Mozart – Così fan tutte / Persson, Villazón, Brower, Plachetka, Erdmann / Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Nézet-Séguin

I had a mixed reaction to Nézet-Séguin’s recent Don Giovanni (performed last year with a different orchestra but two of the same singers).

CosiNezetZeguinThis Così fan tutte I found myself liking. In the performance of Don Giovanni, there were a lot of moments which felt strangely plodding to me – the music was being stretched out and the beat emphasized in a way that brought out some detail, but still sounded sort of weird to me. In this case, something similar is afoot but – perhaps I’ve gotten used to M. Nézet-Séguin’s style? – I found myself liking it. There were moments where I thought ‘oh, here we go again,’ but given that those moments were strongly correlated with the presence of Mojca Erdmann (Despina), I’m inclined to blame Erdmann rather than the conductor. Her voice is bright and precise and you can pick her out in the ensembles without difficulty, but in terms of character, her performance is a little thin on the ground. Despite some distinctive but kinda squealy moments of ornamentation (e.g. during “una donna a quindici anni”) Despina never quite comes to life. Erdmann does warm up as the evening goes on, though. Even with the abovementioned squealy bits, “una donna” had a little more ping that some of the earlier sections – by the end of “in uomini, in soldati” back in Act I, for example, I was counting syllables.

I went into this recording thinking that Rolando Villazón was going to do some things that I would not necessarily like. And while it is true that there is a passage in my notes that says, to the extent that I can read my own handwriting, “hey Villazón! a Puccini opera just called; it wants its emotional palette back” – while I wrote that in my notes, it would be deeply unfair to Mr. Villazón to reiterate it again now, because I found myself enjoying listening to him. Not all the time, mind you. During “fra gli amplessi” in Act II for example, I was getting good and lost in the sound of Miah Persson’s voice – and then suddenly BAM! there’s Villazón. I wanted to give him the hook. Even though I know, operationally speaking, Ferrando kind of has to be in that scene.

But “un aura amorosa” was nicely sung, though if I didn’t know what was going on at that point in the opera I would not have guessed it from the singing alone, and by the middle of Act II (around “amico! abbiamo vinto!”) I had kind of come around to him. I particularly liked the “secondate, aurette amiche” duet with Adam Plachetka (Guglielmo). Villazón sounds a bit smarmy at times and often rather overwrought, but I can’t really think of a good reason why Ferrando should not be kind of smarmy and rather overwrought. Villazón is not my favorite Ferrando ever, but as far as interpretations go it doesn’t not make sense.

But in terms of singing, the highlight of the whole thing for me was Miah Persson’s Fiordiligi. This is not an interpretation that goes for manic or funny – rather, Persson’s Fiordiligi seems a rather gentle sort. During “come scoglio” Fiordiligi doesn’t really let fly, but the character seems to work herself up as she goes along. By Act II you can hear Fiordiligi’s increasing agitation and distress – “per pietà” has that same gentleness as earlier, but also a beautifully rendered depth of feeling – the aria builds up and pulls back at just the right moments, and the transitions between the various sections, where there’s often a moment of drawn out tension that then relaxes into the next part of the piece, only to build up again, are perfect. The tempo might be slow, but Persson can spin out these phrases as long as you like. And to return to drama, by the recitative before “fra gli amplessi,” where Fiordiligi decides that she and Dorabella are going to dress up in their boyfriends’ clothes and follow after them, you can hear that Fiordiligi is getting seriously upset and something big is about to happen.

About the conducting. I said before that the parts of this that reminded me of what I didn’t like about Nézet-Séguin’s Don Giovanni were mainly associated with Mojca Erdmann and thus not representative of the whole. I say this because on average I really liked what happened with the orchestral music and general interpretation here. My impression was one of warmth and clarity and a general hanging-togetherness of phrasing. It might be an artifact of my speakers, but the recording seemed heavy on the bass, in a way that made the lower strings (and the tympani) distinct without being overwhelming. There were many little moments of orchestral detail that gave that feeling of a witty conversation between orchestra and vocal parts that is one of the things I love about Mozart’s operas – e.g. the little violin phrases in Dorabella and Guglielmo’s “il core vi dono” (bars 78-85, around “o cambio felice!”), or the flutes at the beginning of “ah, che tutta in un momento” near the end of Act I. There was something clear and coherent about the whole thing that I liked. And exciting too. The ensembles and especially the finale of Act II were really fun. I found I missed hearing the audience applause at the end and elsewhere – even if you didn’t know going in that it was a live recording, you can hear the audience laughing at several points, but they seem to have edited out all the applause that one can only assume took place. Or maybe the audience was instructed not to clap?

Anyway, if Mr. Nézet-Séguin wants to round up some of the same suspects (or different suspects!) and record Le Nozze di Figaro I’d certainly want to hear it.