The Met’s ‘Cosi fan tutte’ offers pleasures — and problems
Perhaps Lorenzo Da Ponte’s tale about two engaged women unable to remain faithful for 24 hours is deserving of a fresh spin
Is there any way to present Mozart’s sexist, misogynistic farce Cosi fan tutte to an audience in 2014? I am beginning to think not.
The Metropolitan Opera’s revival of its 1996 Leslie Koenig production, staged here by Robin Guarino, makes no effort at updating the piece or finding some hidden meaning. Perhaps there is nothing to find. It is surely the weakest and most puzzling of the three librettos Lorenzo Da Ponte wrote for Mozart — the others being, of course, Figaro and Don Giovanni.
A worldly older man (Don Alfonso) informs two smug young men (Ferrando and Guglielmo) that women are never faithful. He predicts that their girlfriends, the sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi, would certainly not be faithful to them if given the chance to roam. He bets them he can convince their ladies to abandon them for other suitors in the space of 24 hours.
He wins the bet. The young men pretend to go off to war. They return disguised as Albanians. They woo each other’s lady with the help of Don Alfonso and the sisters’ sexually experienced maid Despina, who thinks the sisters are ninnies. Dorabella submits quickly. Fiordiligi resists, bends, and perhaps succumbs, perhaps not.
Then the men suddenly “return” from war, reveal that they were the Albanians in disguise, and humiliate the women. The four are left to sort through the domestic wreckage.
In the Met’s telling, the original couples pair up again at the conclusion and all is supposedly forgiven. But it is clear from the body language that there is no going back. One could imagine the lovers deciding to remain switched; or they could easily go off in four separate directions.
Da Ponte has given us two women who cannot remain faithful for 24 hours and who fall for a pair of goofy Albanians in disguise. The Met production did nothing to remedy this absurdity. Director Guarino encouraged the Albanians to act as frat boys in Middle Eastern fashions. The chance that the ladies would fall for these two circus clowns was zero.
Making this unpleasant stew even more unlikely was the casting of the two ladies, who seemed to be playing the wrong parts. Fiordiligi is the more mature and cautious of the sisters in both words and music. Dorabella is the flighty sister, more willing to take a gamble on love. Mezzo Isabel Leonard as Dorabella has the elegance, style, and serious mien to play Fiordiligi. But as a mezzo she doesn’t have the top notes for the role. Leonard certainly does not look or behave like the ditzy Dorabella. She is Dorabella as Eboli, or Amneris. On the other hand, Susanna Phillips has the top notes for Fiordiligi, but she doesn’t look like one. Rather, she has the rubbery face of a comic and none of Leonard’s steely body language. This was problematic throughout the afternoon. Maybe they should have switched souls at the end, so that each became the other. George Lucas could direct that ending for the Met.
The HD presentation offered pleasures and problems. This is an ensemble opera of six characters. The chorus barely appears. All the action is in the reaction of the women to the shenanigans around them as they are being manipulated. The Met has decided that HD means relentless close-ups, so when the camera focused on the correct face at the correct time to catch an arched eyebrow or a flash of despair, the audience could follow the action. But too often the camera was on the wrong woman. We rarely were given a wide shot of the ensemble when that would have made the most sense.
The Met’s simple production worked well enough to permit one scene to melt into the next. The most attractive setting was seaside, suggested by some sand, a boardwalk, and a docked sailboat. An atmospheric garden for the courting couples also worked well.
Vocally the opera depends on the soprano Fiordiligi and the tenor Ferrando (who don’t end up together, but probably should). Phillips had no difficulty with the high notes in the bravura aria Come scoglio, in which she vows to remain as steadfast as a rock in her love for Guglielmo. The aria ranges over two octaves with wide and sudden leaps. Her lower range was not as impressive, but she gave great pleasure. Her Per pieta, in which she shows anguish at her own inconstancy, was lovely.
She also blended well with Leonard, one of the Met’s star mezzos in an era of starry mezzos. Dorabella has much less to sing, but Leonard handled it all with a creamy and practiced ease. She was particularly effective as a partner.
As Ferrando, Matthew Polenzani exhibited a beautiful head voice and the ability to scale down the volume in some melting diminuendos. At the top of his voice, when singing full out, he was a bit tight and without much Italianate sound. As an actor he is wooden, but the part is so dumb, who could pull it off?
Baritone Rodion Pogossov, as Guglielmo, lacked gravitas. His baritone is on the light side. (Mozart had in his ear the voice of Francesco Benucci, who created the part. Benucci was also a Figaro and a Leporello for Mozart. He must have been a more resonant singer than Pogossov, although to be fair, Benucci didn’t have to fill a house of nearly 4000 seats.) Pogossov, however, rose to the occasion in his blustering aria in Act Two when he realizes he has been dumped by Fiordiligi.
Danielle de Niese easily dominated every scene she was in and showed impressive variety of voice as the saucy maid Despina. She hammed it up effectively in disguise as a fake doctor and as a notary with a marriage contract.
Bass Maurizio Muraro as Don Alfonso was the one major disappointment in the cast. Looking more like a befuddled Doctor Bartolo from Figaro than a suave master of deception, his voice was bleached and weak on top.
Conductor James Levine made his return to the Met from illness with this opera in the Fall of 2013. He has always been a fleet, buoyant and precise Mozart conductor, and that was the case here. Judging by his beaming countenance every time the camera showed him to the audience, he is feeling well and having a great time. The live audience responded to him, and to the singers, with a standing ovation.
It would be sacrilegious, of course, to fit a new libretto to Mozart’s music, although this has been tried with Cosi. I am not a fan of productions that obliterate the original and leave an audience shaking its collective head, but with this opera it might be a good thing. I would even be prepared to see what a charter member of the Regietheater club — preferably a woman — would do with it.
What’s to lose?
What: Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Simulcast Live in HD
When: Saturday, April 26, 2014
Time: Approximately 4 hours and 5 minutes, including intermission
Where: Metropolitan Opera House, New York
Next HD Simulcast: Rossini’s La Cenerentola, Saturday May 10, 2014 at 12:55 p.m. EST