Salzburg is Mozart’s hometown—I write this just around the corner from the house he grew up in—and this year the Salzburg Festival is honoring him by staging all three Da Ponte operas.
“Da Ponte operas”? The three Mozart operas whose librettist is Lorenzo Da Ponte, the talented con man from Venice. They are The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte.
Here at the festival, they are stage-directed by Sven-Eric Bechtolf, the German who is a capo of the festival at large.
I saw Così fan tutte in the Felsenreitschule on Friday afternoon.
Hang on, the Felsenreitschule? That vast, stony auditorium? Why not the House for Mozart, next door? That house was (obviously) made for Mozart.
The festival had some logistical problems, not worth getting into. In any case, Così fan tutte, a chamber opera, worked just fine in the Felsenreitschule. Smart direction can find a way.
Così has six singers—three boys and three girls. But probably the most important performer, as in so many operas, is the conductor. He is the straw that stirs the drink. He sets the tone of the entire affair. He determines the overall quality of the evening (or, in this case, afternoon).
In the Felsenreitschule, he was Ottavio Dantone, an Italian who specializes in the Baroque. He does this on the harpsichord and on a podium. But never mind “specializes”: Dantone proved himself a superb Classical conductor, a superb Mozartean, and superb, period.
He had energy and style. He was generally light, but not airy-fairy. He got cleanness of attack and execution from the orchestra, but the music was not too angular. It was beautifully sculpted.
Frankly, you can go a long time without hearing Mozart conducting so good.
Playing at a very high level was the Mozarteum Orchestra of Salzburg, a redheaded stepchild here at the festival, whose pride is the Vienna Philharmonic. The Mozarteum band needed to take a backseat to no one on Friday afternoon. I have heard the VPO fall short of this mark, trust me.
Usually, the name “Ottavio” in Mozart is associated with Don Giovanni (Don Ottavio being the tenor role). Now I may think of Ottavio Dantone.
Portraying Don Alfonso in Così was Michael Volle, the German baritone. He sang with utter security. Beyond that, I have never seen a Don Alfonso quite like this: virile and explosive—rather dangerous. Often, Don Alfonso is played in a wry, avuncular way.
And never have I seen a Così so Alfonso-dominated. Yet Volle did not dominate the show wrongly, or even voluntarily: he just did. He was the loudest of the singers—though he never forced—and he is a big, imposing presence, physically.
As longtime readers may remember, I’ve always thought he looks a little like Beethoven. This was especially so in Bechtolf’s Così, where Alfonso was wearing Classical-era garb.
When it came time to deliver the opera’s signature line—“Così fan tutte” (“That’s what all women do”)—Volle spat it out, disgustedly. Then he sort of shouted it, with the same disgust. This made you sit up and pay attention.
In the future, Volle will sing a lot of Wotans (in Wagner’s Ring). Will he retain his Mozartean abilities? Let’s hope so.
The sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, were portrayed by Julia Kleiter, the German soprano, and Angela Brower, an American mezzo. They sang well together and singly. They were prepared, fresh, and altogether appealing.
Through most of her big aria, “Come scoglio,” Kleiter brandished a sword, keeping her suitor at bay. This did not seem to hinder her. I couldn’t hear the low notes, but, in this aria, when can you?
The staging had Alfonso, Fiordiligi, and Dorabella sing the sublime trio, “Soave sia il vento,” on a bench in the middle of the stage. There they sat, cheek to cheek (to cheek). Did this facilitate harmony, or close harmony, as we said in Andrews Sisters days? In any event, it worked.
And Volle’s Alfonso let out a cynical, sinister laugh at the end. This worked, too.
The two guys, Ferrando and Guglielmo, were sung by Mauro Peter, a Swiss tenor, and Alessio Arduini, an Italian baritone. Later in the festival, Peter will sing a Schubert song-cycle, Die schöne Müllerin, with the famed accompanist, or “collaborative pianist,” Helmut Deutsch. As Ferrando, he was free, easy, and even. And sweet. His aria, “Un’aura amorosa,” was as slow as I’d ever heard it. Maybe slower. Yet, with Maestro Dantone, he pulled it off.
And Arduini, our Guglielmo, handled his duties with poise.
The maid, Despina, was the Czech-born soprano Martina Janková. I had heard her in this role before. Let me quote from 2013’s “Salzburg Chronicle”: Janková “sang with beauty, accuracy, cleverness, and—this is crucial—freedom. Sweet freedom! How singers, and others, strive for it, and fall short!” She was essentially the same in 2016.
A word or two about Bechtolf’s production. Before the downbeat is given—and as the audience files in—people onstage are milling around. They are also looking at a couple of drawings on easels. The drawings appear to be anatomical representations of the male and female forms.
I thought of Cosìs past here at the festival. There was the one that opened with two naked chicks in a hot tub. (They did not have singing roles. Just hot-tub roles.) There was another one that featured a large egg—or was it a boulder?—onstage.
Eventually, Don Alfonso comes out, singing something (to himself). I couldn’t tell what the something was. But it was in C major, which is also the key of the overture. And then the overture begins.
Alfonso has a gang of collaborators, or minions. They are wearing ugly masks. At the outset, they chloroform, or otherwise knock out, the women: Fiordiligi, Dorabella, and Despina. Then they go off and dine (I believe) at tables far to the side.
This all sounds very strange, and it is. But the production is not. It is utterly in keeping with Mozart’s piece, and Da Ponte’s. It is a real Così fan tutte. It is youthful, lively, and affectionate. Darkness is not imposed on the opera, as many directors like to do. There is of course a dark streak. But the opera remains Mozart and Da Ponte’s, not the director’s.
Bechtolf & Co. work with Mozart and Da Ponte, not against them. Can you imagine?
Throughout the show, there are many smile-making moments. The characters dance and groove. Ferrando and Guglielmo, when they are first disguised as Albanian nobles, adjust each other’s mustaches, as though looking into a mirror. That’s the kind of touch—dinky—that can stick in the memory.
Mozart goes out in a blaze of C-major glory, and the audience can leave the Felsenreitschule well satisfied.
Or mainly. Let me comment on this piece. I have always had a problem with it—in large part because Act II seems interminable. Act I is chockfull of music. And Act II?
Consider Act I. You have “Ah guarda, sorella.” “Soave sia il vento.” “Come scoglio.” “Un’aura amorosa.” One highlight after another. Act II is still Mozart, obviously, and how can you do better? But it is a recit-fest. A festival of recitative, on and on . . .
Along with Verdi’s Falstaff, Così fan tutte is Riccardo Muti’s favorite opera. (The veteran maestro was in Salzburg over the weekend, conducting the VPO in Bruckner and Strauss.) Earlier this year, I talked with Muti, mainly about Falstaff. (For the resulting piece, go here.) But at the end of our discussion, I brought up that other opera.
“I want to ask a heretical question,” I said. A question concerning Così. “Is Act II too long?” “Sì,” said Muti, immediately. He continued, “The first act is perfect. The second act is beautiful, but at a certain point it does not find a way to end.”
There is much more to say, of course, but I’ve gone on too long—and must find a way to end.