Metropolitan Opera 2013-14 Review - 'Cosi Fan Tutte': Marvelous Cast & Conductor Deliver Complex Comedy in Mozart's Timeless Masterwork
Of Mozart's Da Ponte operas, "Cosi Fan Tutte" stands as the least performed of the three works at the Metropolitan Opera with only 185 performances. Meanwhile, "Le Nozze di Figaro" has gotten 458 performances at the Met while "Don Giovanni" has accumulated 538 presentations at the renowned opera house. "Cosi" was the only opera to get performances at the opera house in 2013-14 and was presented in two different runs. The first set of performances took place in the fall while the most recent series got started up in April and recently got an HD performance. Latin Post was at the presentation on April 30, which featured an all-star cast as well as the legendary conductor James Levine in his comeback year after not performing at the house since 2011.
The opera tells the story of two young lovers Ferrando and Gugliemo who make a bet with their friend Don Alfonso who claims that their betrothed Fiordiligi and Dorabella will not be eternally faithful to them. In their attempt to prove him wrong, the two relationships of the couples change forever.
The "Cosi" production by Lesley Koenig is a solid balance between a more minimalistic and traditional aesthetic. The opening scene features a flap that reveals what looks like some exterior space. It rises to reveal a blue background and a "sandy" floor that is presumably the shore by a dock. Later on, Despina lugs the entire house set onstage in an intelligent display of her role and character in the story; she is a servant that has to maintain the house, but she is also strong and wise enough to do it at her pace. The end of the act showcases a circular garden. The second act is similar in its design but features some "trees" that suggest the labyrinth of the main lovers' passions. The attire is rather nuanced as well. The two sisters wear identical dresses at the start of the work but diverge in the second act, expressing their changing temperaments and differing maturity. Despite all of these subtle touches, the production itself plays more like a traditional one in the sense that it relies heavily on the actors to carry the night. There is no overwhelming concept that dominates the piece and offers specific ideas on the piece to the viewer; instead the performers are in charge of filling in the blanks themselves.
Fortunately, the overall youthful cast did just that in a wonderful display of singing and acting. One cannot express just how fine the chemistry between the entire ensemble was. At one point in Act 2, the four lovers sat on a bench silently. The moment lingered awhile, creating nervous and awkward energy that led to the audience erupting in laughter the entire way through. The actors were unafraid of stretching the moment and making it believable. At the end of the first act, Despina shows up with a "special magnet" that is supposed to resurrect Ferrando and Gugliemo from their death. As Despina (Danielle de Niese) lifted the magnet, the two actors convulsed on the floor as if they were being electrocuted. The effect was so believable that the audience burst into hysteria. Those are just two moments in which the ensemble worked together on stage to create a truly compelling portrayal of Mozart's masterwork.
In the role of Fiordiligi, Susanna Phillips essentially dominated much of the performance with a wondrous display of character development. Her character goes through arguably the most complex development in the entire libretto. While her sister Dorabella is quicker to give into temptation, Fiordiligi makes it a big point to avoid betraying her lover and battles with herself on a number of times. Phillips' portrayal showcased a youthful girl filled with innocence in her initial scenes. The character toyed with a portrait of her beloved Gugliemo in the opening scene. When he announced his departure, she latched onto his knees like a schoolgirl begging her lover not to leave him; in contrast Dorabella did not descend to the floor. During the ensuing scene in which the girls reveal their pain to Despina, her voice had a sobbing quality and she inserted a number of vocal accents to emphasize her sorrow. During the scene in which she refuses the two suitors, Phillips relished the low notes of the recitative. The emphasis on those lows actually expressed the character's exaggerated attempt to showcase her strength. It was interesting to see her start the opening lines of the ensuing aria "Come scoglio immoto resta" softly, hinting at the character's insecurity and trepidation, before crescendoing to a burst of seeming hysteria on the word "tempesta."
Her voice built energy throughout the remainder of the aria, as if the character were slowly overcoming her initial nervousness; only the sudden low notes seemed to hint that the character's initial hesitation. In aria's coda, her voice took on a more aggressive tone and the furious coloratura accentuated the character's growing sense of strength. At the end of the aria, she made a few emphatic gestures and looked up at the audience to assert her power. This was in stark contrast with the Fiordiligi's "Per pieta, ben mio perdona" which was one long lament from the character that caressed each phrase; one could feel Fiordiligi sadly saying goodbye to her beloved Gugliemo in this aria. The final phrases of the aria were delivered with glorious sotto voce that immediately burst out into intense coloratura that expressed the character's pain to perfection. In many ways this was a seeming loss of innocence as portrayed by Phillips. Unlike the opening aria, which featured exaggerated movements that expressed the lingering childlike nature of her Fiordiligi, Phillips' stoic stage presence in the second act and in this aria showcased just how mature she'd grown throughout this day.
As her sister, Isabel Leonard portrayed Dorabella as a child that never truly grows up. The first time the viewer sees her, Isabel's Dorabella lay on the floor playing with a toy boat. Her movements and playful behavior with her sister indicated that of the two, she was the more youthful of the two. It was interesting to see her reactions as less dramatic toward her lover's departure (though it hinted at her ease of separation from the emotional ties). But there was a consistency in portraying the two sisters as nearly identical in the opening act and slowly diverging in their emotional journeys. Leonard's pain at losing Ferrando was expressed in a tempestuous rendition of the recitative "Ah scostati!" and the ensuing "Smanie implacabili." Her voice boomed with vicious accents and the phrasing at the start of the aria featured numerous accents. Her coloratura slowly diminuendoed into a palpable weeping sound; the emotional development moved from anger to sorrow. Throughout the opening act, Leonard and Phillips matched up their voices beautifully, almost blending into one throughout their opening duet and during the sextet in which they initially reject the "Albanians."
