To 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