The Well-Tempered Music Guy

Simple thoughts by a simple listener on classical music

Monday, January 30, 2006

Cosi fan Turkey?

A Mozart week in a Mozart year brought me to the Met for the "other" da Ponte opera, Cosi fan Tutte.

The performance was serviceable at best (at least by Met standards). Obviously everything was steady, polished, and meticulously played. But Levine seemed on autopilot, and took an excessively mellow view of the score. This was most sharply evident in Despina's Act I aria, "In uomini," where the performance lacked the jumpy, dance-like element that makes it one of my favorite parts of the opera.

My father (a singer) has justifiably observed that Joan Sutherland was terribly overrated. She was adored at the Met opera despite her inability (or unwillingness) to pronounce any consonants and many vowels. "Mealy-mouth," he calls her. And yet she was exceedingly popular, especially at the Met. Well, I have similar objections to Paul Groves, who sang Ferrando here. He frequently appears in Met performances and gets big ovations (although of course he's not as popular as Sutherland was), but I find him irritating in a similar, "mealy-mouthed" way. All the words and notes wash into each other into one big mess; there is no sharp articulation at all. His voice is as light as a feather without being very nimble -- his coloratura is awful. Seemingly in a constant struggle to project his voice -- and, perhaps, to act -- he has that unfortunate tendency to always puff out his chest and make sweeping gestures with his hands.

The young baritone, Mariusz Kwiecien, on the other hand, was terrific as Guglielmo, despite a supposed "severe chest cold" that required our "understanding." This announcement, by the way, is unique to the opera world. As a friend who came with me pointed out, can you imagine the coach of the Lakers stepping onto the court before the game and announcing, "Kobe Bryant has a severe chest cold; he will play anyway, but requests your understanding"? Anyway, Kwiecien will be singing the role of the Count in Figaro this coming month, I look forward to it. I hope he recovers.

Thomas Allen, as Don Alfonso, was steady as ever. He might have lost a bit since he did a terrific Beckmesser a few years ago, but he still sounds very good.

But it's the women who are most important in this opera. The female members of this particular cast (Alexandra Deshorties, Magdalena Kozena, and Nuccia Focile as Fiordiligi, Dorabella, and Despina respectively) are all fine singers. But they all sang with too much vibrato for this piece -- vibrato so wide, you could drive a truck through it, as my dad would say. The female characters do a lot of fretful and acrobatic singing in this opera, and with all the vibrato it started to sound shrill and ring in my ears after a while. They were "hitting red on the wobble-ometer," as a friend would say (ok ok, I'm done). I would have rather heard the sopranos from the Monteverdi Choir whom Gardiner featured in his C Minor Mass for these roles.

Ultimately, I think I must agree with Teri Towe and admit that this piece, by Mozart's standards, is simply a failure ("Cosi fan Turkey," he calls it). The first act has some wonderful music, particularly the gorgeous farewell scene, but around the start of the that act's finale, the opera just falls flat. It's here where you first realize that this piece pales severely in comparison with the other da Ponte operas, Don Giovanni and Figaro. The Act I finale of DG and (especially) the Act II finale of Figaro are grand scenes of escalating tension and towering music.

Think of that incredible moment in Figaro when Susanna, the Countess, and Figaro are worrying about the problem with the note in that soaring melody, while the Count accompanies them with a scurrying line, wondering when Marcellina will arrive. There is so much tension there, expressed through Mozart's unparalleled genius. He has nothing to work with, though, in Cosi's Act I finale. There's no tension at all: Four of the characters know exactly what's going on and are confident in success, and the other two are pathetic dupes. The music is thin and dull, only suddenly, almost ritualistically gaining momentum for the final section. The scene, like much of the opera, is silly without being funny, pathetic without being sad.

The experience really brought me back, especially, to Don Giovanni. There, as Joseph Kerman argues in Opera as Drama, Mozart is not really in his perfect dramatic element, as he is in Figaro and Zauberflote. But unlike Cosi, it still inspired some absolutely glorious music. Who would guess, before hearing the opera, that a classical-era composer, and the warm, gentle, humanistic Mozart no less, could compose such utterly terrifying music as that accompanying the Don's damnation? The music holds our interest the whole way through, always taking fascinating, unexpected turns. It might not be the perfect union of music and drama that Figaro is, but it's a veritable orgy of brilliant dramatic music (kind of like Gotterdammerung is for Wagner -- that's another discussion).


Post a Comment

<< Home