It was during the recent run of Cosí fan tutte at the COC that I realised that I really needed to get my hands on the M22 recording (Salzburg 2006). Specifically it was discussing the Salzburg reading of Ursel and Karl-Ernst Herrmann with Thomas Allen and Rachel Andrist; who is the on stage continuo player in the Salzburg recording. It sounded like there might be interesting parallels. And parallels there are. In both cases the girls are aware of the “plot” (in every sense). In both cases four attractive young singers have been cast as the lovers and Don Alfonso and Despina made much older and more cynical. There I think the parallels end. Egoyan’s vision is essentially a positive one about relationships. The Herrmans, I think, are more interested in exploring the psychologically destructive power of love and desire.
The designs for this production are very spare. The huge stage of the Grosses Festspielhaus is almost empty. Occasionally a few bits and pieces of props or scenery appear but otherwise the stage is bare but for an egg (see above) and a fortepiano (complete with Rachel Andrist most of the time). The egg is clearly the Berenice’s potato of this production. I have no idea what it means. Tom Allen has suggested it contains Karl-Ernst Herrmann’s brain but who knows. The empty space creates lots of opportunity to suggest emotional alienation but it also makes filming very difficult. This is one of those DVDs where one feels that there is more happening than the camera is letting us see.
The production opens with the entry of a truly villainous looking Don Alfonso. Both Don Alfonso and Despina are costumed and made up to look somewhat grotesque in marked contrast to the eye candy of the lovers. We see the egg. And then there is a badminton game played during the overture. The first act proper opens with some rather realistic fencing between the boys under the watchful eye of Don Alfonso. And yes, there are feathers. I think these were mandated for all three da Ponte operas in the M22 series. The girls overhear the plot being hatched. During Guarda sorella the girls sheepishly mix up the portraits. It’s all a bit confusing and the costuming seems to be designed to emphasize that. The video direction doesn’t help either with odd glimpses of something going on between Rachel and the girls. The chorus functions as a very compact mass moving around the otherwise empty stage. Come scoglio is sung as a kind of cautionary tale right at Dorabella. There’s a real sense that the girls know that there is danger for them in Don Alfonso’s trick. Their complicity in what is going on is made even more apparent when Dorabella takes a gleeful swig of the “poison” in the last scene of the act. The act concludes with the girls attacking their over exuberant suitors with their fans (there’s lots of fan action mirroring the boys’ fencing in the opening perhaps?). There’s more to come in the second act. Emotionally things are spiralling out of control. Silence is used a lot and there’s some really gorgeous singing. Il core vi dono is particularly lovely. Ambiguity abounds down to the final scene where Dorabella seems genuinely repentant but Fiordiligi much less so; perhaps even defiant. And who ends up with who? Does it matter?
There are some very fine performances. The quartet all look, sound and act just right. I might single out the really tortured, affecting performance of Sophie Koch as Dorabella but that would be unfair to Ana María Martínez, Stéphane Degout and Shawn Mathey who all give nuanced and dangerously sexy performances. Sir Thomas Allen’s Don Alfonso is nasty, entirely of a piece with the production. Helen Donath also sings well and I think succeeds with a rather cartoonish, over the top version of Despina. Manfred Honeck’s conducting of the Wiener Philharmoniker seems well tailored to the production in that he seems to get when dramatic suspense is required and when to get on with things. Musically it all works.
There is plenty of bonus material on the 2 DVD package. There are useful interviews with several of the performers about how the characterisations were developed. It seems to have been a very collaborative process, not just the directors imposing a Konzept on an unwilling cast. There’s also an interesting segment on the challenges of designing a set that would work in the Grosses Festspielhaus.
Technically the disk is quite good. Both the surround and stereo sound tracks are clear and well balanced and the picture quality is as good as DVD gets. Thomas Grimm reacts to the challenges of video direction by pretty much tracking the action in fairly close close up most of the time. I’m sure there’s lots that we miss but when he pulls back for a long shot one realises just how challenging this production is to film. Subtitle options are Italian, English, French, Spanish, German and Chinese.
This production probably won’t please traditionalists but it’s not particularly outré. There’s lots to think about in the production, some fine singing and plenty of eye candy. I’ll certainly be watching it again. And that, dear readers, concludes the 300th DVD/Blu-ray review on the site.