Conductor and Orchestra save the day in Palais Garnier’s Così fan tutte

Mozart, Così fan tutte: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra national de Paris/ Philippe Jordan (conductor). Palais Garnier, Paris, 16.6.2011 (MB)

Fiordiligi – Elza van den Heever
Dorabella – Karine Deshayes
Guglielmo – Paulo Szot
Ferrando – Matthew Polenzani
Despina – Anne-Catherine Gillet
Don Alfonso – William Shimell

Ezio Toffolutti (director, designs)
André Diot (lighting)
Chorus master: Patrick Marie Aubert)

Production Picture © Agathe Poupeney/Opéra national de Paris

Così fan tutte is such an integral part of any music-lover’s life that one readily forgets how recently it became more than a connoisseur’s piece. Sometimes, given what this most fragile of works has inflicted upon it, one almost wishes that it had remained so. Busoni and Strauss were heralds of a more enlightened age; festivals such as Glyndebourne, Aix-en-Provence, and of course Salzburg also played their part. It is not an easy opera to stage, though I am not sure what is. Herbert von Karajan thought it an opera for recording rather than stage performance. Moreover, Così is certainly not an easy opera to perform either; nothing by Mozart, whether vocal or instrumental, is.

It is salutary to note that the work only entered the repertoire of the Opéra Comique, in a ‘French adaptation’, in 1920, and had to wait until 1963 for that same company to present the work as would be more readily recognised, borrowing a production from Aix. The Palais Garnier came even later to the party in 1974, though the list of participants looks mouthwatering indeed. The production was by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, conducted by no less a Mozartian than Josef Krips, with a cast that reads as if it were assembled for a recording: Margaret Price, Jane Berbié, Tom Krause, Ryland Davies, Teresa Stratas, and Gabriel Bacquier. That was then, this is now.

Leaving recordings aside, I have had two, arguably three (since one counts twice), revelatory experiences of the work: Hans Neuenfels’s Salzburg Festival production, which took the work seriously, as it must be taken, presenting its trajectory as a dangerous exploration of something wonderful and ineffable, and Sir Colin Davis’s conducting of the work for the Royal Opera (twice). Alas, Sir Colin’s truly great direction from the pit was on both occasions allied, heartbreakingly so, to Jonathan Miller’s vulgar travesty of a staging. Less revelatory, perhaps, but still very good, and more consistently so, was my first viewing of a successor to that Salzburg production: a painterly depiction by Karl-Ernst and Ursula Hermann, conducted by Philippe Jordan.

I might have been inclined to scepticism concerning the wisdom of conducting overlapping productions of Così and Götterdämmerung, yet Jordan’s contribution to this Paris performance was for the most part impressive. Tempi were judiciously chosen and appropriately varied: nothing sounded ‘wrong’, as one generally finds. Light and shade were present throughout, without ever sounding forced; most of the reading sounded as natural as breathing, Mozartian art concealing art. In this, Jordan was aided by excellent playing from the Orchestra of the Opéra National de Paris. It was the first time I had heard the orchestra in Mozart, but will not, I hope, be the last. Strings were warm and refined; woodwind veritably bubbled. If this were not the Vienna Philharmonic of that Salzburg performance, then the comparison is more than unusually odious. There were just a very few occasions when Jordan’s momentum sagged, most notably part way through the second-act finale, but nobody – apart from Mozart – is perfect. Even when I was not entirely convinced by tempo decisions, for instance during ‘Soave sia il vento’, faster than I might have expected, less ravishing than I might have hoped for, Jordan managed to bring off the unexpected, in this case in a Klemperer-like plainspoken fashion.

The vocal picture was more occluded. Pride of place should be accorded to the Despina of Anne-Catherine Gillet, hers a new voice to me. Far too often reduced to a caricature of a ‘character’ role, this Despina was beautifully sung, making one realise what one far too often misses. Phrasing was unerringly Mozartian. Karine Deshayes presented a good account of Dorabella’s part, with which I could find no real fault. Elza van den Heever started off very well as Fiordiligi, her ‘Come scoglio’ well despatched, with admirable firmness of tone, necessary to the crucial element, sadly unappreciated by most stage directors, of seria parody. However, ‘Per pietà’ provided uncomfortable listening, the line unsustained and one trill not so much fumbled as disintegrated. It is a stern task, admittedly, but Mozart is a cruel taskmaster and offers nowhere to hide.

William Shimell made a decent enough job of Don Alfonso, bar one highly noticeable faltering during the first scene, but that served mainly to remind one that, given the limited resources of the role’s creator, Francesco Bussani, this is not a role given to vocal display. So long as you were not expecting Sir Thomas Allen, this was a reasonable performance. Paulo Szot’s account of Guglielmo sometimes proved coarse. The character may not be an intellectual, or indeed especially sensitive, but Mozart should never sound crude. There were better moments, however, especially during the first act, when a gift for stylish phrasing displayed itself. Most surprising, though, was Matthew Polenzani’s Ferrando. I had admired Polenzani in this role at Covent Garden under Paris, but here he sounded strangely miscast. ‘Un aura amoroso’ received great applause, but this was an emoting delivery, vibrato disconcertingly wide, the all-too noticeable ‘effect’ of his mezza voce more appropriate to Puccini than to Mozart. It was almost Pavarotti-lite, without the personality.

As for Ezio Toffolutti’s staging, what can one say? This is a revival of a production mothballed during the Gérard Mortier years, not quite on the level of the recent reconstruction of Giorgio Strehler’s Figaro – a bizarre undertaking, surely more a riposte to Nicolas Joël’s predecessor than a serious artistic statement – but even so… To begin with, I thought that the pretty eighteenth-century sets and costumes might provide a harmless enough setting for the coruscating dissection of human conduct that Mozart presents; artificiality, the only way one can bear a work that unsparingly goes beyond Tristan, might even be heightened. However, mere prettiness becomes coarsened by ‘comic’ touches, which, if not so disastrous as those of Jonathan Miller, nevertheless misunderstand the work, even if pleasing a reactionary element in the audience, wishing to remain resolutely unchallenged. In Così, the form of comedy is employed in order to present something that could not be further removed from the ‘comic’; this is not Rossini. An element, albeit utterly non-amusing, of the Carry On films has no place here. Jordan’s conducting and the orchestral playing more or less saved the day, but they, and Gillet’s Despina, let alone Mozart, deserved a far better production.

Mark Berry