Cher Public

That’s how they did it

Photo: Mostly Mozart Festival presents Mozart's "Così fan tutte" Freiburg Baroque Orchestra Louis Langrée, conductor Lenneke Ruiten, Fiordiligi (Mostly Mozart debut) Kate Lindsey, Dorabella Sandrine Piau, Despina Joel Prieto, Ferrando (Mostly Mozart debut) Nahuel di Pierro, Guglielmo (Mostly Mozart debut) Rod Gilfry, Don Alfonso (Mostly Mozart debut) Musica Sacra (Mostly Mozart debut) Kent Tritle, chorus director concert photographed: 7:30 PM; Monday, August 15, 2016 at AliceTully Hall; Lincoln Center, NYC; Photograph: © 2016 Richard Termine PHOTO CREDIT - Richard TermineTo celebrate its 50th anniversary, Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival scored a coup when it secured one of the world’s finest ensembles, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, to play two operas in concert last week at Alice Tully Hall. Through simple, eloquent dramatic presentation, Idomeneo proved enormously moving while a much more complicated Così fan Tutte went for shallow romantic hijinks stripping that work of its darkly ambiguous disturbing view of love. 

The Belgian countertenor-turned-conductor René Jacobs has made an acclaimed if controversial series of recordings on Harmonia Mundi of Mozart’s operatic masterpieces but had not until Thursday evening’s Idomeneo conducted any in the US. Those who feared that Jacobs’s recent troubling eccentricities would creep into the performance need not have worried.

It was a taut yet deeply human interpretation that exploited the vivid colors of the FBO’s period instruments—the gorgeously mellow clarinets and flutes, the pungent natural horns, and the arresting “twack” of wooden timpani sticks. If there are those who still hold that original-instrument ensembles play wanly and out-of-tune, they would have only had to hear Jacobs’s startlingly vivid storm music.

Idomeneo’s young lovers were portrayed by Belgian soprano Sophie Kärthauser and French mezzo Gaëlle Arguez. Occasionally Jacobs can fixate on certain problematic singers and the Ilia on his recording is the annoyingly soubrettish Sunhae Im, but happily he replaced her at Tully with Kärthauser who sang with radiant purity and modest yet passionate commitment. She blended well with Arquez’s vibrant if occasionally tight and over-bright Idamante.

Alex Penda, well remembered from her fiery Rossini performances at the New York City Opera, returned after too many years as a surprisingly subtle Elettra. Penda’s scorching vibrato is perhaps now more unruly than it once was—her recent roles have included Salome and Fidelio–but she clearly tried to keep it under control particularly in Elettra’s serenely floating “Idol mio.”

Her final ranting showpiece “O smanie….D’Oreste d’Ajace” overwhelmed the rapt audience with its startling pathos and dramatic generosity. Her blazing commitment thrust Christine Goerke’s lackluster performance of that scene several weeks ago into the shade.

Arbace’s long arias are often either abbreviated or omitted entirely but Jacobs included the second, no doubt because he had a fine young tenor, Julien Behr, who sang it with suavity and virile tone. Nicolas Rivenq, a long-time veteran of Les Arts Florissants, retains his steady rich baritone and was deluxe casting in the small role of Neptune’s High Priest.

While a number of the singers were improvements over the Harmonia Mundi recording, unfortunately the loss of Richard Croft in the title role was a grievous one. Croft’s Cretan king was sung with immaculate style, beautiful tone and a touching gravitas. Unfortunately his successor English tenor Jeremy Ovenden, while clearly a serious and earnest artist, lacked the necessary pathos.

Ovenden began in baroque music where for years I avoided him, disliking his grainy unattractive tone. The years have not smoothed its grating quality, but he worked hard, particularly in the challenging coloratura of the first version of “Fuor del mar.”

The crowning glory of Idomeneo was the sterling performance by Vienna’s Arnold Schoenberg Choir, like nearly everyone else, making its Mostly Mozart debut. Its 32 members, guided by the group’s founder Erwin Ortner, made a glorious but meticulously controlled noise in some of Mozart’s most striking choruses.

