Guth’s Salzburg “Così” – a late review


[Photo Credit: dpa via Kölnische Rundschau]

Sometimes, all it takes to make you happy is Patricia Petibon in a tank top.

“Così fan tutte”, Mozart’s 1790 take on the 18th century cultural pattern of the “school of love”, is one of those operas that you appreciate the more the older you get (and the more messy relationships with blurred borders you’ve seen close up yourself).

It’s the shift from the usual operatic black-and-white to the many human shades of gray that makes “Così fan tutte” stand out. It is a piece about the constant presence of the ability of falling in love with someone other than your partner, and drives home the point that relationships are not a given – the bigger the oaths, the more fragile the link.

Guth’s production, after the Buddenbrocks Figaro (2006) and the Butoh Don Giovanni (2008), has opened to mellow reviews, with praise for the singers, but not much else.

What happened?

The plot – two sisters, engaged to a pair of close friends, are seduced in a bet of the men, each by her sister’s fiancé – has a tendency to wreck costume department havoc, complete with ridiculous mustaches and enormous turbans.

In a try to get away from that ploy, Guth instead has Don Alfonso be an invisible ghost (visible only to the audience and possibly to Despina) who is living in an African mask mounted on the wall of the upper-end house where Dorabella and Fiordiligi are living and inspires the fatal bet from there.

This gives Guth liberty to skip the mustaches – the women are simply ‘bewitched’ by the voodoo specter as to not recognize the fiancés – but also kills the experiment arrangement that is at the core of “Così”.

While Bo Skovhus is of course as good as ever even when he is supposed to be a wall-mounted ghost – every pose, every grimace is fitted down to a T – the lack of interaction between Alfonso and the boys kills a source of stage energy that could have breathed more life into this evening.

It’s, much like last year’s “Giovanni”, a decent production with a really good concept idea, that unfortunately doesn’t quite carry through the night as it should have.

With a big arch missing (or rather: the big arch teetering in the air without any foot on the ground), attention is, however, drawn to a lot of small details that Guth has observed very well. He uses casual libretto lines to create psychological depth, often going against speed in those moments and creating spaces of eeriness where the floors suddenly seems to disappear beneath our feet, too.

cosi_slzbrg_01[Photo Credit: Monika Rittershaus via Salzburger Festspiele]

This approach leads to a surprisingly tender and romantic “Il core vi dono”, and the most lyrical “rimira, rimara si meglio può star” I have ever heard in a Guglielmo. There’s no touching, but stripping involved and it creates one of the most intimate moments of the evening.

That the entire cast is looking good enough to eat does not only offer plenty of eye candy, but also the risk of veering off into shiny surface skipping that would be Melrose Place rather than Mozart/daPonte.

The one who is best avoiding that surface risk is Miah Persson’s Fiordiligi, although it has to be noted that the libretto also offers her much more possibilities this way than, say, it does with Dorabella.

During Fiordiligi’s “Per pieta” rondo Guglielmo appears in the back like a projection, or perhaps as a comment, oscillating between despair and a bad conscience. It needs to be said that the dark and ambiguous, broody “Guth Touch” that made the Figaro so Buddenbrooks works very well on these occasions and makes especially Guglielmo notably more complex as a character, but remains lost on e.g. Dorabella.

Sometimes, Guth enjoys his own jokes a little too much – it is the best gag of the evening when Despina, dressed up as a Doctor, inhales helium and (you can do such things when you have Petibon at hand!) suddenly continues her line an octave higher. Too bad that they ruin this gem by immediately repeating it.

Several reviews have complained about Petibon’s Despina being a little over the top, to which I can only say: did they ever actually see a Petibon recital? “A little over the top” is exactly what Petibon does best – in fact, the tame costume-change number of “Una donna a quindici anni” is wasting Petibon’s abilities that only shimmer through in her way of adding a bit of extra coloratura here and there.

Also, sometimes it doesn’t take five evening gowns, but just a pair of fitting jeans and a tank top to make Petibon look every bit as good as she sounds.

Next to Boesch’s solid and nuanced portrayal of Guglielmo, Lehtipuu (aka “the Cutest of Finns”) comes across a little lighter – I still had his appearance on Haïm’s Lamenti recording in my ear – but with more italianità than I would have expected of him. His voice is light, with a height that at times evokes the blinding white light of Northern summers. Sometimes, he careens a little bit of track there, the register change too sharp, but it  shows that there is more power to look for underneath than I expected.

It doesn’t hurt that he’s utterly cute in addition. If this were fandom, I’d totally ship Persson’s and Lehtipuu’s Ferrando/Fiordiligi combo.

Special thanks at this point for NOT cutting the “Ah lo veggio, quell’anima bella” – Lehtipuu hits the tone of the aria in a way that makes your head loll back with delight. Possibly even better, though: his “Tradito, schernito”. He could still use more substance in the lower middle register, but you’ve got to love the impetus – clear, no quaking, no smears. Sometimes, perhaps, he could use a bit more color, but then again, do I really want anything to detract from that clarity of sound?

cosi_slzbrg02det[Photo Credit: Monika Rittershaus via Salzburger Festspiele]

Isabel Leonard, the only one I hadn’t heard earlier of the cast, fit in pleasantly, but without developing much profile – her tone is light in a lyric way, slim, with a soprano-sounding upper register and not much timbre that would make me sit up straighter as a mezzo lover. Only at times, notably in the exaggerated duet line of “Mi dirà ‘ben mio, mi moro’”, there’s suddenly a bit of color that had me listening more closely.

