Met’s Coney Island “Così” returns to dazzle and distract

Sun Feb 16, 2020 at 11:17 am
Gerald Finley (in window), Ben Bliss, Nicole Car, Serena Malfi, and Luca Pisaroni in Mozart’s Così fan tutte at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Richard Termine

Phelim McDermott’s 2017 production of Così fan tutte, the Mozart and da Ponte dramedy not of star-crossed lovers but of double-crossed lovers, shimmied and snake-danced its way back onto the Metropolitan Opera stage Saturday afternoon, as dazzling and distracting as ever.

Variously justified as showing that “life is a carnival” or “we’re all freaks here,” the picturesque Coney Island-style setting, non-singing cast of sideshow entertainers, and three rotating motel rooms for door-slamming farce all seem to have been inserted to make this six-character tale of intimate cruelty à la Les Liaisons Dangereuses fill up a big opera stage.

The effect, however, was to pull the viewer’s attention away from the business at hand, which was da Ponte’s gadget of a plot—about tricking two sisters into falling in love with each other’s lovers in disguise–Mozart’s clothing of it in intensely insightful music, and the way six singers and a conductor brought it all to life.

The show began with the carney “skills ensemble”—strongman, bearded lady, contortionist, et al.—climbing one by one out of a box, then running around with word cards to form fridge-poetry sayings about the opera. It was a cute bit, but took way too long to execute, and got barely a titter from the audience. Oh, did I mention that Mozart’s overture was playing during all of this?  That’s okay, nobody heard it anyway.

Soprano Nicole Car as Fiordiligi had to sing her show-stopping Act II aria “Per pietà, ben mio perdona” while floating in vertical circles in a balloon gondola. A Ferris wheel in the background mirrored her course, starting and stopping, drawing one’s eye away from the singer. It is a tribute to Car’s splendid upper register and warm delivery that her performance still left a strong impression.

It’s often observed that Mozart composed the part of Fiordiligi for a particular soprano who had an exceptionally wide pitch range—to which one should add, an exceptional range in an 18th-century-size theater. To hear a soprano, any soprano, tackle the deep-sea plunges and turbulent triplets of “Come scoglio” in the Met is an argument for amplification.

Car did an honest job with it, as she did with all her scenes, including her all-but-unwatchable emotional coercion into a liaison with the disguised Ferrando, in a 2017 staging that already looks very dated.

Mezzo-soprano Serena Malfi, reprising her Dorabella from the production’s original run, had an easier go of it, since her character, after some protestations of fidelity in Act I, fell in quite happily with the maid Despina’s urgings to make hay while the boyfriend was away, and sang robustly about it in “È amore un ladroncello.”  She and Car made believable sisters vocally, their voices intertwining in euphonious thirds.

Tenor Ben Bliss as Ferrando, also back from the first run, suffered a touch of failure-to-launch in his first big aria “Un’ aura amorosa,” singing out of tune and falling a little short of the high notes. Thereafter, however, he proved a worthy buddy and antagonist to Luca Pisaroni’s Guglielmo, whose muscular baritone glinted with ironic humor as he protested against women’s fickle ways in “Donne mie, la fate a tanti e tanti.”

Heidi Stober’s serviceable soprano put across Despina’s “Una donna a quindici anni,” with flair, and she brought conspiratorial glee and a randy elbow in the ribs to the role. She also managed to look good as mad Doctor Magneto in a white fright wig and as the Notary in a rhinestone-cowgirl outfit, lime-green from Stetson to boots.

And let’s not forget Don Alfonso, the manipulative mastermind of this whole scheme to show up the two women. There’s some danger of forgetting, because baritone Gerald Finley’s costumes for the role—a yellow suit, changing to a blinding magenta-sequin number for the last scene—made more of an impression than his performance, which was vocally solid but curiously bland and businesslike in expression.

Conductor Harry Bicket could have minded business better in the pit. The orchestra sounded tentative, sometimes falling slightly behind the singers. Mozart’s gorgeous writing for winds shone through in some fine clarinet duets, but elsewhere slipped out of tune, and a few passages for horns fell apart completely. Lacking clarity and attack, the orchestra contributed less than it should have to the flavor and the momentum of the opera. One hopes it will step up as the run goes on.

Così fan tutte runs through March 14. On February 21 Jennifer Check will appear as Fiordiligi and Carolyn Sproule as Dorabella.; 212-362-2000.

One Response to “Met’s Coney Island “Così” returns to dazzle and distract”

  1. Posted Feb 17, 2020 at 10:13 pm by Anonymous

    I regularly attend MET opera performances and like so many opera goers, I am always amazed at the first-class performances of this hard working orchestra. I was at the opening performance of Cosi, reviewed here and take exception to the cheap shots by a critic who could not have attended the same performance. The horns were absolutely perfect—especially in their virtuosic solos during the Act 2 soprano aria “Per pietà”. Lazy and uneducated reviewers always seem to take pot shots at the horns or brass. Read the reviews from The NY Times or Parterre Box for a very positive view of the orchestra performance (horns in particular) of the same concert!

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