The School for Lovers: Così fan tutte at the Konzerthaus Freiburg

Mozart – Così fan tutte

Fiordiligi – Robin Johannsen
Dorabella – Sophie Harmsen
Guglielmo – Christian Senn
Ferrando – Mark Milhofer
Despina – Im Sunhae
Don Alfonso – Marcos Fink

Vokalakademie Berlin, Freiburger Barockorchester / René Jacobs.
Concert performance.

Konzerthaus, Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany.  Sunday, February 26th, 2017.

Having heard the fabulous Freiburger Barockorchester in Paris, France on previous occasions in René Jacobs’ Mozart cycle, this was the first time for me to have the pleasure of hearing them in their home venue, the Konzerthaus in Freiburg.  It’s a generously-sized auditorium with good resonance.  Sightlines aren’t ideal as the seats are all right behind each other meaning that it’s possible that one’s view might be obstructed by a tall neighbour.  The coat check is obligatory and there is a charge for it, so do make sure that you bring change when you visit.

Rene Jacobs. Photo: © Marco Borggreve
Rene Jacobs. Photo: © Marco Borggreve

As with his previous Don Giovanni and Nozze di Figaro with the Freiburgers, René Jacobs gave us a mise en espace that used the entirety of the stage – and occasionally the auditorium and orchestra – to draw us into the drama.  There were some props – sunglasses and hats for the ‘Albanians’ and Despiina dressed up as a doctor and a lawyer when required to.  The ladies’ costumes also reflected the class relationship between Despina and the sisters with Im Sunhae’s Despina dressed in jeans and a sparkly top, compared with the sisters’ formal dresses.  What we also got this evening was a deep psychological penetration of the score, brought out through some compelling individual performances.

Robin Johannsen. Photo:  © Tatjana Dachsel
Robin Johannsen. Photo: © Tatjana Dachsel

It’s easy to take Jacobs’ conducting for granted.  His understanding of Mozart is so complete and so profound that, as always, one felt that Mozart was in the room with us.  The way that Jacobs brought out the heartache inherent in the string figures as the lovers took their leave before heading off to war, or the gentle breezes in the cooling strings of ‘soave sia il vento’ felt so absolutely right.  Indeed, it felt that there was a greater understanding of the shape and narrative of this score than I’ve felt in any other performance before.  Attack was sharp and tempi swift, particularly so in ‘un aura amorosa’, but nothing ever felt rushed, rather one had a sense of this being the way that the work was supposed to sound.  Jacobs kept the winds at the front right of the stage and they shone quite wonderfully out of the texture, especially the raucous horns who also played with immaculate discipline in ‘per pietà’.  String intonation throughout was excellent.  Needless the say, part of the reason this performance worked so well was the sheer stylistic understanding apparent through the use of ornamentation that genuinely enhanced the line and made the drama really come alive.

Sophie Harmsen. Photo:  © Tatjana Dachsel
Sophie Harmsen. Photo: © Tatjana Dachsel

We received some genuine and honest singing from a very well balanced cast.  Robin Johannsen’s Fiordiligi was deeply felt.  She negotiated those perilous register-crossing leaps in ‘come scoglio’ with aplomb and added some gravity-defying and daring ornamentation.  Her coloratura is precise and clean and her legato excellent.  The voice is quite narrow and perhaps lacks a variety of tone colours but it certainly carried through the large auditorium.  It did feel however with ‘per pietà’ that she is still working that particular number into the voice.  Her soprano sits quite high so she soared beautifully but it sounds like she hasn’t quite found the support needed for the lower sections, with the emissions not quite ideally controlled.  She did however find the pain and resolve that aria needed and her performance tonight was a very impressive assumption from a very fine artist.

Im Sunhae Photo: © Lilac
Im Sunhae Photo: © Lilac

I came across Sophie Harmsen as a very fine Annio in Madrid last year and remarked at the time that I would like to hear more of her.  Harmsen is a sensational talent.  Her mezzo is effortlessly produced, extremely musical with a bright and seemingly limitless extension at the top.  Her ‘smanie implacabili’ was dispatched with real character and everything she did was sung off the text.  Similarly, Im Sunhae gave us a Despina that truly lived because of her excellent use of language.  Im was a show-stopping presence with irresistible comic timing.  Her Despina was a good time girl who just wanted relief from the boredom of serving the sisters.  It was clear from the start how vulnerable she was to being led astray by Don Alfonso.  She was also a vivacious and energetic stage presence.  So much of what Im did came through in the voice – there’s a smile to the tone that I find absolutely beguiling and she hammed it up deliciously as the doctor and the lawyer.

Mark Milhofer. Photo:  © Athole Still Artists' Management
Mark Milhofer. Photo: © Athole Still Artists’ Management

Marcos Fink’s Don Alfonso was darkly cynical, almost sadistic, and this was clearly not the first time he had engaged in such an operation.  The voice is not in the first flush of youth and it does sound somewhat leathery and weather-beaten now, and it doesn’t quite do everything he wants it to.  He does, however, have charisma to spare and he sustained his line beautifully in that glorious trio.  Mark Milhofer was a very fine Ferrando.  He sang his ‘aura amorosa’ with a milky smooth legato and striking ornamentation that made the aria truly live.  The tone is very much like a vinho verde with a hint of a fast vibrato there, present but not overwhelming.  Christian Senn’s Guglielmo was a warm and masculine presence on stage, with Italianate pointing of the text.  The tone can sound dry at times but he phrased his lines in ‘il core vi dono’ with beauty and care – I was certainly won over by it.  The Vokalakademie Berlin sang with incisive and well-blended tone in their brief interjections.

Christian Senn. Photo:  © Ribaltaluce Studio.
Christian Senn. Photo: © Ribaltaluce Studio.

Getting to hear Mozart performed at this level really is a privilege.  As I said above, it’s so easy to take for granted the sheer stylistic understanding and insight that Jacobs and his fine cast offered us tonight.  Yet every evening in his company lives in the way that only Mozart can when he is really done well.  There was also a humanity to tonight’s performance, a reminder that humans are fragile and that we really do need each other.  Perhaps a most apposite message for these sombre days.

Marcos Fink Photo: © Miha Cerar
Marcos Fink Photo: © Miha Cerar

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The Konzerthaus Freiburg. Photo: © FWTM
The Konzerthaus Freiburg. Photo: © FWTM

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