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All For Love

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
11/09/2010 -  and November 13, 17, 20, 23*, 27, December 2, 2010
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Così fan tutte
Miah Persson (Fiordiligi), Isabel Leonard (Dorabella), Danielle de Niese (Despina), Pavol Breslik (Ferrando), Nathan Gunn (Guglielmo), Don Alfonso (William Shimell)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, William Christie (Conductor)
Lesley Koenig (Production), Michael Yeargin (Set and Costume Designer), Duane Schuler (Lighting Designer), Robin Guarino (Stage Director)

M. Persson, D. de Niese, I. Leonard
(© Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

In discussions of authenticity in opera the focus usually turns on the composer's intent and the degree to which that might be at variance with the director's concept of the work. For directors provide their own lens through which the audience gets to see a work. With an opera such as Così fan tutte there is a second lens through which we must peer: How does one view a work with a plot such as this in the 21st century, a rather cynical time in which the divorce rate climbs ever upward and faithfulness and commitment forever seem increasingly quaint notions. How does this work speak to a modern audience? And what does it say?

For an audience of opera goers, used to tales of the most romantic sort, usually involving someone dying for love or at least dying in the embrace of one's beloved, the cynicism of Così can be extremely jarring. Also jarring is the ease with which the two girls switch their allegiances. How shallow they can appear to those of us used to operas with huge emotions, grand passions, and professions of eternal love. Comedies of course can feature abiding love – think for example of the loyalty and devotion of Figaro, Susanna and, most movingly, the Countess, who is betrayed by her husband's serial infidelities. The comic machinations, dissembling, and impersonations are undertaken to attain a moral good – shaming the Count into behaving himself in the future. In contrast, everyone in Così fan tutte is engaged in some sort of betrayal: the two sisters who have sworn fidelity to their lovers; the lovers who deceive them; the maid who is disloyal to her employers; Don Alfonso who betrays his friends. While the first act is largely full of fun and high spirits, the second is darker and much more disturbing. The humiliation of the sisters and then the ambiguous ending – just who ends up with whom? – is so unlike the end of Figaro in which forgiveness, gorgeously articulated in the music, is matched by the sincerity (albeit in the Count's case perhaps rather temporary) of the characters. At the end of Così all trust has been destroyed.

Lesley Koenig, who directed this production, first seen at the Met in 1996, when it featured the house debut of Cecilia Bartoli as Despina, clearly viewed Così as a comedy. The stage director, Robin Guarino, who is responsible for the current run, obviously agreed. Indeed, so full of slapstick and sight gags is this production that much of the audience seemed to laugh virtually throughout the performance; this was certainly true of the man seated behind me. Of course, it’s funny, just as Shakespeare’s comedies are. But here, as in Shakespeare, there is so much more. I found the interpretation of Koenig and Guarino to be shallow, especially when one considers the radical disjunction between the story line in its simplest from and the sublime music – among the most beautiful that Mozart ever wrote. The music manifests great tenderness and sweetness as well as the pain of betrayal.

While I generally steer clear of looking into an artist's life to discern the meaning of a work of art, it's difficult not to do so with respect to Così. Mozart of course was in love with one sister and married to another. At the time he wrote this opera, his wife was away taking a cure and her absence and the pervasive gossip convinced Mozart that she was having an affair, or at least that it looked to others as if she were. Evidence of his distress can be found in his letters. It seems that, at the very same time, Mozart was also having an affair. Did any of this influence Così? Of course, we can never know.

The other person responsible for a production that merely skimmed the surface of the emotional content of the work is its conductor, William Christie, who made his long-overdue debut at the Met with what was clearly for him the wrong work. A master of resurrecting lost Baroque treasures, he is rather a treasure himself. Indeed, I had the pleasure of seeing two of his productions at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last season (Read here and here.) With Così, however, he gave us rushed tempi that at times garbled the music (the woodwind scales in the overture being one example) and a lack of coordination or even consideration for the singers who often struggled to keep up with him. They had a terrible time with the ensembles (which are in so many ways the heart and soul of this sublime score). He did not help the singers to do their best, with the exception of Danielle de Niese (with whom he has worked a great deal in the past). What a shame that he did not conduct something from the Baroque era. Rumor has it that he will. He is said to be returning to the Met with a kind of Baroque pastiche. It's just a shame he made his debut with Così instead of a work for which his prodigious talents are more suited.

The singers by and large did well, with Isabel Leonard as Dorabella, being the vocal standout. As a girl in love with love (much like the young page, Cherubino, a role she sang at the Met last season), she sang with melting mellow tone. Miah Persson was a lovely, eminently lyrical Fiordiligi much better in the second act and marvelous in “Per pietà, ben mio”. Nathan Gunn was a fine Guglielmo and Pavol Breslik's warm resonant tenor made for an ardent Ferrando. William Shimell was appropriately cynical as Don Alfonso. Danielle de Niese clearly had marvelous fun playing Despina. Her impersonations of the doctor and the notary exhibited fine comic timing, and she sang beautifully.

The simple sun-lit production by Michael Yeargin was inventive and often enchanting.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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