‘Twas ever “Thus”

While James Levine’s name might not immediately spring to mind when pondering the great Mozart conductors, he does have a long and distinguished career leading operas by the Austrian master. In fact, Levine had conducted every new production of a Mozart opera at the Met since 1979 until health problems forced him to cancel his participation in Michael Grandage’s dud of a Don Giovanni in October 2011.  

So it was then perhaps fitting that his return to the Met podium after an absence of nearly two-and-a-half years came with Tuesday’s revival of Così Fan Tutte; unfortunately the uneven cast his home theater assembled for this emotional occasion couldn’t compete with the ravishing, fleet playing he drew from an orchestra clearly glad to have its long-time maestro back.

Expectedly the evening’s most memorable moment arrived before a single note was played when Levine’s first appearance in the pit was greeted by a long and loud standing ovation by the nearly sold-out audience. I had attended Levine’s return to conducting at a triumphant concert with the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in May (it’s being released on CD next week) where I was happily surprised to see him much more physically vigorous and engaged than I had seen him in years. The orchestra superbly played that program of Wagner, Beethoven (with Evgeny Kissin) and Schubert proving that Levine hadn’t lost his touch to inspire the great band he has assembled during the over three decades he has been Music Director.

Having heard him conduct Così numerous times (the second performance I ever attended at the Met was the premiere of the 1982 Colin Graham production which also heralded Kiri Te Kanawa’s return after a six-year absence), I know it’s an opera that Levine clearly loves and one that brings out the best in him. The orchestra positively glowed throughout Tuesday’s season premiere, its winds glorious, its strings shimmering with a burnished glow. But this was not an old man’s Così—it bubbled along briskly, never falling into the ponderousness that can afflict his Wagner. My only reservation was the staid continuo of Howard Watkins at the harpsichord and an unnamed cellist.

Sadly, with one exception, the six singers on stage for this latest revival of Lesley Koenig’s now broadly cartoonish 1996 production failed to match the world-class sounds coming from the pit. Though announced as suffering from a cold, tenor Matthew Polenzani still shone brightest as Ferrando. Despite recent forays into operas by Offenbach, Massenet and Donizetti, his virile and melting singing showed why he remains one of the world’s best Mozart tenors. Despite his indisposition, he ventured the difficult, often-cut “Ah! lo veggio” (which I can only recall hearing before at the Met sung by David Rendall in 1982 and Jerry Hadley in 1996), a magnificent aria that challenged Polenzani, but he still demonstrated why it should never be excised. His finely spun “Un aura amorosa” held the audience breathless and easily proved the musical high point of the evening.

When he sang with his co-conspirator Rodion Pogossov’s Guglielmo, it was often hard to hear the spirited Russian baritone. His smallish, reedy voice would seem better suited to a house smaller than the Met, although he did made his mark with a biting “Donne mie” perhaps because it was sung near the front edge of the stage. His Dorabella, Isabel Leonard, started off very roughly but soon recovered; however, the voice has lately lost its roguish appeal and become edgy and harsh. While she’s a lovely performer, I’ve never understood why Leonard has evolved into Met’s go-to Mozart mezzo (and Rosina).

It was even harder to figure out what the desiccated Don Alfonso of Maurizio Muraro was doing on an international stage, for he was subdued to the point of nearly disappearing. Perhaps he realized the futility of trying to gain an audience’s attention while bantering with the scenery-gnawing Despina of the always-resistible Danielle de Niese. As ever, she preened and posed and made bug-eyed faces at the audience while only occasionally remembering to interact with her fellow performers. I can’t recall a moment that remotely resembled recognizable human behavior. Her raw soprano still has several good notes in the middle, but the top seems to be receding so we were mercifully spared the screeched interpolated high notes that blighted the opera’s previous revival which also ran aground on William Christie’s ill-fated Met debut.

As the first step in what appears to be “the season of Susanna Phillips” at the Met the young American soprano’s Fiordiligi proved perplexing. For the entire first act and the beginning of the second, we got a penny-plain portrayal exhibiting none of the prima-donna attitude–or bravura–needed. She worked hard in “Come scoglio” but lacked the strong middle and lower notes to put over that showpiece. The production, revived by Robin Guarino, did little to distinguish her from her sister; both just seemed shallow flibbertigibbets.

But once the story turned serious, a new Phillips emerged—the sublime “Per pietà” found her in surer command, coping well if not effortlessly with the demanding trills that conclude the aria. Her subsequent duet of capitulation to Ferrando “Fra gli amplessi” found Polenzani inspiring her to some of the evening’s finest singing. But throughout, one longed for a more distinctive timbre, a more individual approach to the music. After having witnessed such fine Met Fiordiligis as Te Kanawa, Carol Vaness, Melanie Diener, and Barbara Frittoli (the best thing I’ve ever seen her do), I thought Phillips fell short and didn’t begin to suggest the sparkle necessary to put over Rosalinde in the upcoming new production of Die Fledermaus

This farcical take on Così does a disservice to Mozart and da Ponte’s supreme “problem comedy” by avoiding the dark and troubling issues that pervade the work. When Ferrando experiences the crushing pain of Dorabella’s betrayal, we are shocked by his sudden surge of emotion—yet throughout this evening, we have only witnessed silly puppets playing Alfonso’s game. Guglielmo’s bitterness during the wedding preparations goes for naught, and the happy (?) reunion of the four with their original partners during the final chorus rings hollow, particularly after the rapture Mozart paints in that searing scene between Fiordiligi and Ferrando. Could they really return to the previous status quo after the cruelties we have witnessed?  Unfortunately, the Met would rather you didn’t think about these vexing questions.

This is too bad, but at least the remaining nine performances this season will offer opportunities to hear a great Mozart conductor doing many magical things and that—and Polenzani’s Ferrando—are things to be very grateful for, after all.  But let’s hope that the Met gets its act together: last night’s performance started ten minutes late, and, combined with a nearly 45-minute intermission, stretched to nearly four hours.

Photos: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.