To commemorate the 50th anniversary of its Mostly Mozart Festival, Lincoln Center commissioned British theater artist Netia Jones to create The Illuminated Heart, a willy-nilly, thoroughly conventional piece that careened through the composer’s best-known operatic hits. Briskly conducted by festival music director Louis Langrée and nicely performed by some of today’s finest singers, the unevenly-beating Heart unfortunately proved less than the sum of its deluxe parts.
From top to bottom, the stage of David Geffen Hall was filled by a huge white box that would be the host for a series of mostly abstract monochrome projections. The nine singers entered and exited by doors at the back of each side of the box and the only props were a chair, a ladder and, briefly, a birdcage. Langrée’s excellent orchestra was positioned on the floor of the theater necessitating the removal of numerous rows of seats.
The program informed the gala audience that the show would last 90 minutes (without an intermission): it actually clocked in at around 75. That familiar timing which made me think of the entire enterprise as a spin on an old introductory “sampler” CD where one could easily hit “shuffle” as there was little dramatic coherence in the order of the sixteen numbers. Ten of those selections came from the three da Ponte operas, and sadly none of Mozart’s fascinating early operas were represented.
Yes, the evening began with the overture to Le Nozze di Figaro and concluded with the final chunk of that opera’s conclusion, but otherwise one wondered why Papageno’s “Der Vogelfängler” was followed by the exquisite Servilia-Annio duet from La clemenza di Tito, after which Langrée and his six singers sped frantically through the final five or so minutes of act I of Così fan tutte, etc.
While the evening disappointed due to its lack of a satisfying concept and over-dependence on commonly heard excerpts, there were rewards. Over the past decade Ana Maria Martinez’s New York City appearances have been few, but her superb Cio-Cio-San at the Met earlier this year gave notice that we had been missing out on an impressive artist.
Several selections from Così (partnered by the lush-voiced Dorabella of Daniela Mack) spotlighted her fine Fiordiligi and, after a number of years of inadequate performances of Donna Elvira at the Met, her intensely moving “Mi tradi” was mightily impressive although a more considerate tempo would have helped her. Her ravishing forgiveness of the contrite Count in the Nozze conclusion was the highlight of Heart’s finale.
Looking dashing in a previously unseen goatee, Peter Mattei reminded everyone what a marvelous Count he remains, but his domineering Don Alfonso was the revelation of the evening. How often have performances of “Soave sia il vento” been marred by the croaking of a super-annuated buffo? Still in its prime, Mattei’s buttery baritone blended sublimely with Martinez and Mack in maybe the most beautiful rendition of that heavenly trio I’ve ever heard.
Ever the stylish Mozartean, Matthew Polenzani wasn’t given much to do, but once again he cast a spell with his magical “Dalla sua pace” and gave us an intriguing preview of his Idomeneo, due next season at the Met. The pungent mezzo of Marianne Crebassa immediately seized one’s attention in the Clemenza duet, and then she collaborated with the marvelously stylish clarinetist Jon Manasse in a most affecting “Parto, parto.”
Nadine Sierra has been much hyped as a star of the future but although she often sings nicely, but I don’t find the voice particularly interesting nor do I sense much affinity for Mozart. Her prosaic, plodding “Ruhe sanft” lacked warmth and was unaccountably interrupted by applause about half-way through. Christopher Maltman’s gritty and inelegant Papageno and Don Giovanni (in the “champagne” aria) didn’t belong in this company.
Top-billed Christine Goerke only arrived for the final 10 minutes, performing the magnificent Idomeneo quartet and Elettra’s subsequent fiery breakdown “D’Oreste, d’Aiace.” Initially she held back so much during the ensemble that she was hard to hear. The grand scena was more forthright, but upper part of her voice was often so edgy that the aria became truly unpleasant, suggesting Mozart is just no longer for her.
At the early conclusion, the well-fed benefit audience seemed very content, while the singers clowned around affectionately during the bows suggesting that they too had had a fine time. However, I was dismayed that a major festival had spent a great deal of time, money and talent on such an unchallenging exploration of one of opera’s most heartfelt and illuminating composers.
Photos by Richard Termine.