Austria Salzburg Festival (8) – Mozart, Così fan tutte: Soloists, Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Ernst Raffelsberger), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach (conductor). Haus für Mozart, Salzburg, 25.8.2013 (MB)
Fiordiligi – Malin Hartelius
Dorabella – Marie-Claude Chappius
Despina – Martina Janková
Ferrando – Martin Mitterrutzner
Guglielmo – Luca Pisaroni
Don Alfonso – Gerald Finley
Sven-Erik Bechtholf (director)
Rolf Glittenberg (set designs)
Marianne Glittenberg (costumes)
Jürgen Hofmann (lighting)
Ronny Dietrich (dramaturgy)
I have scrupulously avoided reviews of the opening night of Salzburg’s new Così fan tutte before writing this review (of the second night – or rather afternoon ince the performance began at the very odd time of 1 p.m.). However, news filtered through to me that it was universally execrated – perhaps an exaggeration, but we shall see – and indeed that Christoph Eschenbach had been booed.
I have never held the highest opinion of newspaper journalists, though there are many honourable exceptions; ‘some of my best friends…’ etc. In this case, however, all I can say is that either I have been misinformed, the second performance was entirely different from the first (which is possible), or journalists deserve to sink lower still in our imagination. Whilst this was not the finest Cosi I have heard or indeed seen, it was superior to many others, and such a reaction, especially when apparently universal (which should perhaps always make one suspicious, were the idea of a Franz Welser-Möst claque not so inherently ridiculous) seems straightforwardly incomprehensible.
Let us start with the conductor and orchestra, then. Welser-Möst had made a great song and dance about withdrawing not only from this production, but the projected Da Ponte cycle (Don Giovanni next year, Figaro and the cycle as a whole in 2015), allegedly on behalf of the Vienna Philharmonic, yet the claims of unacceptable rehearsal schedules lose all credibility when any comparison is made with the typical state of affairs ‘at home’, at the Vienna State Opera. Eschenbach’s appointment as replacement seemed at the time to me an interesting and indeed hopeful sign, iand ndicative of Alexander Pereira’s laudable determination, voiced in a press conference I attended in London, that Mozart should not now fall victim to what he all too accurately, if all too tragically, termed the ‘Bach problem’, namely that Mozart should not also fall victim to capture by the ‘authenticke’ brigade and its fellow-travellers. (Having Nikolaus Harnoncourt conduct The Magic Flute last year with the Concentus musicus Wien may sit oddly with that, but may simply betoken genuine open-mindedness. Stranger things have happened. – allegedly.)
If this were not a performance with the depth of insight, and indeed of life-long immersion, of the late Sir Colin Davis, or Karl Böhm (how glorious the years in which Salzburg effectively designated Così as his province must have been!), it was far more than efficient. Tempi were convincingly if not always conventionally chosen; even if there were a few occasions when pit and stage lost touch – for some reason, a surprisingly common occurrence in this opera – they were swiftly corrected. Most impressive was Eschenbach’s sense of chiaroscuro, for which the VPO must also of course share praise. There was not a single ugly sound – perhaps the critics were longing for some of Harnoncourt’s ‘abrasiveness’ (the most diplomatic term I can offer), but this was not bland. Lightness of touch did not preclude emotional and, on a few occasions, sonorous profundity. I had expected Eschenbach that would use a larger orchestra; the VPO was essentially reduced to a chamber band, yet that reduction did not entail the clattering of Meissen china. Eschenbach, to my surprise, opted for a fortepiano continuo. It is strange how conductors – and indeed pianists – who would never consider using the period instrument for solo work opt for it as continuo instrument; Riccardo Muti is another example. Quite what the problem with a modern piano is held to be I am not sure, but Enrico Maria Cacciari’s playing was alert and stylish, without exhibitionism, much like the orchestra as a whole.
The cast on the whole impressed too, though there was some unevenness. Gerald Finley though was a masterly and masterful – for once the oft-confused words both apply here – Don Alfonso, making his mark through authority and quicksilver response to text and situation, a worthy successor to Sir Thomas Allen, whom I have heard more than once in that role here in Salzburg. Luca Pisaroni proved just as distinguished a Guglielmo as he had a Figaro in Claus Guth’s excellent Salzburg staging. Suavely and darkly attractive of voice and presence, his attentiveness to the text was every bit the equal of Finley’s, suggesting the truth of Stanley Sadie’s oft-repeated remark that the presence of an Italian native speaker in a Mozart cast lifted the general level of responsiveness to the libretto. Both singers can act too – and did.
Martin Mitterrutzner often sang attractively as Ferrando, but sounded parted by the role a little too often; whether this were just an off-day, or a more general problem, I cannot say. He is certainly an eager stage animal. Malin Hartelius sometimes experienced problems with her coloratura, but by the same token, there was much to enjoy, and her performance improved as it progressed. Mozart, the cruellest of musical masters, if the most necessary for vocal (and instrumental) health and flexibility, of course offers nowhere to hide. Marie-Claude Chappuis offered proper vocal contrast, attractively despatched in vocal and stage terms, as Dorabella, and Martina Janková offered a more musical, less caricatured Despina than most we endure. Choral singing was of a notably high standard, even though there is not that much of it.
Bechtholf’s staging may not have been the most radical the work has experienced; I retain fond memories of Hans Neuenfels’s 2000 Salzburg staging, the first time I saw the work in the theatre, though sometimes I seem to be the only one who does. But Bechtholf’s staging makes a strong, rather than lazy, case for setting the work in a contemporary setting – contemporary, that is, to Mozart and Da Ponte, as – at the time – it was ‘intended’. It is not set in Naples, but then it is in no sense whatsoever ‘about’ Naples. Indeed, its siting there was probably a matter of evading the censor, who may have disapproved of the work’s ‘immorality’ being set too close to home, as in the alleged ‘true story’ from the Wiener Neustadt – ‘Nea polis’. At any rate, a handsome eighteenth-century setting, with a fine sense of the cusp between Enlightenment reason and proto-Romantic sensibility, was not there to flatter audience members who simply wished to sigh at pretty frocks; it served a dramatic purpose.
Sometimes the conflict between those two opposing, or at least not identical, forces is more convincing than at other points. The spa/hot-house setting works well, I think, and put me in mind – though I doubt that this were the intention – of the relationship I have long pondered between Così and the Treibhaus of Tristan. However, the drunkenness of the sisters at the beginning of the second act seems a mistake, exaggerated for effect, and trespassing upon the music, even if it were ‘only’ recitative. There is nothing other, though, that I should describe as un-musical, which again marks a refreshing contrast with many opera stagings, of whatever hue. Don Alfonso’s drinking of poison at the end is surprising, though again it made me consider complement and contradiction to Tristan. Perhaps Bechtholf was suggesting that Così is not quite so clear-eyed and unflinching with regard to the illusions and delusions of ‘romantic’ and ‘Romantic’ love, or perhaps he was saying the opposite; at the very least, it made me think.