David Patrick Stearns is the classical music critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, a contributor to WRTI-FM in Philadelphia and a frequent contributor to Gramophone and Opera News magazine.
Review: Couples Are Reunited in Bracing 'Cosi fan tutte'
Tuesday, August 16, 2016 - 12:59 PM
Mozart operas can always be a fresh experience in a good performance, though how often do you encounter a seriously alternative reading that's so fully realized on its own terms — as was the Cosi fan tutte at the Mostly Mozart Festival on Monday?
Not that this was some deeply-unpleasant regietheater production that re-sets this comedy about men testing the fidelity of their fiances in fascist-dominated Africa. That happened earlier this summer at Aix-en-Provence. What arrived at Alice Tully Hall was the same cast, orchestra and conductor, thoroughly rehearsed from that production in Aix, with the original Christophe Honoré concept replaced by Annette Jolles's concert staging that sought mainly to support the basic plot.
The alternative part came from the hyper-alert period-instrument Freiburg Baroque Orchestra under Louis Langrée, revealing many strokes of Mozartean characterization that even the most seasoned operagoer perhaps never heard. His dangerously fast tempos didn't make the music say unusual things (we'll leave that to René Jacobs and his Idomeneo on Thursday) but spoke with a specificity that can be so easily lost in the more luxurious sound of conventional instruments.
Hearing it in the 1,000-seat hall (as opposed to the Metropolitan Opera, which is almost four times that size) allowed the audience to step into the shoes of these characters, which is particularly crucial in a comedy of manners based on a seemingly casual frat-house-type bet: two male suitors try to court the other's fiancée in an attempt to prove their sweethearts' faithfulness.
Not so long ago, the opera suffered regular and liberal cuts, especially to the expansive recitatives that make all the difference in establishing the opera's true depths. Stretching over three-and-a-half hours, this performance only had three cuts (in part and in whole) to recitatives, making it a satisfyingly fuller picture in ways you don't always experience with, say, The Marriage of Figaro (whose fourth act has a series of dispensable arias).
Though Mozart operas have been heard in historically informed performances for decades, Langrée favored textures that still seem provocatively bracing, with a razor-sharp edge that underscored or otherwise framed the vocal line, focusing the emotion at hand and the nature of the character singing it. The firm musical pulse he maintained gave the opera the kind of chiseled harmonic inevitability that one associates more with Beethoven. Whether in recitatives or arias, I was startled by the music's intentional fitfulness, how it starts, stops and starts again in key moments when characters are greeted by ever-deepening moral dilemmas. Langrée also took huge chances with abrupt tempo shifts during the finales.
Initially, the cast seemed to be vocally reacting to the original tough-as-nails Aix production with an aggression that tried to justify inaccurate, smudgy vocalism. As the cynical, older Don Alfonso, Rod Gilfry bordered on perversity, so brutish was his singing. Yet everyone settled in a bit more, with the particularly wonderful Sandrine Piau, who sang Despina with a lyric soprano rather than a soubrette voice, full of insightful wit and never stooping to meaningless vocal mugging when her character assumed various disguises. She also managed some thrillingly inventive vocal ornaments that may have had some symbolic significance: Kate Lindsey's vocally rich Dorabella seemed to sing more ornaments the closer she moved toward Despina's love-the-one-you're-with philosophy.
Nahuel Di Pierro's Guglielmo was rich of voice and characterization in moments that truly conveyed the anguish right under the opera's surface. Lenneke Ruiten's Fiordiligi lacked Mozartean grace if only because the demanding low notes to her arias weren't quite there. As Ferrando, tenor Joel Prieto was a strong presence though his less-than-pliable voice wasn't ideal in some of the more lyrical passages. Yet, I'd take this cast over the more vocally glamorous ones often heard at the Met because of the strong sense of collective purpose — in the big picture, in the details and particularly in the long recitatives that were consistently infused with all manner of dramatic truth. In that way, this performance set standards for how Cosi should be done.
A postscript for Cosi nerds: Though you're never quite sure who ends up with whom at the end, this production put the couples back to their original configuration.