René Jacobs’s incursion in the field of Mozart operas has started with Così fan tutte and has met with wide critical acclaim. I have to confess that I felt alone in my lack of affection for these recordings – glassy and unclear orchestral playing, inorganic approach to rhythm, fancy for overdecoration, exotic casting and the intrusive fortepiano continuo largely to blame. That said, a sense of development can be felt – his recording of Le Nozze di Figaro is somewhat more polished and that of Don Giovanni has many powerful moments, while La Clemenza di Tito is a recording one has to appreciate and finally Idomeneo goes to the short-list in this opera’s discography (I am not so sure about Die Zauberflöte, though). It makes one wonders why the first work in the series is the first to be revisited.
The first information to stand out about this performance is that the new cast features singers who have become close collaborators of the Belgian conductor, but the truth is that it was hardly this evening’s memorable feature, which would be rather René Jacobs himself. Rarely have I witnessed a conductor whose own view of a work has matured so fast and so profoundly. I do not mean that the new Così does not sound like a René Jacobs performance. It does: the abrupt change of pace in the middle of numbers, the fancy for decoration, the vigorous rhythms, they are all there, but now they do sound like a natural means of expression of the score rather than mannerisms that only call attention to themselves. The immediate good surprise was a newly found sense of respect for the natural rhythmic flow where even the swift acc. and rit. effects proved to be consequent and musically/dramatically justified. Other than this there was the all-important sensuous orchestral sound largely absent in Jacobs’s early Mozart opera recordings. This evening, the Freiburger Barockorchester offered rich, clear and expressive sounds throughout. The transparence of ensembles, the neatness of rapid divisions both in woodwind and strings, the sense of story-telling and the perfect balance between singers and orchestra are an evidence of the adept Mozartian Jacobs has ultimately become. It is a pity that the old performance rather than this one been preserved for posterity.
In any case, if the old recording has an advantage, this would be the the euphonious and technically polished casting of singers like Véronique Gens or Bernarda Fink. Although this evening’s singers could be considered more theatrically engaged and the sense of team more vivid, none of them offered the nec plus ultra in Mozartian singing. Alexandrina Pendatchanska did not seem to be in a good-voice day and gave the impression of being nervous (even if she has actually taken roles more technically exacting than Fiordiligi in her career). Although her bottom register is usually generous, she seemed cautious about diving into the lower end of her range, while the voice sounded distinctively less bright than usual, especially in its high register. Sometimes she sank into background in ensembles, especially while singing coloratura. Nevertheless, she tackled very fast divisions accurately, even facing fast tempi in the strette of both her arias and had no problem with singing very high mezza voce. She has the interpretative and emotional resources for the role (her recitatives were particularly convincing), but the lack of a nobler tonal quality made her Fiordiligi short in vulnerability and touchingness. On the other hand, Marie-Claude Chappuis’s reedy mezzo is extremely appealing and she is stylish, musicianly and sensitive. It is only a pity that she fails to girare la voce, as Italians use to say, making her high notes tense and hard. Sunhae Im has everything in her favour to be an excellent Despina, but for the voice for the role. Although her soprano is all right quicksilvery as a soubrette’s should be, the part is in on the low side for her. As a result, she could barely pierce through in the lower reaches and the tonal quality lacked the sexiness she had to produce rather by inflection and attitude.
Magnus Staveland clearly knows Mozartian style and never fails in good taste and elegance, but his tenor lacks stronger support in a role the tessitura of which is basically high. He was often overshadowed in ensembles, did not really project his top notes, too often shifted to falsetto or sounded grey and unflowing in more exposed high-lying passages. The deletion of Ah, lo vegg’io came as no surprise and Tradito, schernito was all about difficulty. Johannes Weisser’s clear baritone is far more pleasant and generous, but it seems that he is one of those singers whose facility is finally an obstacle to optimal results. It is true that the sound was never less than pleasing, but one had the impression that he only really “placed his voice” when things became really low or required more thrust. When this happens, he does sound like a baritone – and a particularly rich-toned one – but that happens unfortunately very infrequently. Marcos Fink’s voice is a bit low for Don Alfonso, but he is an experient and resourceful singer who knows how to sound at ease, even when he is not.
Calling this performance a semi-staged concert is an understatement. Although there were no sets and costumes, some props were used and stage action had no interruption. Singers exited and entered the stage as in a fully-staged event. Although the program does not mention any director, the proceedings were actually very well directed and the cast made a very good job out of it, especially Sunhae Im, a brilliant comedy actress. Even the choristsers from the Coro Gulbekian proved to have acting skills in a most entertaining evening.