. It also has the benefit of being completely uncut and presented in sparkling sound.

Concerto Koln cond. René Jacobs (harmonia mundi, 1999)
The Jacobs recording is part of this conductor's ongoing cycle of Mozart operas played on period instruments with some of the finest historically informed players in Germany. With a strong, young cast and bright, clear sound, this is an attempted return to the style of the opera as Mozart may have heard it. It is completely uncut.

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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.