Some performances are so unequal that they should be entitled to more than one review. This evening’s Così fan Tutte at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, for example. Musically speaking, Act I felt like a rehearsal (and I am not speaking of a Generalprobe) and the proceedings seemed only to warm after the intermission. But let’s begin with Act I. To start with, conductor Julien Salemkour seemed determined to make things frisky, but this determination seemed restricted to accent. Nothing wrong with tempi or balance or clarity, but the overall impression was roughness without animation, as if you told someone gloomy to be lively and, shown a simper, you thought “now he’s lively”. French horns cracked all the way, lightness and elegance were kept away and chords heavily followed each other in an almost hysterical manner.
If you need to judge a whole performance of Così fan Tutte by one number, you just need to listen to the sister’s first duet, Ah, guarda, sorella. In 95% of performances, it will sound basically disjointed, contrived and the sopranos will correspond to Don Alfonso’s description as cornacchie spennachiate. In any case, even if this duet is usually poorly sung and played, this evening you had the dictionary version of how wrong it can go. If Karine Babajanyan were a last-minute replacement for Miah Persson, many a fault could be forgiven. But that was not the case – this Umbesetzung had been anounced far in advance. Ms. Babajanyan is something of a trouper – she tried everything, but rarely fully achieved anything during act I. Come scoglio was rather a matter of determination. Her Dorabella, Maria Gortsevskaja also showed a thick-toned mezzo with more than a splash of ungainliness. Under these circumstances, rarely had the arrival of Despina had such a soothing effect on one’s ears: Adriane Queiroz was in particularly healthy voice, singing creamy, flexible and rich sounds and giving a lesson of how to portray earthiness without ever sounding coarse. The men were vocally more regular during the whole performance – Jeremy Ovenden is a stylish Mozartian afflicted by a strong nasality that robs his tenor of pleasantness, Arttu Kataja’s resonant bass-baritone could do with a little more spontaneity in his Italian and Roman Trekel, in spite of his congeniality, has become too rough-toned for Mozart.
After the intermission, Maestro Salemkour’s drily a tempo approach finally acquired some purpose and many ensembles did sound lovely without any coyness in their transparence, forward-movement and expressive power. If the chorus had showed a bit more discipline, the wedding scene would have been almost ideal. Ms. Babajanyan seemed a whole new singer. In her act-II form, she displayed a charming and old-fashioned reedy soprano reminiscent of Teresa Berganza in its middle range and tasteful phrasing. She is the kind of singer who gets away with a difficult run or two, but who cannot really deal with really florid parts. As a result, while she really sounded affecting in Per pietà, the stretta had more to do with effort than resolve. Her duet with Ferrando would be the highlight of her performance, when both singers sang with genuine graciousness. Ms. Gortsevskaja would finally also show more focus and even reveal a pleasant warm quality, but she is not a Mozartian singer and even subtly decorated lines would drag her behind the beat, more seriously in the “toast” canon.
As for the theatrical aspects, the performance was fare more successful. Although Doris Dörrie’s performance is already 8 years old, it has not lost its appeal. Better than this, roughly all the cast consist of ensemble members and regular guests, what means that these people are used to work with each other and, considering how much fun they seemed to be having, they probably like to work with each other. I would even say that that the acting this evening owes nothing to the cast preserved on video, especially Jeremy Ovenden’s, who seemed more comfortable with cheekiness than Werner Güra and, probably because of his more spontaneous Italian, made far more of the text.