Earlier in the week, Mostly Mozart imported Così fan Tutte from this year’s Aix-en-Provence Festival which also featured the FBO. After its run at Aix, Christophe Honoré’s production set in Eritrea in the last 1930s was scheduled to travel to the Edinburgh Festival which was so concerned about its mature and “disturbing” content that it put out a warming statement and offered refunds.

However, anyone at Alice Tully Hall expecting that production’s controversial sexual violence and racial provocation wouldn’t have found a trace. For the New York performance Annette Jolles guided the same six singers in an antic and predictable concert-staging like so many other Cosìs one sees. In fact, Jolles’s sunny vision was the opposite of Honoré’s harsh and (too?) despairing view which I saw on a recording of Aix webstream.

The four lovers were young and lively but little differentiated them—Fiordiligi and Dorabella were mostly dramatically interchangeable and if Ferrando and Guglielmo were more distinctive, it was due to the wonderfully charismatic Argentinian bass-baritone Nanuel Di Pirro whose superbly sung, mercurial Guglielmo came close to stealing the show.

His tall, handsome cohort Joel Prieto tossed about his lustrous hair with flair but his tenor lacked emotional depth and dynamic nuance.

Lovely Met veteran Kate Lindsey flitted about winningly as Dorabella and sang with a sumptuous mezzo but didn’t bring much individuality to her character’s emotional journey. She and Lenneke Ruiten giggled and simpered during much of the show and though Ruiten used her penny-plain soprano with intensity she did little to draw one into Fiordiligi’s pressing inner struggles.

For someone who has specialized in the florid heroines of Mozart’s early operas, Ruiten’s coloratura technique was only proficient and she barely sketched in those wonderful trills in “Per pietà.”

As often happens, the two co-conspirators brought a welcome flair to the performance. I was surprised to discover that I had only seen Rod Gilfry once before—as Guglielmo at the Met in 2001. His Alfonso was not the usual aging misanthropic roué but a commanding, still virile middle-aged friend eager to help his impossibly naïve friends avoid years of romantic mistakes.

His baritone has now become rather harsh and gritty but he beautifully negotiated the high-lying lines of a really lovely “Soave sia il vento” trio. Although I suspect it was simply a matter of Gilfry forgetting to remove it, but the sight of Alfonso all evening wearing a wedding ring brought a peculiar poignancy to his merciless manipulations.

I first heard the vivacious French soprano Sandrine Piau twenty-five years ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with Les Arts Florissants, and I was astonished that her Despina sounded as if time had stood still since then. Her voice remains full and piquant, secure from bottom to top.

Hers was an intriguingly chic and worldy-wise maid but not one who had yet turned completely cynical. After witnessing so many over-the-top Despinas, Piau’s witty disguises as the doctor and the notary were a pleasure, done with some subtlety as she sang well—no “funny” cartoon voices, thankfully.

Needless to say, the FBO played superbly—even better than in Idomeneo which had had only several days’ rehearsal–but unfortunately Cosí’s conductor Louis Langrée’s onstage showboating—distracting gyrations throughout—was rather off-putting.

More often than not, he bobbed … and crouched … and twirled… and lunged closer to the edge of the stage than his singers. One wondered on occasion if this had become an opera with seven principals rather than six.

As he had when he conducted the festival’s own orchestra during The Illuminated Heart and both the Requiem and the Great Mass in C-minor Saturday evening at Geffen Hall, his primary goal was for speed and volume, racing though much of the exquisite music, rarely pausing to revel in Mozart’s uniquely emotional and reflective pages.

Although it does include opera or vocal music at all, one of the highlights of the festival arrives for four performances on Wednesday at the Koch Theater: Mark Morris’s glorious Mozart Dances, set to two piano concerti and the double-piano sonata. Don’t miss it!

