There is no more eminent Mozartean these days than Sir Charles Mackerras, the 88-year-old Australian conductor. He has recorded 'Così fan tutte' before but this time around there are two major differences: it is sung in English and the pit band is the original-instruments Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Some people object these days to singing an opera in any but its original language, but I'm not one of those. Think of opera sung in English as the noble forebear of today's supertitles; and of course one can't have supertitles in an audio recording. The singers in this performance do a pretty good job of making the sung words understandable. Particularly outstanding in this regard is Sir Thomas Allen as Don Alfonso, and what he does with da Ponte's (or should I say John Cox's clever updating of Marmaduke Browne's English) words is a marvel of both diction and acting. For those moments when the words can't be quite made out, Chandos does, thankfully, supply a complete English libretto. As for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, they are among the very best original-instrument ensembles of the day and they give Mackerras the kind of joyous sound he must surely have wanted. One notes that he allowed principal instrumentalists to add their own ornaments and these are generally delightful.
As for the main characters, all but one are simply magnificent, very nearly the equal of principal singers I've ever heard on earlier recordings. But there is one exception: Lesley Garrett, as Despina, is not in complete control of her vocal apparatus and there is some degree of threadiness and straining, as well as some over-the-top hamminess in her vocal acting. The two main women, Janice Watson as Fiordiligi and Diana Montague as Dorabella, are all one could ask. I had, when I saw the cast list, some apprehensions about how these two singers would do -- they are, after all, a bit, erm, mature for their roles -- but I needn't have worried. Both are in fresh, supple voice and the blending of their voices is a joy to behold. The two men, Toby Spence as Ferrando and Christopher Maltman as Guglielmo, are equally good as the ladies' tender lovers and as the fake Albanian soldiers, Leander and Philander. The recorded sound on this set is just slightly reverberant to my ear but one has no difficulty picking out individual strands of the musical texture or the words of the singers.
So who is this recording for? Well, I suppose for those who have one or more recordings of the original language version, this set is superfluous. But for those coming to 'Così' for the first time, this one could very well be the best possible introduction to this witty opera the understanding of whose repartée is such a necessary part of its impact. And for those who collect Così recordings, this one should not be passed by. I should point out that at the time of this review Amazon are only charging about 15 pounds for this three-CD set, quite a bargain for a new recording. Chandos has not skimped on the presentation, either. There are a fine essay about the opera by Mike Ashman, an interview with Mackerras and a helpful synopsis, as well as the full English libretto.
Mozart's operas somehow work better in English translation than works by other composers; there is a strange tendency for even the most dramatic of composers, such as Verdi, to end up sounding like Gilbert and Sullivan. An advantage of this recording is the excellent diction of the cast, notably Leslie Garrett and Thomas Allen, both equally adept at singing words as well as notes. The venerable translation by the Rev. Marmaduke Browne (albeit in an adaptation for the stage by John Cox) proves to be eminently singable and the recorded sound is very clear, if unnaturally reverberant to my ears.
This is, make no mistake, a very fine "Cosi" (as the work is rather fancifully entitled on the CD cover), but, let's be honest, it's not going to be your first choice version of the work, as the best recordings are in the original Italian and not subject to the cuts inflicted here; Charles Mackerras in his sleeve note tries to justify the implementation of these traditional cuts as making the recording closer to a staged performance, but it would have been good to at least include the excised arias as an appendix.
Mackerras is in my opinion the best of Mozart conductors and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment play splendidly for him. Vocal appoggiaturas and ornamentation are consistently effective and musically this is a highly recommendable version.
It boasts, of course, a splendid group of singers and is much more starrily cast than the other recordings in this series. It was recorded in 2007, by which stage three of the cast were approaching (or had already attained) veteran status. The "on session" photos which adorn the excellent booklet reveal Diana Montague to be an attractive middle-aged woman (looking, I thought, a bit like the cookery writer Prue Leith); hardly one's image of a girl scarcely out of adolescence. Her singing is astonishingly youthful, however, and I much prefer her Dorabella to the perfectly competent but rather anonymous singing of Janice Watson as Fiordiligi. Their suitors are played by two of today's star singers, Toby Spence and Christopher Maltman. Neither is ideal, however; Spence is marvelously adept at the florid passages of the Act 1 finale, but there is no escaping the fact that his tone sometimes verges on the strident (not helped by the recording, perhaps), while Maltman is not always ideally steady. They are both characterful, communicative performers, however. The stars of the show are the two intriguers, sung by a pair of singers who have a fair claim to national treasure status, Leslie Garrett and Sir Thomas Allen. I saw the former as Despina years ago for Glyndebourne Touring Opera and her voice has retained a remarkable freshness. Like Spence, she is not always flattered by the recording and her singing is at times a little hooty and nasal, but she is a true creature of the stage and her recitatives are a delight to hear; unlike some reviewers, I don't find her performance at all "hammy", just "larger than life". Sir Tom's voice seems to defy the passage of time and his diction is as notable as his characterization is acute.
