New wine in old vodka bottles? Così fan tutte from Perm

Mozart: Così fan tutte (Sony)

cosi-currentzis-sonyThis is the second issue in the Mozart/ Da Ponte opera cycle from Perm, home to Europe’s easternmost opera house, and once again, Sony gives it the red carpet treatment.  A hardback case, with glossy cobalt jacket, houses a whopping 275 pages, with the discs in sturdy, easy-to-withdraw sleeves.

It includes an indulgent eight-page interview with conductor Teodor Currentzis who rather plays up to his enfant terrible image. He describes Da Ponte’s libretto as “grotesque” although it is set “to the music of angels”. If Le nozze di Figaro is about “revolution in politics, then Così is about ‘revolution in the sphere of love’”. Currentzis explains his approach to music-making and recording, decrying the “Walter Legge slickness” of yore, railing against the system, as he perceives it, and outdated concert rituals. Despite claiming not wanting to be radical, the biography describes his orchestra, MusicAEterna as “non-establishment” and “anarchic”. He makes no claims to authenticity, playing on period instruments because he prefers their sound. However, his Figaro recording attracted controversy over his statements about stripping away singers’ vibrato.

I hadn’t heard Sony’s Figaro recording, but an initial listen to the overture to this Così fan tutte establishes Currentzis’ credo. Accents are exaggerated, fortes bracing. The Russian orchestra is closely recorded, so much so that the clatter of bassoon keys is sharply in focus. Tempi are zippy and the playing hard-driven in a way that will either exhilarate or infuriate. I have to admit to finding myself siding with the former.

But is this all a case of new wine in old vodka bottles? René Jacobs, with Concerto Köln, drives just as hard and many of the criticisms flung at Currentzis have been directed at Jacobs and Roger Norrington, among others, before. It’s not as groundbreaking as the claims would have you believe, but little matter. The playing bristles with vibrancy and it’s clear there are plenty of ideas going on in Currentzis’ interpretation.

Details which delight include the clipped, military strings’ in the Act I chorus, complete with terrific gunfire rattle, and lovely burbling clarinets burbling in Dorabella’s aria “È amore un ladroncello” in Act II. However, the busy fortepiano contributions could easily grate on repeated listening. There’s a little reference to “Soave sia il vento” to introduce the recitative before the famous trio itself; similarly, there’s a quote from “In uomini, in soldati” to introduce Despina, as the maid enters with chocolate for the ladies. It’s trying to be too clever by half. Overall, however, my impression of the orchestral playing was very positive. Speeds are not always hectored – Guglielmo’s “Non siate ritrosi”, for example, is taken at a relaxed pace.

When it comes to the singing, the men emerge strongly. Kenneth Tarver and Christopher Maltman, as Ferrando and Guglielmo, are both stylish Mozartians and I’ve enjoyed their performances in Così in London (2001 and 2004, respectively). Tarver’s beautiful, heady tenor is wonderful in “Un aura amorosa”, a fine example of tonal beauty and fluidity of line. “Non siate ritrosi” finds Maltman on winning form, full of charm and little comic touches, such as a nasal tone for “bel naso”.

Konstantin Wolff grainy bass-baritone makes him sound older than he is (he’s the youngest of the male singers here), but his quick-fire banter with the lads gets proceedings off to a lively start in Act I, as the wager between Don Alfonso and his gullible friends is set.

On the distaff side, doubts creep in. Simone Kermes sings the role of Fiordiligi almost entirely in hushed head voice, which – far from adding a touching sense of intimacy – comes across as contrived and precious. Her intonation leans towards vinegary. “Come scoglio” has touches of shrillness and little of the dignity that Véronique Gens finds on Jacobs’ recording. The string attack, however, is appropriately tempestuous. “Per pietà”, begun on a mere thread of sound, is similarly mannered and breathy.

Malena Ernman, by contrast, sounds much richer, almost plummy, as Dorabella. Nevertheless, her mezzo-soprano is agile and she negotiates the breathless palpitations of “Smanie implacabili” well. She is at her best in the duet “Il core vi dono” with Maltman, he honeyed of tone, she responding convincingly. When pitched against Bernarda Fink’s magnificent Dorabella for Jacobs, however, she doesn’t impress so much. Anna Kasyan is a spunky Despina, “Una donna a quindici anni” in Act II dispatched with much coquettishness.

“When society gets old, it tries to make an old Mozart, a harmless Mozart,” Currentzis explains. Well, the Mozart who emerges here is anything but harmless – razor-sharp, but not without humour. If it weren’t for the casting of Kermes as Fiordiligi, this would be a strong contender for the period instrument Così crown, even if that crown is worn somewhat rakishly.

Sony Classical (88765 46616-2) Simone Kermes (Fiordiligi), Malena Ernman (Dorabella), Christopher Maltman (Guglielmo), Kenneth Tarver (Ferrando), Anna Kasyan (Despina), Konstantin Wolff (Don Alfonso); MusicAEterna/ Teodor Currentzis
Gens, Fink, Güra, Boone et al; Concerto Köln/ René Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi, 3 discs) 901663.65 (1998)

Review originally published in International Record Review


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