MOZART Don Giovanni; Così fan tutte
Christopher Maltman (Don Giovanni), Anatoly Kotscherga (Commendatore),
Matthew Polenzani (Ottavio), Dorothea Röschmann (Donna Elvira), Ekaterina Siurina (Zerlina), Alex Esposito (Masetto), KV Weiner Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker / Bertrand de Billy, Claus Guth (stage director), Brian Large (video director).
Sound: PCM Stereo; DD 5.1; PCM 5.1
EuroArts DVD 2072548; Blu-ray 2072544
COSÌ FAN TUTTE Miah Persson (Fiordiligi), Isabel Leonard (Dorabella),
Topi Lehtipuu (Ferrando), Florian Boesch (Guglielmo), Patricia Petibon (Despina),
Bo Skovus (Don Alfonso), KV Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker /
Adam Fischer, Claus Guth (stage director), Brian Large (video director).
Sound: PCM 2.0, DTS Master Audio Surround Sound
Unitel Classica DVD A04001516; EuroArts Blu-ray 2072534
For the 250th Mozart birthday celebrations in 2006, stage director Claus Guth devised a revelatory production of Le nozze di Figaro for
the Salzburg Festival (issued shortly afterwards on Deutsche Grammophon DVD and Blu-ray).
Creating a pre-war, upstairs/downstairs mise-en-scène for the piece – with
most of the assignations and sotto voce conspiracies confined to the landings of a stark stairwell in the Almaviva townhouse – Guth mined Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto
for all its illicit sexuality and introspective self-torture, amost as
if seen through the lens of Ingmar Bergman. Mozartian
fundamentalists seeking the manicured surfaces and merely implied adulteries that a literal reading would have offered no doubt greeted the production with stony silence. But Guth tapped the work’s dark-night-of-the-soul undercurrents more arrestingly than any other production in recent memory.
Guth returned to Salzburg to complete his Mozart/Da Ponte trilogy
in 2008 with Don Giovanni, and in 2009, with Così fan tutte – productions that have recently been issued on DVD and Blu-ray
by EuroArts and Unitel Classica.
If neither reading quite exhibits the power and theatrical cohesion of his Figaro, they’re nevertheless full of interesting ideas and terrific performances. Once again, Guth has yet to meet a subtext he doesn’t like. Donna Anna is fully complicit in her sexual escapade with Giovanni, and spends the opera manufacturing lies to throw Ottavio
off the scent. Giovanni, for his part, spends the opera strung-out on heroin and appears to be in the agonizing thrall of an even stronger sexual addiction.
In Così, the men’s “disguises” are no more than African masks held over their faces, and before long they’re seducing their swapped lovers as themselves. The biker-chick Despina, too, appears as the Doctor – entirely undisguised – and seems, throughout the opera, to loathe every rich, entitled character in the room, enduring them all for a much-needed influx of cash.
What undercuts the potentially raw honesty of Guth’s character decisions are the elements he introduces that robs these lovers of any free choice. That predatory Cupid in Figaro wasn’t so much directing the lovers as appearing like some physical manifestation of the erotic longings that everyone already seemed to be grappling with. But the heroin-induced haze that Giovanni (and his tic-ridden, mentally-challenged fellow-addict and servant, Leporello) has succumbed to renders him essentially without free agency, under a narcotic power not his own.
Even more damaging, in Così, is Guth’s decision to give Alfonso some supernatural mojo that hypnotizes the lovers (and Despina, too). Well, of course everyone’s going to re-couple at Alfonzo’s will, if every time he waves his hand they stagger like horny zombies into each other’s arms! Where’s the challenge in that?
Fortunately, the director has forged ensembles of wonderful singing actors who make both productions compelling pieces of theatre. Vocally, there’s really not a weak link in either cast, and the women’s voices – particularly the warm glow and silvery shimmer of Dorothea Roschmann’s Elvira, Annette Dasch’s Anna and Miah Persson’s Fiordiligi; the agility and bright finish of Patricia Petibon’s Despina; and the lyrical fervor and supple line Isabel Leonard gives the role of Dorabella. All represent a high-water mark of current Mozart singing.
And that’s not to slight the tender phrasing that tenors Matthew Polenzani (Ottavio) and Topi Lehtipuu (Ferrando) bring to their parts, or the happy pairing of Christopher Maltman’s handsomely sung Giovanni and Erwin Schrott’s equally impressive Leporello. The latter two also prove riveting actors – as, most notably, do Dasch and Petibon. Indeed, both casts function at an unusually high level of acting, with the Così ensemble, especially, providing some of the most convincingly naturalistic work you’re likely to see on an opera stage (not to mention qualifying as the most physically stunning collection of singers I can remember seeing in a single production).
Both operas enjoy vivid support from the pit as well. In Giovanni – in the version of the score that concludes with the Don being dragged to Hell and omits the moralizing finale that gives the succor and balm of closure to all the remaining characters – Bertrand de Billy favors propulsive, crisply accented, period-informed phrasing, with Adam Fischer taking a more measured, warmly traditional approach to Così.
These stagings look gorgeous on Blu-ray, thanks in no small part to Christian Schmidt’s set designs. Giovanni unfolds in a dense, benighted forest set on a revolving turntable, so there’s no escape from its lurking dangers. Zerlina’s wedding becomes a wild nighttime event, Elvira finds herself abandoned in a fluorescently-lit bus-stop nestled among the trees, and Anna sits, smoking, in the front seat of Ottavio’s luxury car, which he has swerved into a clearing when stricken with doubts about her fidelity.
The Così set is even cannier in its iconography – an ultra-modern and sleekly upscale duplex apartment that is gradually overtaken by the wild forest outside its windows, until trees are growing through the living room floor, and the sectional sofa is sitting in a mound of dirt. At once stunningly finished and elemental, these designs lend as much power to Guth’s work as his resourceful singers do.