Photo: Richard Termine

  • PCally

    Always forget how long penda’s been around since she’s still youngish. But this was my first live experience with her and Jacobs and they are a spectacular team. Sad to have missed the cosi even if it was lackluster. I love piau and she seems to be in tip top shape these days.

  • Milly Grazie

    Nice reviews, thanks for sharing.
    Agree with your take on the tenor Julian Ovenden, and have to acknowledge at being totally astonished at hearing him cast as Idomeneo -- but then again I was horrified at the perverse casting of Ian Bostridge (and his “white” English chorister sound) on the Mackerras recording!
    Am not alone in being astonished that Ovenden continues to get work across a broad repertoire despite his increasingly nasal bleating tone combined with pitch problems -- am left wondering if I and those that hire him are hearing the same artist!??

    • The Poet Lenski

      Jeremy Ovenden, not Julian. Julian is, of course, primarily an actor and musical theater performer (and husband to Kate Royal). I have no idea if Jeremy and Julian are related.

      • Hippolyte

        And Jeremy is married to Swedish soprano Miah Persson.

        • Krunoslav

          “Burt just writes the tunes, only now, he’s married to Carole Bayer Sager”.

      • Dave Yaney

        And while we’re at it, I believe the bass-baritone’s name is Nahuel di Piero.

  • DharmaBray

    Awww, lovely… “it put out a warming statement and offered refunds”. Nice to know they care!

  • 98rsd

    We thought the whole performance was rather poor. Ovenden was wonderful in the recitatives--but more an Arbace than an Idomeneo in the arias. Arquez had an unpleasant glare to her sound. Karthaeuser was quite vibrato-ey. Penda did well in her first aria, but the effort to sing the lyrical Idol mio was painful to see. We left before Act III--she might well have been exciting in her last aria.

    Refresh my memory--doesn’t the chorus have solo quartet sections? If so, why were these taken by the whole group? It doesn’t seem to indicate either a) enough rehearsal or b) confidence in the chorus.

    I agree the Cosi was nothing to write home about, but was less taken with Piau and the Guglielmo. Gilfry was superb. Piau’s voice was dry and di Piero, although his bottom was strong and beautiful, tended to over-sing. Say what you will about the tenor, but he made it through Tradito, schernito without tiring. Unfortunately, the conductor took both finales at such a clip that it was impossible for the tenor to sing the florid stuff.

  • Evenhanded


    Wonderful reviews, Mr. Corwin -- thank you! I’m sorry to have missed the Cosi, as I am also an ardent fan of Piau. I’m glad to hear it was a good outing for her.

    In regard to the Idomeneo, I am astonished that anyone could say “We thought the whole performance was rather poor.” To each, his/her own, of course, but for me, it was probably in the top ten live performances I’ve seen in terms of high quality musicianship, scholarship, and vivid theatrically. The orchestra and chorus were perhaps the very best I’ve ever heard in this music -- really an absolute thrill.

    I share the reviewer’s reservations about Ovenden and wish that Behr had been singing the title role. (Incidentally, I love Arbace’s first aria and was sorry it was cut from this performance.) IMO, the performance was strong from start to finish, though I have always felt that Mozart let us down a bit during the long “Idomeneo will now finally sacrifice Idamante, but only after everyone comments, grieves, vacillates, gnashes teeth, and complains excessively about it for at least 20 minutes” scene in Act III. Certainly the audience was effusive in its admiration at the end of the performance. Rightly so. I hope Jacobs and his crew are back in NY as soon as possible.

    • 98rsd

      Levine and the Met Chorus and Orchestra easily outclassed this effort. And the soloists were basically just okay. Any idea why there was no quartet of soloists?

  • Daniel

    It’s unfortunate to read yet another review so focused on soloists’ vocal timbre rather than the overall effect of the performance. I attended both shows, and while I wasn’t thrilled with every aspect of them, they were for the most part a vivid delight. These were performances that bubbled with life and ebullience, and I’m glad to have attended.

    Gaëlle Arguez was a revelation to me--what a fabulous musician!

    • Daniel

      Arquez, pardonnez-moi…