May 15, 2008


Mozart: Così fan tutte. Janice Watson and Lesley Garrett, sopranos; Diana Montague, mezzo-soprano; Toby Spence, tenor; Christopher Maltman and Sir Thomas Allen, baritones; Geoffrey Mitchell Choir and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras. Chandos. $29.99 (3 CDs).

      Here’s a delightfully bouncy, well-sung and thoroughly enjoyable version of Mozart’s quintessential “battle of the sexes” opera – and a recording that raises anew the old question about performing opera in translation. This was the norm until just a few decades ago: operas were done in the language of the place where they were staged. Some works continue to be heard in translation a great deal of the time even today – Lehár’s Die Lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow) comes immediately to mind, but there are quite a few others. And yet original-language productions thoroughly dominate opera houses now, which makes sense both musically (the words that the composer set are the ones that inevitably work best with the music) and practically (the advent of surtitles made it easy for audiences to follow what is being sung, albeit with some distraction from the onstage activity).

      So opera recordings in translation are something of a throwback, or a niche market. Chandos dominates the field for English speakers with its “Opera in English” series, which includes some 50 releases. Some are decidedly odd – the complete Ring cycle, for example – but others, like the new recording of Così fan tutte, work rather well. The reason, oddly enough, has little to do with singing and a great deal to do with the recitatives and asides that move the plot along. In the arias and choruses, it is not especially easy to hear the individual words much of the time, no matter the language in which they are sung. But when it comes to stage whispers, between-aria plots and remonstrations, and other texts that keep the story flowing, the use of English works just fine. This is true even though the translation used in this recording – a revised version of one made in 1890 – often does not follow Lorenzo da Ponte’s original very closely. It gets the sense of the libretto right, though, and that is what matters.

      As for the performance, it is a lively and highly enjoyable one, featuring male leads who sound surprisingly alike despite their different vocal ranges (tenor Toby Spence as Ferrando and baritone Christopher Maltman as Guglielmo). Their sweethearts’ voices and vocalizing are more distinctive, with soprano Janice Watson suitably over-dramatic as Fiordiligi and mezzo-soprano Diana Montague more flighty as Dorabella (despite her lower vocal range). One of Mozart’s marvelous “in” jokes in this opera is the initial “wrong” pairing of tenor with mezzo and baritone with soprano – so that, when the ladies unknowingly swap partners, the audience hears the expected tenor-soprano and baritone-mezzo mixes (which are then re-sorted to the vocally “wrong” arrangement at the end). The plot to show that “they all do it” (or “they’re all like that,” or “all women behave that way,” or any of the other inadequate translations of the opera’s title) is wonderfully engineered by Sir Thomas Allen, who sounds anything but world-weary as Don Alfonso, and Lesley Garrett, whose singing and acting as Despina make her seem a brighter and often more attractive character than either of her mistresses. Sir Charles Mackerras conducts with great verve and keeps the proceedings moving at a headlong pace, despite his unfortunate decision to drop a couple of numbers to make the recording “closer to a stage performance.” Leaving out parts of recitatives – when the translation makes them understandable to listeners – is at best an odd decision. Dropping the men’s Act I duet and Ferrando’s aria “Ah lo veggio” makes even less sense: this is scarcely justified on stage and not at all in a recording. Still, Mackerras has a fine sense of the score, of pacing and of Mozartean performance techniques, and gives this opera of hilarious mixups a quick and light presentation that accentuates its situational levity without losing sight of its underlying message of forgiveness for a form of betrayal that, Mozart and da Ponte slyly suggest, is inherent in female (and human) nature.

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