Leonard achieved the same level of unity with baritone Rodion Pogossov during their duet "Il core vi dono, bell'idolo mio"; their voices blended together and every breath and phrase was as if it were being sung by one person. Throughout this particular scene, Leonard remained with her back to Pogossov, emphasizing Dorabella's attempts to protect herself from the seduction. But as the seduction progressed, she slowly turned to him and by the end the two ran off stage together.
During her "E Amore un ladroncello," the voice had an assertiveness and confidence mixed in with a more relaxed quality in the opening; it expressed Dorabella's embracing her new passion and hinting at the fact that there was no turning back for her. Leonard interpolated a defiant high note in the aria's brief "cadenza." If Phillips' Fiordiligi developed into a woman realizing the powerlessness of her romantic ideals to overcome her passions, Leonard's Dorabella transformed into a woman that embraced them fully.
Matthew Polenzani and Rodion Pogossov followed a similar character development with the two lovers Ferrando and Gugliemo. The two started off the evening as intensely passionate lovers, but as the night unfolded Gugliemo became a more reserved man while Ferrando was more susceptible to passionate outbursts. Vocally the two gave their character's unique contrasts the emphasized these qualities. Polenzani's voice had a more delicate manner, showcasing his more romantic nature while the edgier nature of Pogossov's voice expressed his more seemingly callous nature during the seduction of Dorabella.
Ferrando gets a plethora of arias throughout the evening, most notably "Un aura amorosa." Polenzani sang with utmost delicacy throughout this aria, caressing "the breath of love" that he sings about. His voice sang with passionate abandon initially but softened up as the aria developed; it floated into a breathtaking diminuendo on the words "bisogno no ha" that precedes the repeat of the opening section of the aria; the repetition was sung quietly, expressing the delicate emotionality of his Ferrando. The aria painted a nice portrait of Ferrando's virile passion and equally gentle and delicate nature. The two qualities continued to do battle within Polenzani's Ferrando during the two act two arias. The first "Ah lo veggio" gave Polenzani some difficulty, particularly with the repeated high note; he seemed to be running out of breath by the end. However, he more than made up with an aggressive rendition of "Tradito, schernito." The start of the aria was filled with rage as he placed a nice bite on the consonants of the words "Tradito, schernito." But the aria slowly transformed into a lament with the voice turning more and more delicate as the aria drew to its climax.
Pogossov's biggest moment was during the second act aria "Donne mie, la fate a tanti" in which he seemed to take turns consoling and mocking Ferrando. His often matter-of-fact behavior throughout the aria seemed to hint some indifference toward his friend's plight. The acting never fully addressed whether there was a rivalry between the two, but there were certainly some hints in this aria that that might be the case.
Danielle De Niese was highly entertaining Despina and seemed intent on being the narrator of the performance. Throughout the night she spoke directly to the audience and her reactions were also expressed directly to the viewer in a manner that few other actors are capable of accomplishing. During her first appearance, in which she pulled the set onstage, she looked at the audience and expressed her disdain. When she arrived in her first of two disguises, she did likewise. Despina gets plenty of moments for vocal comedy and De Niese made the most of these chances. Throughout the sextet "Alla bella Despinetta," she delivered her rhythmic lines, making them come off as musical laughter. In the final scene, she arrived as the notary and transformed her voice into a high-pitched squeaky tone that actually sounded natural for the role and created tremendous laughter from the audience.
As Don Alfonso, Maurizio Muraro provided the perfect counterpoint for all of the other singers. He rarely looked over at the audience and relished the role of the main plotter in the drama. He had a stoic quality about him, often standing firmly in place and never really revealing much. However, his committed performance left the viewer watching his every move to discern his thoughts. It was refreshing to see one character maintaining his emotional distance in the midst of so many characters that did the complete opposite.
In his comeback season, maestro James Levine had a wonderful run in such operas as "Wozzeck" and "Falstaff," but he was arguably at his finest in Mozart's masterwork. Every single phrase was polished and the depth and nuance of the composer's orchestration was always at the forefront without every being overwhelming to the singers. Throughout the overture it was clear that this rendition was energetic, but also aggressive. The omnipresence of the timpani throughout the overture added some menace to the otherwise rousing number, hinting at the dubious nature of the comedy on display. During the famous trio "Soave sia il vento," the moving lines of the violins really created the feel of wind and waves that supported the angelic singing on display from Leonard, Phillips and Muraro; the movement in the orchestra juxtaposed with the legato vocal line created a riveting effect that transported the listener to a dreamlike realm. Throughout the performance, the tempi remained swift and steady, giving the performance propulsion and directness.
This "Cosi Fan Tutte" had everything working for it. The singers were not only at the top of their games but managed to create complex portrayals of the iconic characters while maestro Levine conducted an exciting account of Mozart's ever fascinating score. The season is winding down and this is the perfect way to say goodbye to what has been a successful run of performances in 2013-14.
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