Mozart's great music, and Da Ponte's superb libretto and chessboard plotting, result in "Cosi fan tutte" being rather too much of a good thing for one night's entertainment, especially when seen for the umpteenth time. Happily the opera has fared well on record, enabling music lovers to enjoy it at liesure at home.
This 1954 recording, produced by Walter Legge, was the third "complete" recording of the opera to be released. Perhaps because of the exigencies of accommodating it onto LP records, some of the secco recitatives were cut, leaving a running time of eight or nine minutes under full length. Although a monaural recording made nearly fifty years ago, it is still one of the two top recommended versions in the "Penguin Guide to Compact Discs".
Karajan, prior to his Berlin Philharmonic days, provides well-judged direction, broadening tempi sometimes in his inimitable way, such as in the Act 1 march, but preserving a light touch elsewhere, especially during the asides offered by Despina and Alfonso. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's Fiordiligi is a woman with enormous depths and subtleties of character. The singer's famous ability to color her voice is nowhere more apparent than here, her first attempt at singing this part. Perhaps this Fiordiligi is too intelligent, too sensitive. Listening to Schwarzkopf's Fiordiligi, perhaps you doubt that this character could ever be fooled by into believing her maid Despina, heavily disguised in costume and voice, was a medico and then a notary.
Blending well with Schwarzkopf in the role of Dorabella is the American mezzo Nan Merriman, already in 1954 a noted singer in this part. As Despina, Lisa Otto sings her arias neatly and enjoys herself impersonating Signor Dottore and Il Notaio. None better, perhaps before or since, has been heard in the part of Ferrando than the French-Canadian tenor Leopold Simoneau. Rolando Panerai, as the baritone who never gets much solo work to do, makes the most of his three-minute "Donne mie". Sesto Bruscantini, who rarely delivered an imperfect performance or recording, is a lighter-voiced and more interesting than most Don Alfonso.
This is a "Cosi" that will not disappoint those who wish to hear the opera repeatedly and who accept that good monaural sound can offer in its own way as much enjoyment as good black and white photography. My copy has an Italian only libretto included.
I have lived for years with the Bohm recording as my favourite "Cosi", always with a sideways longing glance towards the neglected Lombard set on Erato (see my review), but the latter really is too languorous at times - and that might be what you would expect of Karajan, too, but you would be wrong. He starts pacy and sprightly and so it continues, never rushed but beautifully pointed and taut - whereas Bohm can sometimes lack subtlety. So my recent re-acquaintance with this set has made me question my loyalty to Bohm. At first, one wonders whether some of the singing and playing might be a little understated; everything is so subtly and delicately underscored without any hint of vulgarity - and of course, the orchestral playing is of the highest quality, the Philharmonia of this period comprising some of the greatest wind players of their era, including Denis Brain on horn. If you like your Mozart on period instruments rattled off at breakneck speed, this recording is not for you, but I must emphasise that there is no lack of pace or tension in this performance. All the soloists have exceptionally fleet, light, sweet voices with that old-fashioned, quick, flickering vibrato now out of fashion and they are masters of the text. Bruscantini is much lighter of voice than the Don Alfonsos to which we have become accustomed today and his is a beautifully shaded, cynical yet affectionate, characterisation. I am not always fond of Schwarzkopf, but here she is in freshest, purest voice, largely free of mannerisms and even better than ten years later with Bohm. Merriman is a perfect foil, with her warm, vibrant mezzo, and Simoneau is simply the best Ferrando on record. Panerai provides wonderful support, and even though I still marginally prefer the perfect Steffek as Despina in the later set, Otto is pert, pretty and funny.
The mono sound is clean and forward without distortion. However, the alternative Naxos issue is even cheaper than this "Great Recordings of the Century" version on EMI and I cannot imagine that the EMI is any better re-mastered - and you have a bonus selection of Schwarzkopf arias to boot. So go for the Naxos and enjoy a connoisseur's performance of some of the most sublime music ever written.
on 13 October 2014
Much like those astronauts who walked on the Moon - "what comes next in life?" - it's arguable that everything that Karajan undertook after this miraculous 1955 recording was an afterglow, his celestial Bruckner notwithstanding. It is the most translucent Cosi Fan Tutte in existence. It is flawlessly sung and characterised - and how well do the soloists listen to one another! The fact that it is in mono does not even register, such be the wizardry of Walter Legge.
Do not deprive yourself of this wonder. Take this ticket to Cythera
on 5 August 2011
This recording from 1954 doesn't have the best sound quality - it's recorded in mono. But it has superb singing! All six singers are excellent in their parts. Schwartzkopf has a young lyrical timbre, and has no problem at all with Karajan's sometimes slow tempi. Merriman is matching her very well. Simoneau is one of the best Ferrando ever heard on record - lyrical, warm and very true to the music. Panerai is one of my fav baritones, and he doesn't disappoint here with his light and agile voice. Bruscantini and Otto are adding theatre and - of course - excellent singing.
on 13 February 2008
Cosi is, for me, the best Mozart opera: the music is sublime with achingly moving arias, duets, trios, quartets etc: the spirit soars. yes, the story is ridiculous, but, who cares? This recording is a vintage classic with Schwarzkopf at her absolute best. No superlative is superlative enough for her!