Thursday 28 November 2013

Sony's new Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy

Teodor Currentzis - Credit: Anton Zavjyalov
Teodor Currentzis - Credit: Anton Zavjyalov
Whilst the practice of doing studio recordings of opera isn't exactly dead, it is certainly rather moribund. The majority of major new recordings are tied in to live performances and certainly the idea of taking a company into the recording studio to record, say, Berlioz's Les Troyens, belongs to a different world. So it was with some degree of pride that last week that Bogdan Roscic, the head of Sony Classical, announced that Sony were releasing a new set of Mozart and Da Ponte's three operas (Le Nozze di Figaro, Cosi van Tutte and Don Giovanni). These are being recorded by the Russian trained Greek-born conductor Teodor Currentzis with his group MusicAeterna.

Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre
Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre
The name Currentzis may flag up that this project is no ordinary recording. For a start, the recordings are being made in Currentzis's home base, in Perm (which is 1400 km East of Moscow, and is the most easterly city in Europe). And they are being made under Currentzis's own conditions, which means that he chooses the casts and that there is extensive rehearsal time. Le Nozze di Figaro and Cosi van Tutte have already been recorded, and Figaro was recorded in sessions of up to fourteen hours a day over eleven days and nights.

I first came across Currentzis in 2011 when I reviewed a recording of Mozart's Requiem which he made in Novosibirsk with Musica Aeterna (Currentzis was based in Novosibirsk before moving to Perm). The recording seemed remarkable, but contained no explanation as to why and how it came to be made. Currentzis was born in Athens in 1972, moving to St Petersburg in 1994 to train with Ilya Musin. He became music director of Novosibirsk opera in 2004, making headlines with such productions as Dmitry Tcherniakov's Aida set in a war zone (the Balkans or Chechnya). But the defining moment was his move to Perm, where he negotiated dream conditions.

Currentzis's decision to move away from the current centres of European classical music can be seen as not so much perversity, but a desire to be able to do everything on his own terms. Currentzis is one of those charismatic people who have strong, defining opinions and his musical monastery in Perm enables him to make music under the most ideal of situations. Something that would not be possible elsewhere, in the current financial climate.  A profile of him in the Daily Telegraph in 2005 described an artist who severely divided critics and with distinct messianic tendencies.  That his interests are wide is indicated by the presence on Amazon of a recording, with MusicAeterna of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 14 

All period practice is compromise, we cannot ever know exactly what Mozart heard. But Currentzis is keen to strip away much of the 20th century accretions which surround the music. He is not a dogmatic purist, his recording of Le Nozze di Figaro includes a lute and a hurdy-gurdy, and he says that if he thought that electric guitars worked best, then he'd use them. But he also includes a forte-piano and has it participating in all the opera, not just the recitatives. He also takes a distinctive view of dynamics, creating something livelier and far more vibrantly hard edged than is often heard in period music. In a sense Currentzis's style is a development on from the performances by conductors like Simon Rattle who in the 1990's started working with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and experimenting with just what was possible with period instruments.
Le Nozze di Figaro - Teodor Currentzis
But the defining piece of Currentzis's jigsaw is probably going to be the casting of Simone Kermes. She plays the Countess and Fiordiligi (casting for Don Giovanni has not been announced). Her ability to spin a plangently expressive line using a rather white voice without significant vibrato is the key. Currentzis sees the wholesale application of vibrato as a 20th century obsession. Instead he uses hand-picked, smaller voiced singers. Not everyone will like the sound, and listening to Le Nozze di Figaro there is a slight problem in the way the voices can sound similar, especially the female ones. But they also sing with a vibrant vividness, and we get a real sense of drama and some lovely ornamentation. (Much of it based on material from Mozart's time).

Everything that Currentzis does seems to be up for discussion, and rehearsals, recordings and editing are all under scrutiny (and control). This is certainly a recording project which avoids the factory feeling of some of the more recent recordings in the catalogue. But the quest for accuracy and precision could easily have created a recording which was studied and stylised, which did not live as operatic drama. The remarkable thing about Currentzis's project (I have heard Le Nozze di Figaro and short excerpts from Cosi van Tutte) is that he has the single-mindedness of vision to weld the whole into a finely dramatic whole. I don't think everyone will like the vocal style, and certainly the intensely forward moving performance style will not please all. But there is a vitality to it, Currentzis might obssess about details but he makes them come alive.

Le Nozze di Figaro is recorded complete, we get both Marcellina and Basilio's arias in act four. There is no word yet as to which edition of Don Giovanni Currentzis will be using. (When I asked Bogdan Roscic about it at the press conference he said that he'd not had that conversation with Currentzis).

Peter Culshaw concludes his 2005 article in the Daily Telegraph with the statement 'If his narcissism doesn't get the better of him, Currentzis could be one of those rare artists capable of shifting the ground of his chosen art, and pulling off something extraordinary - perhaps even miraculous.' It will be interesting to see whether critics view his new enterprise as miraculous, certainly it is extraordinary.

Le Nozze di Figaro will be released in February 2014, with Andrei Bondarenko as Count Almaviva, Simone Kermes as Countess Rosina, Christian van Horn as Figaro, Fanie Atonelou as Susanna, Mary-Ellen Nesi as Cherubino, Maria Forsstrom as Marcellin, Nikolai Loskutkin as Bartolo, Krystian Adam as Don Basilio, James Elliot as Don Kurzio, Garry Agadzhanian as Antonian, and Natalya Kirillova as Barbarina. With MusicAeterna conducted by Teodor Currentzis. It was recorded 24 September - October 4 in Perm. It will be released in a variety of formats in addition to CD, including vinyl (!)  and blu-ray.

Cosi Fan Tutte will be released in Autumn 2015, with a cast including Simone Kermes, Malena Ernamn, Kenneth Tarver, Christopher Maltman, Konstantin Wolff and Anna Kasyan. Don Giovanni is released in Autumn 2015.

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