‘Hoffmann,” no. “Cosi fan Tutte,” yes. Emphatically yes.
The enterprising Music Center Opera may have suffered a mighty miscalculation with its revised tales of Offenbach. The company has restored faith, however, by mustering a few miracles on behalf of Mozart.
The production of “Cosi fan Tutte” that was introduced Saturday night isn’t new in concept. It is, essentially, an enlargement of the classic version staged by Sir Peter Hall and designed by John Bury for the Glyndebourne Festival a decade ago.
Hall and Bury don’t happen to share the popular view of “Cosi.” They don’t seem to think that Mozart and his inspired librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, wrote a funny, pretty, patently
artificial little opera about fickle women, macho men, silly masquerades, amorous intrigues and facile, happy endings.
Hall and Bury care enough to look beneath the surface and think beyond the symmetrical formulas. Most important, they care enough to listen to the music.
They have discovered a poignant human comedy where others find only a farce. They have uncovered hints of universal pain, erotic fascination, philosophical wisdom beneath the Baroque artifice.
Their “Cosi” does away with stereotypes. The action is motivated by credible emotions rather than extraneous conventions.
They have thrown away the tired cliches that have encumbered the opera for nearly two centuries. But, with a probing eye and a light touch, they have retained the inherent charm, stressed intimacy even in a 3,000-seat house and bathed the convoluted drama in gentle Mediterranean twilight.
This “Cosi fan tutte” isn’t always easy. Scrupulously complete, it lasts nearly four hours. For once, Ferrando gets to sing all three of his arias. Dorabella is granted the flourishes of “E’ amore un ladroncello.” Guglielmo passes up “Non siate ritrosi” in favor of the more demanding roulades of “Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo,” about which even Mozart had some contextual qualms. There is more recitative than tradition sanctions.
The result is a long performance but not, thank goodness, a ponderous one. The added detail is illuminating. The formal expansion sustains essential balances, and not a note of the miraculous score seems expendable.
Christof Perick conducts the miraculous score a bit hastily at the outset. One longs for the mellowness of Muti, the sensitivity of Haitink. The overture sounds reckless. The singers in the early scenes seem rushed. The text threatens to garble.
Soon, however, one grasps a possible method behind the apparent temporal madness. Perick sets the plot in motion with an aura of frenzy that drastically offsets the inevitable lyricism and introspection. The giddiness of the exposition makes the pathos of the development, and the grace of the resolution, all the more affecting.
The cast on Saturday was, for the most part, strong. In the case of Carol Vaness, the Fiordiligi, it was more than that.
Fiordiligi is a virtually impossible role--gentle one moment and heroic the next. The line is prone to florid stratospheric flights, florid detours and precarious leaps. Vaness took all the hurdles in stride and made them seem insignificant. She sang with remarkable force and security, with urgency and suavity, with accuracy and elegance, too. In the process, she earned honorable comparison with such disparate paragons as Ina Souez, Eleanor Steber, Sena Jurinac and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.
Maria Ewing complemented her as a Dorabella of mercurial wit, wide-eyed impetuosity and rare vocal breadth. Anne Howells, another mezzo confronting the soprano challenge of Despina, sang very prettily and, even more important, turned the erstwhile soubrette into a tough, earthy and eminently sympathetic figure.
Jonathan Mack had some trouble with the extrovert fioriture of Ferrando, but sang with unerring taste and acted with virile finesse. Jeffrey Black, the Guglielmo from Australia, introduced a big, suave, pliable baritone and a nice, blustery stage presence. Nearing his 70th birthday, Sesto Bruscantini brought much class if little voice to the cynical maneuvers of Don Alfonso.
It was a great night at the opera.