Two of Da Ponte's Mozart Operas with Bartoli, Harnoncourt
J Scott Morrison | Middlebury VT, USA | 12/11/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Both of these DVDs of Mozart/Da Ponte operas from Zurich Opera productions, and featuring Cecilia Bartoli as Fiordiligi and Donna Elvira, have been in release separately for three or four years. Now they are offered in a box-set -- but with only a very small price break -- and if you don't have them they are very worthy of your consideration. My review of the Don Giovanni follows; since there are already eleven reviews of the Così at the Amazon site, I shall not review it because I basically agree with what has been said -- that it is a superb production all round. The Così reviews can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00005MKOW/
Here is my Don Giovanni review, which can also be found at the site for its stand-alone version: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00008G6EZ/
Of the three Don Giovanni DVDs that I own, I think I like this one best. First of all, musically it is superb. I've never heard a better Donna Elvira than that of Cecilia Bartoli; Elvira is meant to be a force of nature (yet a woman underneath) and Bartoli is certainly that. Her singing is, of course, unimaginably good. Her acting as the wronged Elvira crackles. And her momentary softening in Act II is also believable. Her 'Ah, fuggi il traditor' and 'Mi tradi' are simply outstanding, both musically and dramatically. Rodney Gilfry has a light, flexible baritone which is, I believe, precisely what Mozart wanted -- otherwise why would he have written the Champagne Aria to be sung at that killing tempo? -- and Gilfry has that. In addition, he is the handsomest Don around these days; he is charming, not playing the Don as an out and out villain but as a spoiled rich boy who feels entitled to whatever he wants. Gilfry, you will recall, created the part of Stanley Kowalski in André Previn's Streetcar Named Desire, and obviously that required an animalistic quality that he is able to portray, appropriate for the role of the Don as well. Laszló Polgár as Leporello has a resonant bass-baritone, easily distinguished from that of the Don; but when they exchange places in Act II he lightens his voice (as Gilfry darkens his) and the impersonation seems believable. He plays Leporello as a darker, more saturnine character than we usually see, not just playing it for laughs as many do. His 'Madamina, il catalogo' is played for shock, not comedy, and sung very nicely, too.
The other singers in this Zurich Opera production are just as good. Isabel Rey, a soprano with a rather soft-cored voice, is an aristocratic, noble Donna Anna. Liliana Nikiteanu is a properly peasant Zerlina, but no dummy. She shines, with Gilfry, in 'La ci darem la mano.' Don Ottavio is sung by the Italian lyric tenor, Robert Saccà, and his 'Il mio tesoro' is a highlight. Oliver Widmer does well by Masetto, although his acting is a bit generic; the voice is flexible and his participation in the various ensembles is fine. (By the way, I could not get 'Batti, batti, o bel Masetto' out of my head for hours after I heard Zerlina sing it to him. Well, if you have to have an earworm it might as well be Mozart, no?)
Matti Salminen is a suitably sonorous Commendatore. Why he appears in person, rather as the statue, at the end of the opera I don't know. This is not a particularly tradition-breaking production although the costumes are a sort of generic early 19th-century sort, and the sets are minimalistic. This is a dark Don Giovanni but the lighting is so expert that one does not have the feeling that one is having to squint to see the singers. This is due partly because the camerawork -- the video was directed by the redoubtable Brian Large -- is expert. There are lots of close-ups and two-shots and they are appropriately chosen, often being of reactions rather than trained on the singer of the moment. A nice touch. Orchestral and choral support is wonderful, all under the direction of a conductor whom I admire more and more: Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
The opera is spread over two DVDs -- for a total of 275 minutes which includes a 'behind the scenes' extra with commentary by Harnoncourt, Bartoli, Gilfry and Rey. Sound is PCM Stereo or Dolby 5.1; Subtitles: Italian, German, French, English, Spanish, Japanese.
I recommend this Don Giovanni for its dramatic as well as its musical values.
Two Highly Idiosyncratic Views of Two Masterpieces
David D. Dollinger | Pasadena, CA | 08/31/2009
(3 out of 5 stars)
"Since both of these DVD's have been issued separately, I suppose this can be considered a marketing ploy for Arthaus although how successful it was (or will be) is a moot point. Both have strong selling points and both have features that almost undermine an outright recommendation. In common they both feature Bartoli, Harnoncourt and the Zurich Opernhaus orchestra and chorus. On a less starry level they both have Roumanian mezzo, Liliana Nikiteanu, tenor Roberto Sacca and baritone Oliver Widmar. Jugen Flimm is the director in both cases and while I have liked some of his work in the past I feel no affection for his handling of both works.