And then, of course, there is Miah Persson. The growth of color her voice has displayed over the past six years is amazing. Remember that glistening, silvery Sophie in the 2004 Salzburg “Rosenkavalier”? And then the stratospheric soprano castrato hero that was her Sifare (“Mitridate”) in 2006?

The roundness and warmth her tone has gained over the past three years is dream material. Glimpses of it were already audible in last year’s Covent Garden Zerlina that already showed a warmer glow which was paradoxically mezzo-ish despite the soprano in the sometimes mezzo-cast role.

Persson’s Fiordiligi is driving all these points home with supremacy.

In the upper register, there’s still some of that silvery, glistening sound quality that made her such a fantastic Sophie, but the entire middle and lower register have grown into a warm complexity of colors that make me await the next five years with anxiousness. Persson perhaps doesn’t necessarily have a voice that is primarily strong, but it carries effortlessly. In the rondo, there were light color gaps in the upper middle, something that I predict will be gone in another five years.

Next to me on the couch, my inner soprano shipper jumped up and down and shouted “Susanna! No, Countess! No, Susanna- No, Countess! Counteess, Countess, Countess!” And that legato is indeed going Contessa on a fast track. Also, her upward portamenti? *dies and goes to heaven*

The legato, especially in comparison to the brighter, but less colorful Sifare three years ago has gained in richness and smoothness. Only the lowest lows in “Per pietà” sound a little flat, but let’s be honest: that happens to many Fiordiligis with bigger voices, too. And I don’t recall many of them having been an outstanding Sifare or Sophie just a few years earlier.

On the whole the “bewitched puppet” concept of the evening is a little meh. The story wouldn’t need the voodoo excuse and nobody needs to pull supernatural strings to set this story into motion – being a human being with all the messiness that implies is quite enough. The 2008 “Giovanni forest” and its dark sensuality that invade the stage and the emotions of the characters in the 2nd act makes almost more sense here than it did in the “Don Giovanni” itself. Curious. Staging-wise, the small changes of accents, the twists delivered in recit lines usually thrown away, remain the most lasting in retrospect.

And there are some good break moments in contrast with the music and/or text: e.g. just before the feministically unbearable “Ah signor, io so rea di morte”, there’s biting and hitting and kicking the double standard men. And a quiet moment of self-realization on the side: Fiordiligi is simply quietly shaking her head at the irony and at herself when the “Bella vita militar” march sounds up again to announce the return of the previous fiancés. A very nice detail.

…and then I was already distracted by Petibon in biker gear marching toward exit (yes, it looked every bit as good as it sounds) while the quartet of lost lovers faced the uncomfortable realization that you could have just as well fallen in love with someone else.

17 thoughts on “Guth’s Salzburg “Così” – a late review”

  1. Is there an opera toaster out there? And if so, when do I get one? 😉

    Seriously, though, I am very happy if I can play a part in making more people stumble about the wonders (and queer-friendly wonders) of opera. Saw your Kasarova and Garanca post this week, Lang 🙂


  2. “Why you do not have a job making money doing this I don’t know. What’s up with that?”

    Beats me too lisadawn82 ! The US music magazine Listen for example could do with someone who can write with this amount of flair and depth of knowledge!! Anik is the queen of the opera blogs queer or otherwise and I’d bet she’s turned a huge number of people into opera goers and CD/DVD buyers in her time!!

    Thanks Anik again for a really fantastic post, can’t wait to see the production now!


  3. this sounds great! where is this happening? I could pop over from London next week. i’ve got holiday to use up after wednesday


  4. Hi winblown, I know what you mean, Anik has me salivating at the thought of that production, but sadly it’s over. It was at the Salzburg Festival this year, and director god Guth is scheduled now to be mostly doing Wagner for the next year or so. But there’s a ‘mezzo-loving folks’ friendly production of Ariadne auf Naxos on in Munich this month if you are looking for a city break, Strauss … not really my thing but there is a mezzo in trousers to compensate for the at times florid music.

    Or Eyebags favourite Marc Minkowski is conducting Mireille at Paris Opera ( )

    Or a little closer to home the counter tenor is doing a nice sounding Handel heavy recital at the Barbican later this month… Looks delicious!

    But really for the full mezzo in pants lovers experience then jump on a cheap flight from City to Zurich on the 19th and go see Vesselina Kasarova in concert… both Sesto arias from Tito, and some Handel to add to the aural joy…. . Ah…. Kasarova. In Zurich. Doing Sesto. And Handel. Let the smiling begin!

    That’s the great thing about opera – there’s usually something good on somewhere!!


  5. What’s with one toaster? Give me your address and I’ll send you toastersssss. 😀
    Actually, I’ve only really heard Petibon once from that 2002 version with Dessay in it. Didn’t pay much attention to Petibon. Seeing your description here makes me want to listen to the redhead again…:)


  6. @Lang: for Petibon, you could try this Olympia, or even her “Send in the clowns”. Hilarious doesn’t even begin to describe it.

    @Purity: thanks for the Kasarova notification! It seems that she’s doing some of her best – two Ruggiero arias from Alcina, both Sesto arias, some Bulgarian songs (not sure, but I think some of them feature as well on her CD recording of that repertory), some Bellini Romeo *sigh* and some Rossini Tancredi (the rondo, not “Di tanti palpiti”). That’s like a meal of desserts. Lush, high-end, Swiss desserts.

    @winblown: the next time such a production is up, I’ll try to write the review in time!

    @lisadawn82: not sure there’d be a big audience on afterellen for opera… although they do have the occasional post once in a while. Also, every lesbian with eyes and ears would appreciate a hot mezzo in pants, if only she knew they existed! Ah well. The next toasters are in the works…


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