Fine cast and uneven conducting make for mixed Mozart in Met’s “Cosi”

November 10, 2010
By George Loomis

Isabel Leonard as Dorabella (left) and Miah Persson as Fiordiligi in the Metropolitan Opera production of Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte." Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

Baroque opera is all too rare at the Metropolitan Opera. So for his debut with the company, the Baroque specialist William Christie settled on Così fan tutte.

There is, of course, nothing second-best about this miraculous work of Mozart, but after Tuesday evening’s season premiere, one wondered whether Christie might not have been more comfortable conducting a work from the beginning rather than the end of the 18th century.

The performance began interestingly, with the oboe player adding embellishments to his solo line during the slow introduction to the overture, thereby alerting one to the possibility that the performance would be influenced by period practice. Yet as it unfolded, there seemed to be little consistency in ornamentation by the singers, with several places left unadorned where ornamentation would have been a natural; conversely, ornaments sometimes intruded where you wouldn’t have expected them. Nor did Christie do much to encourage period-style playing from the orchestra in terms of attacks or instrumental textures. The Met Orchestra sounded very much like its usual excellent, non-period self.

Indeed, one could have lived happily with a performance sustained by old-fashioned musical virtues. But the speedy tempo Christie set for the overture had the players scrambling to keep up and called his musical judgment into question. While most of the other musical numbers were sensibly paced, there was an unevenness that found some moments sounding overly frenetic and others short of tension. And on a distressing number of occasions singers were out of sync with the orchestra.

The excellent, largely new cast that the Met has assembled deserved better. And they deserve stronger production values as well. Since Leslie Koenig’s production of the opera buffa was new in 1996, the trend in productions of Così has been to emphasis the cynical side of this story of partner swapping: two soldiers court each other’s beloved as part of a wager, wearing down the girls’ virtue until they succumb. The opera is cut from the same cloth as Laclos’s Les liaisons dangereuses and that novel’s incarnations for the stage.

Perhaps some creative director will find a way to stage Così convincingly as a comic opera once again instead of dwelling on its dark overtones. But the Met’s staging simply seems dated and superficial. And some of the stage business I could do without—Robin Guarino is responsible for this revival—like having the soldier Ferrando attack Fiordiligi from behind, thereby (supposedly) startling her into singing a high B flat. But Michael Yeargan’s stylish, seaside décor is a plus, even if it looks quite modern for his essentially period costumes.

I enjoyed Miah Persson’s Fiordiligi greatly at Glyndebourne and Salzburg, but Met audiences accustomed to prima-donna grandeur in the role may find Persson’s girlish portrayal small scaled. In any case, she offers some exquisite singing and brings off both her big arias with aplomb. Isabel Leonard contributes a charismatic Dorabella that is eloquently sung in pure mezzo tones, although her Smanie implacabili was oddly lacking in manic frenzy. And Danielle de Niese is a delight as the maid Despina, singing with an abundance of personality and a gleaming soprano sound.

Pavol Breslik’s glorious lyric tenor voice sounds almost tailor-made for Ferrando’s music, but his difficulty in spinning out a compelling pianissimo counted against him in Un’ aura amorosa. The cast’s two baritones have sung their roles previously at the Met. Nathan Gunn’s excellent Guglielmo has ample vigor yet invests the aria Non siate ritrosi with poetry, and William Shimell masterminds the ruse in solid fashion as the cynical Don Alfonso.

Christie will return to the Met next season in something called The Enchanted Island, a newly concocted “pasticcio” partaking of arias by Handel, Vivaldi and Leclair. Whatever the final verdict on this curious enterprise turns out to be, one trusts and hopes that it will find the conductor on firmer stylistic ground than did this Così.

Così fan tutte runs through December 2.

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