Review: James Levine Makes Solid Return in Met's Cosi fan tutte

Audio: Stearns Speaks on WNYC’s Morning Edition about Levine's Performance

Wednesday, September 25, 2013 - 11:00 AM

Matthew Polenzani as Ferrando, Susanna Phillips as Fiordiligi, Isabel Leonard as Dorabella, and Rodion Pogossov as Guglielmo in 'Così fan tutte' Matthew Polenzani, Susanna Phillips, Isabel Leonard and Rodion Pogossov in 'Così fan tutte' (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

James Levine seems at his best when he has his work cut out for him with some nice up-hill journey promising great artistic rewards. Of course his Metropolitan Opera admirers are just happy to have him back in the orchestra pit for the first time since May 2011 when health and injury problems forced a hiatus from which many feared he would not return.

The fact that Levine's chose Mozart's Cosi fan tutte for his comeback has larger implications. Mozart has been the most questioned corner of his repertoire – many critics have thought it thick and ponderous. And no matter who conducts, Mozart can seem too small-scale for the nearly-4,000-seat Met, which tends to require larger voices that operate at slower tempos.

But Levine's critics from decades past (of which I am one) might not have recognized Tuesday's Cosi fan tutte as the work of the same conductor. Light, swift and cogent were the watchwords in a performance that felt rather shorter than its three-and-a-half hour duration and was cheered at great length, with Levine, who gets around in a motorized chair, taking his bows from the orchestra pit rather than the stage.

Singers were mid-weight lyrical voices, all appropriate for Mozart – aided by the 1996 Lesley Koenig production that was created with the small-voiced Cecilia Bartoli in mind, and keeps singers close to the lip of the stage. Vocal projection wasn't the slightest problem on Tuesday, creating ease of expression that allowed even tenor Matthew Polenzani, who was singing with a cold, to be heard in good, comically animated form.

The opera's basic setup is that of a parable: Two pairs of lovers, each a matched set, have their faith in each other tested by a frat-house-style bet that the women can't remain true to them – unfolding amid the misty, idealized seaside vistas of the Met's Michael Yeargan-designed production.

Isabel Leonard as Dorabella, Danielle de Niese as Despina, and Susanna Phillips as Fiordiligi (Marty Sohl/Met)

Levine zeroed in on the central idea of any given ensemble and, even more than usual, masterfully enshrined his singers. As Fiordiligi, Susanna Phillips began her Act I "Come scoglio" in the weak part of her voice, but with Levine, the orchestra was sure not cover her. With some definite rhythmic encouragement, he created a frame that conspired to make what could've been a tentative performance a mesmerizing one.

Levine can't always work miracles: Rodion Pogossov was a solid Guglielmo and Maurizio Muraro (Don Alfonso) simply wasn't in good vocal form. As Fiordiligi's sister Dorabella, the vocally charismatic Isabel Leonard needed no special help and soared with apparent comical spontaneity with touches that made you laugh but didn't steal focus from her colleagues, like the way she frantically held her ears during the military march that signaled the departure of her lover.

More than anybody, Danielle de Niese (the wily servant Despina) typified the place that comedy had in this Robin Guarino-directed revival: Her singing was rarely distorted by the role's theatricality (even when disguised as a quack doctor) with laughs coming directly from the character rather than some less-relevant physical business. Few things are more trying than opera singers who think they're funny. In Cosi fan tutte, singers need only make the characters live and comedy takes care of itself.

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Comments [2]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Whatever music Maestro James Levine conducts, he enlivens the festivities with bringing forth the salient music lines and the spirit of the work. Singers appreciate his integrity, his concern for their delivering the best they know how. He is a real treasure and should be a model for all maestri. Great to have you back Maestro Levine !

Apr. 26 2014 04:29 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Virginia

While I did not see Cosi in person I listened attentively over sirusxm and made a personal use recording of the Opera. In replaying it for the second time this morning I was totally focused on the orchestra. I was amazed that after a long absence Mr. Levine was able to hold so much control over the orchestra and singers. I am a part time cellist, and also spend a great deal of time in a power wheelchair the result of a bad knee replacement and may knee surgeries. Someone who is not forced to use a power wheelchair has no idea how difficult it is to conduct from a sitting position in a high back power chair. Mine is very similar to the one Mr. Levine used, so this morning I put some music on my stand and attempted to "conduct " from a sitting position. Frankly it puts more strain on the back and neck than standing does. It is a small miracle that Mr. Levine is able to perform the way he does from the confines of a wheelchair, the body is just not made to do this unless one is willing to deal with pain throughout the experience.
I will be attending six Met performances this season but none with Mr. Levine conducting, this is unfortunate for me.
Now that he is back I can only wish, like many others, that the Met's Board of Directors would let Mr. Levine take over as General Manager and retire Mr. Gelb, who has shown his total disregard for the regular Met audiences and opted towards HD Transmissions and other technology rather than focus on attracting top talent and micro managing dress rehearsals and talent.
I am personally friendly with a member of the Met orchestra and have studied under him when I lived in New York, and there is a strong current of anti Gelb sentiment circulating around the house, especially on the talent end of the spectrum. Even in pure business management let us not forget that Mr. Gelb was forced to call on this predecessor, Mr. Volpe to deal with the unions when contracts were negotiated several years ago.
I do not know if Mr. Levine is physically up to running the entire Met, but certainly he would do a far better job then the present General Manager, Mr. Gelb..
It is good to see Mr. Levine back in the house, and hopefully he will have a much greater say on the quality of performances that was frequently lacking in his absence and especially since Mr. Gelb too over the house.

Sep. 26 2013 12:30 PM

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