I borrowed the heading from one of the movements of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra; it translates roughly as 'The Play of Pairs.' And that certainly is the thrust of this wonderful production of 'Così fan tutte' from the 1983 Salzburg Festival, directed by Michael Hampe with sets and costumes by Mauro Pagano. The mise en scène makes much subtle play of the mirroring of the various pairs in the opera -- Fiordiligi and Dorabella, Ferrando and Guglielmo, Despina and Don Alfonso. Costumes, settings, stage action all tend to come in pairs, with just enough differentiation to make it more subtle than blatant. It certainly adds to the delicious comedy of the opera.
Some months ago I raved about a La Scala DVD of 'Così' conducted by Riccardo Muti but this one, also led by Muti, is even better, at least partly because the singers are better by a slight margin, the stage action is more delicately funny, and Muti is, if anything, more in tune with his cast and the musicians. I find little in this production to complain about. First, there is a simply marvelous cast. I occasionally found Margaret Marshall's tight Supervia-like vibrato a little bothersome, yet her big aria ('Come scoglio') is superb and she is likewise excellent in her Act II scena 'Per pietà, ben mio, perdona' (and the horn player in that rondo also deserves a bouquet). Meanwhile, her blend with Ann Murray's Dorabella in their numerous duets is extraordinary. Murray's 'Smanie implacabili' is delicious. She plays Dorabella as more minxlike than some, adding to the comedy. The two men, Ferrando (Francisco Araiza) and Guglielmo (the young James Morris) could hardly be bettered. They are good actors -- farcical, of course, but that's part of the fun -- and vocally in top estate. Morris's duet with Murray in Act II ('Il core di dono') is breathtaking and his aria 'Donne mie, la fate a tanti' is likewise. Araiza triumphs with a meltingly beautiful 'Un'aura amorosa'; he is in particularly fine voice and he's a better actor than I remembered. His voice also has enough metal for 'Tradito, schernito.'
Sesto Bruscantini was practically synonymous with buffo roles and he was born to sing Don Alfonso. Although this is toward the end of his career -- he was 63 at the time of this production -- and his voice is a little worn, he knows how to squeeze all the sly humor out of the role. (I loved it when he directed the young men to approach the other's inamorata when they return as the Albanian soldiers; I laughed along with the audience.)
The other principal character in this six-character opera is, of course, Despina, sung by Kathleen Battle. Her silvery voice, perfect trill, pert stage presence and expert comic timing make this a marvelous portrayal. Her appearance as 'il dottore' late in Act I is a comic turn by a master. (And that her costume echoes that of Don Alfonso is another of the little touches that points out the 'giuoco delle coppie' aspects of the opera.) Her coaxing of the sisters in 'In uomine, in soldati' is done in fine style.
All in all, this is a delightful production. The sound is fine, although only available in LPCM stereo. Videography is clear and unobtrusive, with many close-ups that tend to flatter the singers rather than show us their tonsils. I loved this DVD.