Mostly Mozart Hosts Shiny Aix ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’

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Mostly Mozart Festival presented Mozart's 'Così fan tutte' in a concert version. Louis Langrée conducted the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra with Lenneke Ruiten as Fiordiligi, Joel Prieto as Ferrando, Kate Lindsey as Dorabella, and Nahuel di Pierro as Guglielmo. (Production photos by Richard Termine.)
Louis Langrée conducted ‘Così fan tutte’ with Lenneke Ruiten as Fiordiligi, Joel Prieto as Ferrando, Kate Lindsey as Dorabella, and Nahuel di Pierro as Guglielmo. (Production photos by Richard Termine.)
By David Shengold

NEW YORK — The Mostly Mozart Festival scored an audience success Aug. 15 in presenting a concert version of Così fan tutte in the aptly intimate space of Alice Tully Hall. Festival music director Louis Langrée led the same well-balanced group of six personable, stylish, if not epochal-voiced, singers he’d conducted in June and July at the Aix-en-Provence Festival.

Kate Lindsey (Dorabella) and Lenneke Ruiten (Fiordiligi) 'blended superbly.'
Kate Lindsey (Dorabella) and Lenneke Ruiten (Fiordiligi) ‘blended superbly.’

Christophe Honoré’s staging had proved controversial, not so much for staging the Naples-set opera in the late 1930s in an Ethiopia under Mussolini’s murderous attack as for its relentless, brutal colonialist inter-gender violence and for employing blackface in place of da Ponte’s “Turkish” masquerades. Oddly, one of the surtitles retained an Aix-generated reference to leaving “Asmara” — the Eritrean capital. (Ferrando’s reference to  “Libyan deserts” stems — along with a wide range of geographical and mythological allusions — from da Ponte’s libretto.)

At Mostly Mozart, we saw a summary concert staging intelligently blocked by Annette Jolles, employing Andrew Hill’s lighting to fine mood-shaping effect. Given the horrendous cultural and historical freight surrounding theatrical blackface in this country, it proved a huge relief when “Sempronio” and “Tizio” — the disguised, fidelity-testing lovers — appeared on the scene in fezzes and Turkic vests. Interestingly, these were color-coordinated with the dresses of the specific woman for whom each would make a play. The urge towards the “wrong” partners — in many productions fueled by the wagering Alfonso or his partially duped employee Despina — stemmed from both the men and the women very early on. It was in fact Alfonso and Despina who imposed a final-ensemble return to the original pairings when Ferrando and Fiordiligi (the higher strung participants, who probably do belong together) showed signs of wavering.

Spanish-born Joel Preto sang Ferrando under conductor Louis Langrée.
Spanish-born Joel Prieto sang Ferrando under conductor Louis Langrée.

The six camera-ready vocalists showed themselves well routined in the intermingling phrasing the piece’s many ensembles demand. Lenneke Ruiten (Fiordiligi) and Kate Lindsey (Dorabella) in particular blended superbly throughout their many duet passages. This coordination, which extended to the obbligato instruments, plus the readiness and naturalness of gesture and expression on the platform, are among the several advantages of booking a touring concert based on a recent stage production.

In some ways, the greatest luxury at this performance came from the splendidly bright and committed playing of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. Only the horns emitted a very occasional overly rustic noise; Roberta Ferrari, the agile, sensitive and never overlording fortepianist accompanying the recitatives, deserves special praise.

Color-coded costumes show the two pairs of lovers temporarily mis-sorted.
Color-coded costumes show the two pairs of lovers temporarily mis-sorted.

Ruiten showed cool, Gundula Janowitz-like “French vanilla” tone, floating over some ensembles, and musical strength in sending forth well-sculpted phrases into the hall. Not as virtuosic in the part’s terrifying rigors as a Carol Vaness or Ana Maria Martínez, she sometimes stinted chest notes or turned slightly hard on top. But much if it was remarkable, and she’s clearly a serious, gifted artist.