Newcomers to the opera will find this a splendid introduction, but this is a highly recommendable version on its own terms too.
on 16 July 2009
At first I thought that this time they had got the ingredients right including the most fundamental one upon which the success of the whole thing depends - the translation. All too often in the past they have chosen new translations that are inferior to old ones, and worse than that, they have chosen translations with an 'up to date feel' about them; in other words they have been idiomatically too modern with phrases that stick out like sore thumbs and which are usually those intended to be witty and play to the gallery. Here there is occasionally an appropriate archaic period feel to the language that suits, what is after all, equally period music, but all too often once again as with other Chandos 'Opera In English' recordings it lapses into the contemporary and colloquial. But this time the recits are accompanied on harpsichord and not on piano as with the Figaro and Don recordings in English, and which make them sound like rehearsals.
Having played this a few times now I am becoming irritated with parts of the translation,particularly in the recits, whereas I am not irritated by some of the older translations such as the one used in the Scottish Opera recording from 1969 with Janet Baker. So once again as in all the other Mozart 'Opera In English' on Chandos a great opportunity to get it completely right has been missed.
Pace the previous review, I've heard plenty of hammier Despinas with all the hamminess coming across even in Italian, and of course the part of the role involving impersonating a doctor positively demands hamminess. But here what spoils it for me is the vulgarity emanating primarily from the translation.
Some of the acting in the recits is a bit embarassing, partly because of the translation (why don't the participants just change it? I've often wondered) and they are also frequently recorded at very low volume destroying the atmosphere - this is especially true of Thomas Allen who seems to have no energy - was he ill I wonder?
Diane Montague is indeed on much better form than on other recent recordings of hers. The voice is much steadier and more certain here. As with the previous reviewer that was also my main worry until I heard this set.
Having heard it I find that my main problem is with the uncompressed dynamic range which is extreme. My researches have shown that it presents even very expensive hi-fi systems with a problem and that means a problem for one's ears as well. The sudden peaks from the ladies can and do cause distortion and this may sound as if the voice is uncontrolled. Here the problem is quite bad with Leslie Garrett's exhuberant climaxes, but the problem afflicts even more the other soprano Janice Watson particularly in her aria 'Like a fortress in ocean founded'. It's a serious problem and considerably detracts from enjoyment. In live performance the human ear can cope with these extremely sudden loud high notes but with recordings, especially recent ones which are often what they describe as using a natural dynamic range this can cause serious problems. Older operatic recordings especially those taken from analogue and vinyl can be easier on the ears. I can only conclude that insufficient attention is being paid to the final mastering of many opera and orchestral recordings. It took a lot of experimentation to find a combination that could handle the peaks and in the end I settled for some speakers that cost less than a quarter of the cost of the amplification instead of speakers that cost 3/4 of the cost of the amplification, because this provided the necessary control.
If you really want to find out whether your amplifier has sufficient control for the worst that sopranos can hit your speakers with, this recording is the test. An even more demanding test is soprano Elizabeth Futral's disc also in the Chandos Opera In English series.
Mozart in English has never been a problem. There have always been good translations to choose from. But comparison between this and the translation used on the old Met translation used in the 1952 recording reveals that the Met's is often superior. It's mostly acceptable enough but there are too many lapses, and with so many good translations to choose from now it should have been perfect.
In general Peter Moores needs to take much more care with the translations, the one thing that should be completely under his control.
If I have to choose a Cosi in English it is easily the live recording with Janet Baker from 1969 under Alexander Gibson and the RSNO even though the sound quality leaves a lot to be desired. But apart from the sound all the other ingredients are there and it amply demonstrates how good Mozart in English can be - as good as having it in Italian in fact.