To notice that Così Fan Tutte hinges on the device of the masquerade is not exactly to discover America. This Salzburg Festival edition drives home the point by displaying three shamanistic masks — one African, one probably Japanese, one perhaps Polynesian — on the back wall of a sharp, two-story modernist interior. Upon arrival, the "Albanian" intruders don them momentarily, evidently scaring Fiordiligi out of her wits. Sudden darkness falls, and she sings "Come scoglio," brandishing a flashlight in one hand and a butcher knife in the other, like some co-ed on Friday the 13th.
Claus Guth, the German director in charge of Salzburg's entire current Mozart–da Ponte repertory, has his fan base. Jürgen Flimm, the festival's outgoing intendant, has been heard to say that Guth's Don Giovanni is the finest production of his tenure. Why? Because in his duel with the Commendatore, Don Giovanni sustains a mortal wound. This, according to Flimm, motivates the hero's otherwise unaccountable rush to squeeze into the next three hours all the life (read: sex, mischief) he possibly can. A house of cards, if you ask me.
Guth's Così lacks the coercive point of view but delivers equally flyaway results. At first, we seem to be watching models on the set of a fashion shoot or perhaps a champagne commercial. Then everything goes off the rails. The hellcat Despina stomps on in a biker jacket and go-go boots, helmet in hand. For "Smanie implacabili," a tipsy Dorabella teeters on a ledge twelve feet off the floor, in real peril of her life. In the Act I finale, the rear wall ascends to reveal a dark forest — the domain of the id, of unreason, of savage, unacknowledged desires. (A pair of tree trunks growing through the ceiling of the sleek interior has already hinted at some "primal" dimension beyond the "civilized" veneer.) Rather than drink fake arsenic, the despondent lovers drink gasoline, then slide down a staircase on their stomachs, head first.
The honey-blond Miah Persson, her timbre and complexion all peaches and cream, makes a luscious Fiordiligi, insofar as Guth's shenanigans allow. In the Dorabella of the willowy Isabel Leonard, she has an intriguing foil, both for looks and for her leaner, spicier, yet equally fresh, often jubilant tone. A fluent technician, Topi Lehtipuu gives lyricism an edge of aggression; his lanky, cocky Ferrando might have sprung from the pages of Hans Christian Andersen, but his bitterness is that of Peer Gynt. Florian Boesch, a gripping, often saturnine recitalist, gives Guglielmo an unaccustomed gravity, as well as notes of melting tenderness. Patricia Petibon sashays through Despina's part in a cold fury, changing outfits at the drop of a hat, from geisha to disco queen, yet disdaining actual disguises. In occasional upward transpositions (an octave, or is it two?), she might be Minnie Mouse on laughing gas.
But the life of this party — the shaman, the man behind the masks — is Don Alfonso. Incredibly, the part is taken by Bo Skovhus, the bland Danish thoroughbred, here reborn as a blond Mephistopheles in tux and ascot, burning with more than just a touch of Saturday Night Fever. (He hisses, and a fireplace bursts into flame.) When his puppets Ferrando and Guglielmo can think of nothing to say, he mouths words for them to sing. Elsewhere, he steals a line or two. Apparently Guth likes such petty theft, which occurs elsewhere in his work, too, but where was the conductor?
Adam Fischer, who let it happen, elicits little energy from the Vienna Philharmonic, and coordination with the stage is far from flawless. Yet within the great duet between Fiordiligi and Ferrando, there are pages that blaze.
Miah Persson, Isabel Leonard, Patricia Petibon; Topi Lehtipuu, Florian Boesch, Bo Skovhus; Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Adam Fischer. Production: Claus Guth. EuroArts 2072538 (2 DVDs) or 2072534 (Blu-ray), 191 mins., subtitled