For those who know the works from the many CD recordings (and I include remastering of the great LP issues)be prepared for some very outre tempi, either very fast or very slow. A major case in point is the Mi tradi. Ordinarily this is taken at a relatively "fast" tempo, certainly not allegro, but not at the funereal tempo that the maestro has chosen. Fortunately for Bartoli she has the resources to sustain phrases that surely were meant to be taken faster. But more important does it reveal something in the aria that is eluded when the more conventional tempo is chosen. I think not. The recitative preceding the aria is a parody of opera serie, e.g., thunderbolts, passion in the extreme. What happens when the aria begins outright? To my ears there is no emotional connection between the two. Earlier in the opera the "duet" between Ottavio and Anna is taken at a tempo that almost eludes the singers, only to slow down almost arbitrarily.
In Cosi the Quintetto, Sento oddio is another example of a tempo that makes the singers sound vocally as if they were wading through molasses. This is followed by the heavenly trio Soave and one wonders what will Maestro Harnoncourt do at this point. He takes this at a much faster tempo than this listener has ever heard. This is a sublime moment in an opera filled with them. Surely it would have made more sense to reverse the tempos of these two ensembles.
These are examples of the only the most egregious. I knew going in that Harnoncourt was marching to his own drumbeat. I have around a dozen Dons and this is far from the worst. What is more irritating is the mise-en-scene for both operas. Why hire a director who has a "concept" and then keep the lighting so dim as to make the sets almost extraneous. DG has many set changes it is logical that frequently these are only suggested; Jacobs "solved" the problem by playing many scenes in from of the curtain. Flimm has his characters illuminated but all else in the dark. Cosi has fewer changes and presents different problems. Taking a cue from the subtitle of the opera The School for Lovers, the setting is a school room; various props, etc., are brought in to indicate various locations. Again the opera would appear to be set in the dark. This is hardly outrageous as far as Regie productions go and even has a kind of logic, initially, but subsequently it strikes me as silly and arbitrary.
As to the singing, the level is very high with only one major sticking point. Casting a mezzo as Elvira is hardly new and even the new ROH production features Joyce DiDonato. Klemperer cast Christa Ludwig and there are other examples. The Elvira I saw the most was Schwarzkopf. She has yet to be trumped, both vocally and dramatically. The role does not lie that high so tessitura is not really a consideration, but vocal posture (a phrase I remember from Irving Kolodin in the Saturday Review of Literature when reviewing an LP of Grace Bumbry singing soprano arias)is. I confess I do not understand casting both Elvira and Zerlina with mezzos; the lower (colored) voice strikes me as not connecting with the character. I do not have perfect pitch, nor do I have a score or a piano with which to confirm that Baroli is singing the the correct key. I have read no comment that any of the arias have been transposed so I will accept that she is singing in the key that Mozart wrote. With her technique the Come scoglio is a walk in the park, with triplets, runs and trills being tossed off with no effort. Per pieta is another case altogether. Here Harnoncourt has slowed down the tempo; Bartoli's technique again carries the day and because she has low notes that are not in the arsenal of most sopranos the aria succeeds in most part. Much has been made of the casting of three mezzos in Cosi and in a sense they are correct. It is my understanding that Mozart really wanted two sopranos for the sisters and only J.E. Gardiner opts for this casting. Casting lower voices does tend to bring the center of gravity down and fortunately the voices of Baltsa and Bartoli have their own sound that is identifiable. Nikiteanu though lovely of voice (and figure) is more generic. To the best of my knowledge Bartoli has abandoned this repertoire in favor of more arcane music--if CD releases are any indication.
The weakest singing is reserved for the Ottavio and Fernando, Roberto Sacca. His repertoire is all over the map. The Count in the Barber, Bacchus in Ariadne and Germont fils. To my ears the voice is simply not right; I hesitate to call it ugly, but it is far from Mozartean. The competition is stiff and while he is superior to the early Glyndebourne entry and the Bieito set of the Liceu, he would not have been my choice.
What of the Don? Well, Gilfrey is wonderful as is his mate Leporello. Both are among the best, short of Keenlyside, but very very good. I have probably given short schrift to the positive elements in both productions and don't feel shortchanged in spite of my criticisms. It is good to have one's opinion challenged; in the days of 78's this was rarely possible as multiple sets were not available (and yes I do go back to the days of 78's--near the end of that era). Today perhaps we have too many, muddying the waters for many listeners. No complaint from this listener/viewer however."