Cosi Fan Tutte

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GENS, FINK, ODDONE, GURA, BOONE, Spagnoli, Concerto Koln and Kolner Kammerchor, Rene Jacobs, conductor. Harmonia Mundi: HMC 951663-65 (3 CDs and a CD-ROM). *****

BEFORE DELVING INTO THIS MOST RECENT recording of Cosi fan Tutte I flipped through the winter edition of the Schwann Catalogue and discovered no less than 18 different performances listed. The total number of recordings of Mozart's two-act dramma giocoso that have been available since the advent of CD, however, far exceeds that total, which raises the question: Does the world actually need another recording of Cosi fan Tutte? Particularly one with a cast of largely unfamiliar singers and with a conductor known more for Monteverdi than Mozart.

With the arresting attack on the opening chord of the overture, I was shocked. In the second measure, when I heard the distinctive, reedy coloration of an 18th-century oboe, I knew this Cosi was going to be quite different in sound from most others. By the eighth measure, I was charmed. With an unusual tempo change in the three measures leading up to the presto, I was further taken aback. But following the 15th measure--the point where the introductory andante gives way to a light, spirited presto--I was completely won over--all before I had heard a single note of singing.

True, this Cosi fan Tutte does not have the star-studded cast that is more usual with major new recordings of opera. None of these singers is a household name, apart, perhaps, from the splendid French soprano Veronique Gens, who sings the role of Fiordiligi. However, the results are infinitely more satisfying than many of those CDs featuring bigger names.

Thanks for this must go to conductor Rene Jacobs, who has assembled an exceptional cast of young singers. While the singing is variable, it is of an extremely high and consistent quality, but it is the uniformity in approach and commonality of vision that are most striking. Although an ensemble production, it is nonetheless dominated by Jacobs. His approach to the score is decidedly idiosyncratic and sufficiently unusual to provoke controversy: his generous (but tasteful) use of ornamentation; his choice of a fortepiano over the harpsichord for recitatives; his extremes of tempi; even his casting of a young, light-voiced baritone in the role of what is usually an elderly Don Alfonso. Jacobs, a countertenor-turned-conductor, has specialized in music of the Renaissance and the Baroque, and his view of Mozart's music is clearly influenced by his performances of 16th- and 17th-century music. Until one becomes acclimatized to Jacobs' approach, certain aspects of the performance may be infuriating, frustrating, perplexing, perhaps even abrasive. But given time, Jacobs' vision begins to unfold.

No matter how fine or fascinating the performance, this handsomely packaged set may, for many, be completely overshadowed by the CD-ROM that accompanies it. …