United States Mozart, Così fan tutte: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York/James Levine. Telecast from the Metropolitan Opera, New York at Barbican Cinema 1, London, 26.4.2014
Susanna Phillips: Fiordiligi
Isabel Leonard: Dorabella
Matthew Polenzani: Ferrando
Rodion Pogossov: Guglielmo
Maurizio Muraro: Don Alfonso
Danielle de Niese: Despina
James Levine’s two-year absence from the Met due to illness has been well-reported in the press. This is the first time I have seen him since – he sits in an elevated wheelchair, but it is evident that his affinity with Mozart is blunted not one bit. This live Così was miraculous in its pacing, in the expertise of its orchestral playing and in the sheer vivacity of its generally young cast. The vivacity of the Overture set the scene perfectly; textures were transparent, rhythms perfectly judged. Immediately one was immersed in Mozart’s World.
A word on the transmission itself, bearing in mind the problems which beset the simulcast of the Royal Opera’s Parsifal last year, which I attended at Odeon Haymarket. This was far better, there being only a few minor dropouts (easily countable on the fingers of one hand, and certainly not disruptive of the flow or the concentration). Strange how this can be so successful New York to London but so risible from one theatre to another a quarter of an hour’s walk away.
Levine ensured throughout that textures were beautifully transparent. The inter-act interviews with singers revealed the care Levine has lavished on the importance of rhythm in this opera, and it showed. In an opera where ensembles – duets, especially – are key, Levine’s strategy resulted in a beautifully sculpted, deep reading of Mozart’s masterpiece. Another aspect was the sheer dynamic range in use, both from the stage and from the pit (although thankfully the climaxes were not overbearingly loud in the reproduction the Barbican’s Cinema 1). Hearing it like this seems to reflect the multi-faceted heart of the writing, and indeed the depth of the piece itself.
The production is by Met veteran Leslie Koenig (who has over thirty productions there to her credit). It is absolutely in the Met Way of the Mainstream, and no worse for that, many would argue. In an interview she referred to Così as a “confection of an opera’: and that’s pretty much how it comes across – and a particularly delicious confection, at that. There are cleverer moments – the way Despina seems to single-handedly pull on a whole set at one point, for example. There are also frequent delights, and some interesting sleights: was the opening image of blue on blue, invoking an Italian summer day with the sea in the lower half clearly, designed to be so reminiscent of Rothko?.
It was the youth of the cast that truly captivated. Given that ensemble between stage and orchestra was so consistently spot-on, one can only guess how supported these singers must have felt with the experienced Levine in the pit. There was one clear star, however: Isabel Leonard, as fresh of voice as she was of looks, and with great stage presence. Her tuning, phrasing and sense of style were impeccable throughout, as as her acting. Of the two main female protagonists, it was Leonard’s Dorabella that triumphed, despite the fact that is Fiordiligi that gets the lioness’ share of the solo arias. Dorabella’s “E amore un ladroncello” from the second act was a fresh as Spring itself.
American soprano Susanna Phillips, who won the 2010 Beverley Sills Artist Award, would have outshone many had she not been on stage next to Leonard. Her “Come Scoglio” was textbook in her negotiation of registral changes. If her acting was not quite up to Leonard’s standards, it nevertheless held many delights.
Danielle de Niese was the Despina. No Susanna-ish coquette this, here was a machinatrix that seemed, at least in the initial stages not only in control but showing shades of a Madam in control of her denizens. In the Dorabella/Fiordiligi household, it is Despina who wears the trousers. It worked well given that her voice is more womanly than the average housemaid’s. Her “Una donna a quindici anni” from the second act was meltingly lyrical. Her disguises, as doctor and notary, were splendidly and hilariously, done; her voice changes for the various roles similarly so.
The gentlemen were a well-matched pair. Again, if pushed to choose, there is a clear favourite: Rodion Pogossov’s Guglielmo. Pogossov acts brilliantly, can come close to being absolutely hilarious, yet sings with a melting lyricism when required; his brief “Non siate ritrosi” from the first act wa sthe perfect exemplar.
If Matthew Polenzani’s Fiordiligi was less inspring, he remains in the absolute top bracket of singers. He clearly kept his best for “Un aura amorosa”, which was despatched with a gorgeous sense of line (the Met audience’s approval was fully merited). His voice is nicely varied, yet he did not seem absolutely inside his part in the manner of his colleagues. As Don Alfonso, the experienced Maurizio Muraro was a splendid Alfonso. Here was a plotter with paternalistic overtones; he radiated the fact that his motives were, in the end, positive, and that all could ultimately learn from their mistakes and that perhaps that is the best way to learn, anyway.
This Cosi was a triumph on many levels.
Here, incidentally, is a link to a video of Levine conducting the Overture in the final dress rehearsal prior to the 2013 run.