All the ladies are doing it

I rolled my eyes a little bit when James Levine was recently described in the Times as “somebody who may be the greatest opera conductor in history.” But after last night’s Così, the fourth performance in his triumphant return to the Met, I can at least understand the thinking behind it (though I still don’t agree). He’s an institution here, and Mozart at the Met hasn’t sounded anywhere near this good in years. It was impeccably clear, energetic, and paced, imbued with an air and light that no one else gets out of the Met orchestra. Everything is phrased and shaped, and yet it all sounds spontaneous and fresh.

The rest of the performance bore the signature of some of the less happy legacies of the Levine era: a boring production and singing that was fine but not quite star quality. The production is particularly egregious. Leslie Koenig’s 1996 staging is cartoonish, unsubtle, and offers much unfunny comic business, making a very poor contrast to the sublimity of the music. It flattens this ambiguous, intense libretto to its lowest common rom-com denominator. (Such a seemingly low opinion of the libretto has a venerable history in Così reception, but this sort of staging seems to proceed from an a priori assumption of triviality, and never constructs a coherent relationship with the overqualified score.)

It’s also just bad theater. The look is traditional, and the blocking in the first act frequently mirrors both the sisters and the men–problematic, I think, for a production already short on dramatic differentiation. Its brand of comedy involves having the Albanians spend an awful lot of time twirling their robes around. One great thing about Da Ponte’s libretti is how they always begin in media res. But while the men are obviously in the midst of a heated conversation when the curtain rises, here they lounge still and wordless for the whole introduction.

(I’m sorry to sound like a broken record here, but you have 70-some days left to watch the Michael Haneke production of Così on the Arte website, and if you haven’t yet, go do it now because you owe it to yourself. It’s a brutal and chilly take on an opera that I’ve (as you may have surmised) never found very funny.)

The cast offered some lovely moments, but none overshadowed the conducting, quite. Fiordiligi is a fiendishly difficult role and Susanna Philips handled many of the technical challenges with aplomb and a silvery soprano. But she isn’t a natural comedian or a big personality, and lacks the bravura to make “Come scoglio” really take off. Where she excelled was “Per pietà” and onwards, where she traced Fiordiligi’s descent with simplicity and honesty. Maybe she’s just more of a Mimì type. As her sister, Isabel Leonard was not impressive, sounding rather vinegary and showing little in the way of stage presence.

As Despina, Danielle De Niese had the most acting sparkle in the cast, but didn’t have much to play off against, and the performance ended up seeming a bit effortful. Her singing tended towards the raw and more Mozartean elegance would have been nice, but Despina’s music isn’t “Dove sono.” She was certainly a brighter presence than Maurizio Muraro was as Don Alfonso, who started off as a low energy Dulcamara and went downhill from there. This is a plum role and not difficult to cast, why not find someone with a little more wit?

The other men were much better. Matthew Polenzani remains a superb Mozart tenor with sweet tone and great musicality, and did the most glamorous singing of the evening. He can actually make “Ah! lo veggio” sound like the walk in the park that, in the libretto, it literally is. Rodion Pogorossov was a fine Gugliemo and almost funny, though this role always seems to have drawn the short straw.

Despite great unevenness, the conducting alone was enough to make this a gratifying performance, and I recommend you go if you can.

Mozart, Così fan tutte, Metropolitan Opera, 10/5/2013.

Photos copyright Marty Sohl/Met.

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