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MOZART: Da Ponte Operas, Blu-Ray (2016)

MOZART: Da Ponte Operas, Blu-Ray (2016) 

The great writer/rogue/adventurer Da Ponte deserves far better than this middling set.

(Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, and Cosi fan tutte)
Performers: Chorus & Orch. of the Zurich Opera House/ Juergen Flimm (Director), Soloists: Rodney Gilfrey, Cecilia Bartoli, Liliana Nikiteanu, Agnes Balta, et al. – Nikolaus Harnoncourt; Chorus Master: Ernst Raffeksberger/
Studio: Arthaus Musik [7/29/16] [Dist. by Naxos]
Length: 598 minutes
Video: for 16:9 screens, color
Audio: DTS-HD 5.1, PCM Stereo
Subtitles: English, German, French
Ratings:    Audio: ***¼ Video: ***

I had great hopes for this set. Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749–1838) wrote the librettos for three of Mozart’s greatest operas and his lines sparkle, amuse, and sting, unlike any librettist before or since. You can read all about his colorful life in his Memoirs (New York Review of Books, 2000). Oddly, he doesn’t spend much time describing his work with Mozart; he treats their collaboration as if it were just another gig, like the hack work he did for Antonio Salieri.

Arthaus Musik has collected the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s versions of these on three Blu-ray discs. The operas, recorded about twenty years ago at the Zurich Opera House – Le Nozze de Figaro (1996), Così Fan Tutte (2000), Don Giovanni (2001) – all have casts with big names. Does this mean that the singing is world class?  Tenor Rodney Gilfrey is a sparky randy Don Giovanni and an imperious but conflicted Conte di Almaviva in Le Nozze de Figaro. Gilfrey’s acting is  first rate; I really felt he was a cad in both operas. Cecilia Bartoli is also a dominant presence in two operas: as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni she pushes the wronged-woman role as far as she can (and then some). Her homily to Zerlina (“Ah fuggi il traditor”), although very short, is crafted with Baroque splendor and vitality, ending with a strident coloratura. Of course this comes as no surprise. Around that time, she began her deep immersion into Baroque opera, consuming its flashy and complicated arias with relish that would shame a castrato. Despite this, her rendition of Fiordiligi’s deeply expressive aria in Così Fan Tutte, “Per pieta, ben mio,” is somewhat marred by perplexing pauses and a grandstanding cry of despair at its end. In contrast, a PBS performance of James Levine’s version of this opera in 8/2014 has Susanna Phillips singing the aria with just-right pacing and a memorable tenderness, laced with with a dollop of guilt.

Most of the time Nikolaus Harnoncourt is a competent interpreter of Mozart with only occasional lapses in imagination. In all three of these operas, his tempi drags until he suddenly ratchets it up to a dizzying pace, like in Così’s Act I finale. Jürgen Flimm’s staging seems overly dark at key moments, particularly in Don Giovanni. Maybe he believes this reflects the Don’s dark character, indulging in dark deeds. In that opera, the overall sound is okay, but not extraordinary. The miking is spotty and sometimes a line droops like a lead codpiece. Alas, wireless mics were not widely used back then and didn’t work well. Le Nozze di Figaro is the most enjoyable production of the three, with its peekaboo costumes (my mother would have called them “suggestive”), spirited acting and vivacious singing. But even it has its flaws, like its inclusion of Marcellina’s and Basilio’s Act 4 arias, ordinarily omitted because they muck up the denouement.

The great writer/rogue/adventurer Lorenzo Da Ponte deserves far better than this middling set. Perhaps the upcoming release of Mozart’s 22 operas in a 33-DVD package (Universal) will have better versions. We shall see.

—Peter Bates

on this article to AUDIOPHILE AUDITION!

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