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.