Mozart’s discourse on infidelity in the guise of an opera was presented as the penultimate broadcast of this season’s HD telecasts from the Met. Much was made by Renée Fleming in her introduction and interviews about how to regard this opera about the inconstancy of women in the 21st century. It seems to me that in today’s hook-up culture the subject of infidelity by either sex seems as relevant as it was in Clytemnestra’s day. Regardless, James Levine led the Met’s forces in a flawless reading of Mozart and Da Ponte’s masterpiece.
Lesley Koenig’s 1996 production is appropriate for both time and place – late 18th century Naples. It looks fine and allows the action to flow seamlessly. The story ends exactly as Mozart and Da Ponte wrote it. The girls promise to behave and everybody lives happily ever after. Of course, it can be played very differently. Who would pair with whom? Could there ever be trust among these four after the events of the opera’s single fateful day? Life is messy and complicated and all the complex emotions in this story which can be glossed by a surface reading of the libretto are fully expressed by Mozart’s multifaceted music which is funny, poignant, beautiful, and always apposite.
Stage director Robin Guarino has obviously worked very hard and with great success to get an integrated and finely nuanced performance from his six principals. Let’s start with Susanna Phillips. Just a few weeks ago she seemed overparted as Musetta in La Boheme. But today she was perfect as the conflicted Fiordiligi. She wants to be true to Guglielmo, but is very drawn to Ferrando. One fiancé has only been gone for a few minutes before another appears, but this is show business and dramatic compaction is permitted. Phillips acted her part with subtlety and delivered commanding performances of ‘Come scoglio’ and ‘Per pietà’. She was a human being, very young to be sure, rather than a singing cardboard cutout. Hers is the most difficult role in the opera and Phillips fully realized it.
Isabel Leonard played Dorabella, Fiordiligi’s sister. She the looser of the duo and is much more easily convinced that a boy in the hand is better than one in the army. ‘Smanie implacabili’ was emphatically sung and conveyed her disappointment about the boyfriend’s departure, even if said disappointment wasn’t to last too long. Leonard is very attractive and underplayed her part to great effect.
Matthew Polenzani has already sung more than 300 performances at the Met. He has a pleasant lyric tenor which he uses very effectively and with a fine line and beauty of sound as long as his part is not too stressful. His sound is perfect for Ferrando. ‘Un’aura amorosa’ was elegantly sung with all the grace it requires.
Russian baritone Rodion Pogossov made his Met debut in 2002 as Fiorello in Rossini’s Barber. This was the same performance in which Juan Diego Florez first appeared at the Met. Pogossov has a lyric baritone that’s right for Mozart and Rossini. I think Verdi might prove a little too much for him. Both his acting and singing were right on the mark this afternoon. His delivery of ‘Donne mie’ revealed a dissatisfaction with feminine fidelity that is so pronounced that the listener must conclude that Mozart himself is speaking directly to the listener.
Australian soprano Danielle de Niese as the maid Despina would have stolen the show if the rest of the cast hadn’t been so good. She’s been at the Met since 1998 and has logged more than 100 performances even though she’s only 35 years old. She started with small parts, but since she sang Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare in 2007 she has been doing leading roles. Despina’s been around the block more than a few times and knows a lot more about men that do the teen age girls she serves. She also gets to play doctor in the first act and a notary complete with mustache in the second. Her singing and acting met all the demands of Mozart’s savvy maid.
Bass Maurizio Muraro has been at the Met since 2005. He’s spent most of his time there sing both Mozart’s and Rossini’s Dr Bartolo. He played Don Alfonso the older, and presumably wiser, man who gets the action started by telling the two young men that woman are inherently fickle – hence the opera’s title Thus are all women. That’s about as close to a literal translation of the Italian as I can get to.
Così is an ensemble opera which leads me to the man in charge of the ensemble – James Levine. This was the production that brought him back to the Met after a two year absence because of multiple health problems. He now conducts in a motorized wheel chair that is raised into the orchestra pit by a specially constructed platform. I saw Maestro Levine on the street in New York some years ago and was struck by how ill he looked. When illness forced him to give up his conducting assignments I wondered if he’d ever be back. But despite his impaired mobility he looks much improved from when I last saw him. And his conducting skills are as fine as ever. He led a performance of Mozart’s masterpiece with control and sensitivity. He spent a lot of time with all the principals and the uniformly outstanding characterizations they all delivered showed the impact of his experience and coaching. Levine and his orchestra were all that Mozart could have wished for.
Gary Halvorson’s video direction was a relapse to the semi-endoscopic style of video I thought the Met had rid itself of. The entire overture was paired with a close-up of maestro Levine’s head. The only blemish of the afternoon.
In summary of wonderful performances of one of opera’s greatest achievements.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart–Lorenzo Da Ponte
Despina……………..Danielle de Niese
Don Alfonso………….Maurizio Muraro
Cello Continuo……….David Heiss
Harpsichord Continuo….Howard Watkins
Stage Director……….Robin Guarino
Lighting Designer…….Duane Schuler
TV Director………….Gary Halvorson