|MOZART: Così fan
Eleanor Steber, soprano (Fiordiligi); Blanche Thebom, mezzo-soprano (Dorabella); Roberta Peters, soprano (Despina); Richard Tucker, tenor (Ferrando); Frank Guarrera, baritone (Guglielmo); Lorenzo Alvary, bass (Don Alfonso); Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Fritz Stiedry, cond.
Sony Classical MH2K 60652 (2 CDs) (M) (ADD) TT: 2:23:30
This recording is a souvenir of a memorable production that took place early in the tenure of Metropolitan Opera General Manager Sir Rudolph Bing. During that period, the Met and Bing, hoping to attract Broadway audiences, staged new productions of operetta and "light" opera. The performances featured English translations of the original librettos, and were directed by luminaries of the dramatic stage. December 20, 1950, the Met unveiled its new production of Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus, directed by Garson Kanin. Mozart's Così fan tutte made its debut December 28, 1951, directed by Alfred Lunt, who also made an unforgettable cameo appearance at the start of each performance as a candle-lighting servant. The Met's sparkling new Cosė proved to be successful with both critics and audiences. The following June, the Met and Columbia Records joined forces to produce this recording. With the exception of Despina and Don Alfonso, the cast is identical to that of the Met premiere (in the recording Roberta Peters and Lorenzo Alvary replace Patrice Munsel and John Brownlee).
There are many reasons why this cannot be the preferred recording of Mozart's masterpiece. First, any translation must, by definition, deprive us of Mozart's sublime wedding of music to the poetry of Lorenzo da Ponte's original Italian libretto. While for the most part Ruth and Thomas Martin's translation "sings" relatively well, it is still a matter of compromise as far as the delicate synthesis of text and music is concerned. Further, the translation contains more than its share of dated colloquialisms that, for me at least, grate upon repeated hearing. For example, Despina's admonition, "Paghiam, o femmine, d'ugual moneta questa malefica razza indiscreta" ("Ladies, pay in kind this impudent, evil breed"), becomes "Pay them in kind when they flirt and philander. Sauce for the goose is the same for the gander!" If that sort of thing bothers you, consider yourself forewarned. Other shortcomings include a modern piano as accompaniment for recitatives, and the lack of such stylistic considerations as appogiaturas and ornamentation. Further, there are several cuts in recitatives, as well as deletion of Ferrando and Dorabella's second-act arias.
That said, there are many reasons why I would not want to be without this recording. It contains two outstanding performances -- Eleanor Steber's Fiordiligi and Richard Tucker's Ferrando. Steber was a renowned Mozart singer who, in addition to Fiordiligi, also sang the Countess, Donna Elvira, Pamina, and Donna Anna at the Met. The voice is rich, full, and beautiful throughout its range, and the florid requirements of the role pose no hurdles for Steber. Further, she masterfully portrays the pain the character experiences as, little by little, she succumbs to temptation. Tucker's masterful Ferrando may well come as more of a surprise. After all, this was a singer who made his greatest reputation in lirico-spinto and spinto roles. Even at this relatively early stage of his career Tucker had already sung such formidable roles as Enzo, Riccardo, Turiddu, Gabriele Adorno, Des Grieux, Cavaradossi and Don Carlo at the Met, as well as Radames in a concert performance with Toscanini. Tucker's voice certainly is more heroic than one would normally expect for Ferrando, but that is not necessarily a drawback, given the grace with which Tucker negotiates this demanding music. Tucker's identification with the role, enhanced by his superb diction, is also first-rate. It is unfortunate the production did not include Ferrando's second-act arias; as it is, Tucker's performance is a valuable memento of a great tenor who was too often taken for granted.
The remainder of the cast, while not on this exalted level, is never less than acceptable. Neither Thebom nor Guarrera match the vocal splendor of their higher-voiced counterparts, but they are engaging, vital singers. The young Roberta Peters employs her bright tone and vivacious energy to good effect as Despina, although I wish she was consistent (one way or the other) in terms of rolling her "r's." Lorenzo Alvary, while not an outstanding vocalist, does winningly project Don Alfonso's insinuating nature. Fritz Stiedry's conducting is rather heavy-handed, but still provides reasonable support. The remastered monophonic sound is superb.