Spanish-born, Puerto Rican-raised Joel Prieto fared much better as Ferrando than he had last summer as Santa Fe’s Belfiore in La finta giardiniera. That casting seemed largely based on his good looks. As Ferrando, the timbre still sounded a bit tight and — save for parts of “Un’aura amorosa” lacking in float, and in long lines in the ensembles (such as the first finale) — he registered indistinct. But it’s essentially a pleasing sound, and he’s done his stylistic homework and can act.

Don Alfonso (Rod Gilfry) instructs Ferrando (Joel Prieto) and Guglielmo (Nahuel di Pierro) on the ways of women.
Don Alfonso (Rod Gilfry) counsels Ferrando and Guglielmo.

Ferrando’s wonderful second aria, “Ah, lo veggio,” was cut; Prieto sang the preceding recitative and just walked offstage. This happens all too frequently in staged performances where there is some concern about overtime costs. That may well have been the case in Aix, but surely not here. Maestro, orchestra, and tenor had thus not rehearsed the aria, so we didn’t get to hear it; that is one downside of booking a touring concert based on a recent stage production. (It will be interesting to learn what, if any, trims mar Idomeneo, which René Jacobs leads in the small hall on Aug. 18, though, granted, Idomeneo presents a more complicated question textually.) Cutting “Ah, lo veggio” — really tough to sing, though Matthew Polenzani has done it well at the Met  — leaves a big hole in the piece before Fiordiligi’s marathon scena ending with the nine-minute aria, “Per pietà, bell’idol mio,” which in fact proceeds directly from the conflicted emotions Ferrando’s aria has aroused in her.

Just when I was thinking Lindsey — whose sound has taken on a genuinely mezzo tint welcome as contrast here — was wise in being the only cast holdout from venturing an (eventually) unflattering cadenza high above her music’s actual tessitura, she ventured an equivocal one near the end of “È amor un ladroncello.” But in general, Lindsey furnished the most consistently even vocalism.

Nahuel di Pierro (Guglielmo) with Lenneke Ruiten (Fiordiligi).
Nahuel di Pierro (Guglielmo) with Lenneke Ruiten (Fiordiligi).

Argentine bass Nahuel di Pierro had the most confident, natural textual delivery on stage. The voice, warmly grainy if occasionally stretched at top forte, suited his seductive Guglielmo well. That he sounded a bit rougher than Ferrando served their characterizations. French baroque star Sandrine Piau, in her Louise Brooks bob every bit as chic as her mistresses, has done little opera in New York — maybe nothing since Monteverdi’s Drusilla at BAM in 2002. Her meddlesome Despina showed her wonted style and precise dynamic command (maybe one too many high interpolations with messa di voce effects, the thrill palled) and also her much-increased command of textual inflection.

Once a ranking Guglielmo, Rod Gilfry did a fine Alfonso for City Opera four years back and he remains one of the part’s go-to interpreters: still well-oiled vocally (he offered one of the evening’s only real trills) and a precise, nimble verbal actor. Aix audiences heard the Cape Town Opera Chorus in the opera’s very limited choral duties. At Tully, we had a dozen well-trained singers from Kent Tritle’s Musica Sacra, some of whom also helped in minor stage business, like pouring the drinks for Mozart’s miraculous pseudo-canonic wedding toast (a high point here from all the singers and Langrée).

I was scarcely alone in enjoying this high-level performance. But with Così and Idomeneo so frequently in the Met repertory, I wondered if Mostly Mozart might ponder a return to its policy of the ’80s and ’90s: What about lesser-known Mozart (and Haydn, and Gluck) stage works? I recall a pair of Lucia Silla concerts employing the likes of Della Jones, Patricia Schuman, and — in her NYC operatic debut  — Cecilia Bartoli. Or have the costs of generating such repertory explorations with a high-caliber conductor and soloists become prohibitive?

Critic and lecturer David Shengold resides in Philadelphia and New York City; he regularly writes for Opera News, Opera, Opéra Magazine, Opernwelt, Playbill and many other venues and has done program essays for companies including the Metropolitan, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, ROH Covent Garden and the Wexford and Glyndebourne Festivals.