Sunday, November 06, 2005


The Met's current production of Così Fan Tutte debuted ten seasons ago for Cecilia Bartoli (as Despina -- her house debut), and has run regularly since then with mostly young, mostly American casts. Its physical elements are exemplary: cool spacious seaside spaces -- with matching clothes -- that set off the real and feigned emotional heat of the characters. And a good amount of overdone stage business, presumably put in for Bartoli, has been scrubbed away since that first, telecast run.

What's left is the base of a coherent, detailed revival that -- at least in the first-cast performances that ran through Tuesday -- outshone all of its previous incarnations. As in the fall's Falstaff, everything worked, and everything fit. But this added up to more than the Verdi.

The most successful prior run may have been the last -- back in 2001 -- with tall sisters Melanie Diener and Susan Graham headlining a comparably strong cast. But that was let down at times by the graceless and breathless charging-through of conductor Patrick Summers. This time Levine's work is the heart of the production, finding inflections, life and contrasts that had previously lain dormant under his baton. Between this and the Verdi -- and following-up the spring's excellent Clemenza revival -- Levine is doing his best work in years. And he's become a great Mozartean.

Perhaps, then, the magic of this Cosi can even survive the cast change that will add the spectactularly iffy Alexandra Deshorties. But this first group had a remarkable ensemble dynamic. Individually, all six satisfied, though Thomas Allen's lost a lot of voice since his Beckmesser. Barbara Frittoli has an odd-ish vocal production and lacks the extreme high and (esp.) low notes for "Come scoglio", but "Per pietà" was a highlight. Magdalena Kožená, a bit underpowered as last season's Varvara, I found much better here -- strong from top to bottom. On the other side, Matthew Polenzani and Mariusz Kwiecien vied with each other for the easiest, most pleasant sounds of the evening. And Nuccia Focile actually sang most of her part.

As a group, the moral weight was more with the men than usual. Frittoli and Kožená are a slighter, more mercurial pair than their immediate predecessors. Under the hand of stage director Robin Guarino, they took advantage of it, believably playing up their characters' flightiness even from the beginning. Poor sincerely love-besotted (as Polenzani and Kwiecien had them) fiancees, to see these sisters as paragons! Allen was accordingly more of a bitter Alfonso than usual.

In the end, this time, the couples switch. And forgive each other, more or less. But before that: a moment of musical and dramatic suspension quite equal to any in opera -- including its sex-reversed counterpart in Figaro.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.