Recording of July 1999: Mozart: Così fan tutte

MOZART: Così fan tutte
Véronique Gens, Fiordiligi; Bernarda Fink, Dorabella; Werner Güra, Ferrando; Marcel Boone, Guglielmo; Pietro Spagnoli; Graciela Oddone, Despina; Kölner Kammerchor, Concerto Köln, René Jacobs
Harmonia Mundi 951663.65 (3 CDs). 1999. Barbara Valentin, artistic dir.; Mark Hohn, eng. DDD. TT: 3:21:09
Performance *****
Sonics *****

Each of the great Mozart/da Ponte collaborations is comic in some ways, and not in others. While Don Giovanni makes us laugh with the Don's brazen behavior, Leporello's clowning, and its sheer swagger, it examines the very essence of evil. Figaro, with its elaborate tricks, disguises, frolicsome role-playing, and mistaken identities, also takes a hard look at the way the aristocracy keeps the underclass down. Così fan tutte, the last and most complicated of the three, is also the most down-to-earth, dealing as it does with regular guys and their regular gals. But amid officers dressed as Albanians, maids disguised as doctors or notaries, and the curative powers of magnets, it deals with no less than the core of our emotive beings: the concepts of love and trust.

The plot was supposed to have been suggested to Mozart by the Emperor himself, and was based on a piece of gossip floating around Vienna at the time: A couple of wacky gentlemen decided to disguise themselves and woo one another's lady friends; presumably, mirth ensued. Or did it? No documentation of the actual event comes down to us, but in the Mozart/da Ponte partnership, subtitled The School for Lovers, everyone winds up wiser and a lot sadder. There is nothing shallow or stage-bound about the plot of Così, and it is as far away from the posings of opera seria as opera can get. It takes place in the space of one day—and quite a day it is.

The music, of course, matches and complements the narrative complexity. Never has satire been so lovely, and only rarely do laughter and tears go so unerringly hand-in-hand. Vocal lines mock convention and allow characters to pose, instruments of the orchestra comment on the characters' situations, and the music glows as psyches are probed. Così is the ideal ensemble opera; in addition to a handful of arias, there are a sextet, two quintets, a quartet, five trios, and six duets, not to mention two quarter-hour finales that mix and match voice combinations in every way imaginable.

Conductor René Jacobs, his cast, and the engineers have opted for genuine intimacy and true ensemble work here, and the result is spectacular.. Continuo is provided by a very audible and active pianoforte, which ornaments appropriately and wittily. It's used not only during the recitatives but during most tuttis as well, underlining the action throughout, and is most welcome. Every word and orchestral line is audible, but one never gets any sense of an artificial soundstage; the effect, rather, is that this small but important story is happening within our earshot—we are overhearing the events taking place. Dozens of other recordings of Così are available, some very fine, and I'm familiar with them all—but unlike any of them, this one calls for our total involvement.

Tempos, are, by and large, quick, with one or two glaring exceptions—the quintet "Di scrivermi ogni giorno" is dragged out melodramatically, and it's outrageously funny. What Jacobs does is make the score swing—the four-minute overture is practically danceable—and throughout the performance the rhythmic balances are never off, neither within nor between the individual numbers. I don't know if this set was recorded following some live performances, but it certainly sounds as if it was—it fairly reeks of the theater, as opposed to the recording studio.

Because this is such a flawless ensemble reading, I feel a bit guilty singling out any performer over the others. But Gens and Fink are so good—in the Schwarzkopf and Ludwig class, but far more "modern" (ie, "authentic")—that they should be applauded. Another area in which this set shines is the terrific way the voices blend; say what one will about the superb 1962 Böhm reading, Schwarzkopf and Kraus go together like oil and water. Jacobs' Concerto Köln play like virtuosos, and they, like the singers, embellish freely and naturally.

I'm not sure I'd ever want to get rid of the Böhm recording, or Karajan's from the '50s; but if pushed, this new set is the one I'd take to a desert island. It made me hear the opera as brand new, with a freshness and a freedom that are priceless.—Robert Levine