Levine returns to the Met with a well sung, lightweight “Così” that misses the dark side

September 26, 2013
By Marion Lignana Rosenberg
Matthew Polenzani as Ferrando, Susanna Phillips as Fiordiligi, Isabel Leonard as Dorabella, and Rodion Pogossov as Guglielmo in Mozart's "Così fan tutte" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Matthew Polenzani as Ferrando, Susanna Phillips as Fiordiligi, Isabel Leonard as Dorabella, and Rodion Pogossov as Guglielmo in Mozart’s “Così fan tutte” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

[Editor Note: All New York reviews are now posted first on New York Classical Review.]

When Erda emerges from the depths in Wagner’s Das Rheingold and Siegfried, audiences rarely or never applaud—understandably, perhaps, given her dour tidings and often zombie-like mien.

Maestro James Levine, by contrast, looked ruddy and upbeat when a mechanized lift raised his wheelchair to the orchestra podium Tuesday at the Metropolitan Opera, and patrons showered him with raucous cheers and a standing ovation.

Levine, 70, who had last led a performance at the Met in May 2011, has endured a battery of health problems in recent years, including a spinal-cord injury. He is making a gentle re-entry this season, leading Met Orchestra concerts at Carnegie Hall and three operas at the house: Berg’s Wozzeck, Verdi’s Falstaff, and Mozart’s Così fan tutte, which opened on Tuesday.

Levine and the Met forces gave a musically sound and dramatically featherbrained performance of Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte’s 1790 dramma giocoso. Lesley Koenig’s production, now staged by Robin Guarino, lacked bite when it bowed in 1996 and at present seems just plain silly, with too many characters spending too much time standing on the prompter’s box and mugging to the gallery.

Its deficiencies are all the more evident in light of two shattering Così stagings mounted in New York only last year: Stephen Wadsworth’s at Juilliard and Christopher Alden’s for New York City Opera. On the surface they looked very different—the former in eighteenth-century dress and the latter set closer to our time—but both were shot through with the icy darkness of Marivaux and Sade and keen to the anxieties of Mozart’s age, which saw radical changes in ideas about the human being: less a creature in the divine image than one suspended between beast and machine, fallible and subject to obscure urges.

At the Met, Michael Yeargan’s airy, salt-kissed sets and flowing costumes nod to the storms and fickle breezes evoked in the text and score, but the staging as a whole is lightweight and pays scant heed to the sometimes wrist-slashing pain that lies beneath Così’s droll surface.

Before the performance, a Met administrator asked for understanding on behalf of tenor Matthew Polenzani, who was performing with a cold. In the event, as Ferrando he turned in the best singing of the evening, taking the repeat of Un’aura amorosa in a soulful, ravishing mezza voce, summoning rapture in his duet with Fiordiligi (especially at Volgi a me pietoso il ciglio), and even performing the rarely heard Act II aria Ah, lo veggio. He, like all the cast members, sounded unusually loud: a trick of the wooden stage and sometimes shallow wooden backdrop?

Fiordiligi is the first of three major roles that Susanna Phillips undertakes at the Met this season along with Rosalinde in Strauss’s Die Fledermaus and Musetta in La bohème. Phillips sang beautifully throughout the performance but didn’t seem to have quite the measure of her role, possibly a result of the paint-by-numbers staging. Though she dotted all her i’s and crossed all her t’s in musical terms in Come scoglio, her performance was too careful and too little unhinged, particularly in the aria’s lowest reaches, which she attacked in a gingerly manner. She lavished gleaming tone and buoyant, effortlessly lovely passagework on Per pietà, which deservedly won the evening’s loudest ovation.

Phillips’ bright, limpid voice blended wonderfully with the bright and more pungent tones of Isabel Leonard as Dorabella, most of all in Soave sia il vento, sung over the diaphanous ripples of sound conjured by the Met orchestra, and in the quartet in the final scene (E nel tuo, nel mio bicchiero). Like all the members of the cast, she was poorly served by the production and by the sheer size of the Met, which both work against sharp, nuanced characterizations.

His tone a touch monochrome, Rodion Pogossov was nonetheless a lively and winning Guglielmo, at his best in Donne mie la fate a tanti and in his snarky, dyspeptic asides in the finale ultimo. Danielle de Niese was implacably cute as Despina, her bell-like tones sounding with clarity and ping. As Don Alfonso, Maurizio Muraro’s voice was rich and full in its lower reaches and dodgy on high; with the exception of a few uncomfortable phrases he sang with understated humor and enunciated Da Ponte’s witty text with zest. Howard Watkins provided the alert harpsichord continuo, and Donald Palumbo’s superb chorus sang suavely.

There was much to admire in the playing of the Met Orchestra under Levine: the crisp string attacks in the overture; the way that time seemed to stand still when the betrothed lovers (minus Guglielmo) toasted their future happiness; and the giggling, faintly sardonic winds that underpinned the glib final paean to reason. Così is fundamentally a small-house opera that benefits greatly from the tang and iridescence of period instruments. But the considerable musical beauties served up under less-than-ideal conditions at the Met were a reminder of the gold that James Levine can spin even among dross. Welcome home, maestro.

Così fan tutte runs through October 5 and returns to the schedule in April and May 2014. Guanqun Yu sings Fiordiligi in the final two spring performances. Così will be shown as a Live in HD transmission on April 26, with encore showings on April 30 (United States) and June 21 and 23 (Canada). metoperafamily.org; 212-362-6000.

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