Così Fan Tutte
Schwarzkopf, Sciutti, Merriman; Alva, Panerai, Calabrese; Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala, Cantelli. Text and translation. La Scala Memories LAS 002 (2)
In today’s flood of “historic” performances on record, it is important to remember that some of them actually are historic. Così Fan Tutte is ubiquitous nowadays (and it is particularly so at music schools, with its small cast of young lovers and its small orchestra), but it was not a familiar opera in the 1950s. When this production had its premiere at Milan’s Piccola Scala in January 1956, the opera had been given a mere six performances by the Scala company in the previous century. Moreover, the Piccola Scala house had opened only the month earlier, and the production marked the debut as stage director of the young conductor Guido Cantelli.
Under Cantelli’s baton, every note the orchestra plays is melodic. There are no “accompaniments.” This is immediately striking in the orchestral recitatives, such as the one before Dorabella’s “Smanie implacabili.” But it is also true in less obvious places. There is an early example in the men’s trio “È la fede delle femmine” in the first scene. Cantelli the conductor and Cantelli the director soon seem to merge. Many conductors achieve the requisite majesty at the start of Fiordiligi’s “Come scoglio” (whether or not it is viewed as a parody number), but few sustain it so beautifully to the end. The last section of the Act I finale never loses its lyricism; there is a great nobility to the final section of Fiordiligi’s “Per pietà”; and there is a persuasively deliberate performance of Alfonso’s solo before the grand finale. In today’s world, all of these sections more often than not receive superficial interpretations. Così has developed into a cheap elbow in the ribs. Cantelli’s musical direction (an overly insistent tempo for the duet “Prenderò quel brunettino” aside) is a beautiful demonstration of the lyrical and intensely personal Italian opera this is meant to be. La Scala’s musical profile might have been forever altered; soon after this performance Cantelli was named music-director designate. But a few days after the announcement he died in a plane crash in Paris, in November 1956.
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s Fiordiligi and Nan Merriman’s Dorabella are the only singers featured on the packaging of this release, but the revelation of the performance is the team of male singers. Peruvian tenor Luigi Alva’s Ferrando is, rightly, the central pillar of the show, despite the excision of “Al fato dan legge” and “Ah, lo veggio.” His tone has such warmth that the eventual hurt of betrayal is all the more heartbreaking. The recitative before “Tradito, schernito,” in partnership with Cantelli, becomes a true monologue, a real moment of deliberation, and Alva also plays all the layers of the “Volgi a me” section of the final duet. Rolando Panerai makes sure that Guglielmo is no mere sidekick. In the “Il core vi dono” duet he nicely differentiates the asides, all the while maintaining a smile in the voice and fine legato. Franco Calabrese makes Alfonso a starring role. He is commanding in “Nel mare solca,” making it a real climax of the scene. In Act II, he is absolutely unperturbed by the way things have gone, since he engineered it all. Cantelli’s tempo for Calabrese’s solo just before the final play-out of the Act II finale is unusually deliberate. It leaves no doubt that Alfonso is the master, and it almost makes up for an unfortunate internal cut in the finale, the only time Cantelli allows cutting within a number.
Schwarzkopf’s “Come scoglio” is sung with the greatest musical integrity (it’s the first time the rather cool audience applauds), and her “Per pietà” is also a brave piece of singing, with no cheating or sliding on the great leap of “sempre ascoso.” But it is palpable that she is relieved and happy in ensemble singing. Merriman is delightful, and Graziella Sciutti’s Despina is no pipsqueak. She sings a nicely offhand “Di pasta simile,” and her disguised voice as the doctor isn’t annoying. La Scala’s presentation of this release goes all out, with three dozen archival photographs. Apparently nothing could be done about the metallic sound quality or the intermittent low electronic hum, and the harpsichord playing is puny of tone and inspiration. But anybody who listens through the sonics can only be grateful for what Cantelli tells us about the work.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN
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