The Atlanta Opera’s presentation of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte was heard for the first time this season last Saturday at the Cobb Energy Center. With a cast composed of primarily young artists, most making their Atlanta Opera debuts, the performance was well attended and enthusiastically received by the audience.
The score, performed in its traditional version, was cut in various sections of recitative, and ensembles such as the finale sections of both acts were significantly abbreviated. Conductor Kazem Adbullah propelled the proceedings by way of a rushed, snappy tempo, which remained irresponsive when called upon to create a theatrical or emotional effect. Furthermore, both in the orchestral texture and vocal line, a lack of musical rubato rooted many pages of the score earthbound. At worst, the music was found wanting in both poetry and elasticity. At best, it tried desperately to harmonize with the interpretation dictated by director Jose Maria Condemi. Moving the action from 18th century to 1940’s Naples allowed for the women to be beautifully costumed in flattering 40s fashions; and for the most part, Mr. Condemi achieved a general cohesion in setting up the situations to render to plot effective. That said, some stage cues were inexplicably ignored (such as the lack of portraits the women must describe to each other) or introduced when they made no sense (Despina’s panicked reaction to the military chorus in act two). What ultimately disturbed was the constant movement from ancillary characters while principals were assigned the musical spotlight. I found this consistently distracting, and at times it was necessary to close the eyes and allow the music to perform its task unobstructed. Alas, I will forgive everything if there is great singing onstage.
And there was. Soprano Keri Alkema joins the line of distinguished sopranos who have excelled in the role of Fiordiligi in Atlanta. Her dark colored, full lyric voice was produced with sufficient sonority at the forte dynamic, and her higher notes were beautifully poised when sustained over the orchestra. This was best heard during the iconic trio “Soave sia il vento” where the limpid quality of her voice gradually dominated the wall of sound, much like the sun shining through the morning fog. Noteworthy also was her ability to produce the low emissions of her chest register in a similar manner as those in the higher plain, though it cannot be said that these extremes were homogenously equalized. In her first act aria,”Come Scoglio,” she successfully negotiated the majority of the score’s musical pitfalls, though what was offered up as a trill could not be accepted as such, and the ruthless sequence of triplets that mark the end of this testing aria left room for a more equalized execution. Both her act two solo offering, “Per pieta ben mio, perdona” and the subsequent duet with Ferrando “Fra gli amplessi” found her in commanding form, as she unleashed the voice in a fiery manner deigned to match the strange conflicts found in this character. Still, the vocal writing strongly hints at a fascinating human being: One that loves strongly, resists vividly, and is quick to smash down her defenses and surrender with gusto. In Ms. Alkema’s interpretation, there was little vocal or dramatic evidence of this woman until the above-mentioned moments in act two, so there is plenty of room to grow. Alas, she has the gift of a glamorous instrument and the opportunity to hone her craft that only youth can provide. Much is expected of this young lady, and her participation in last Saturday’s performance provided the musical highlights of the evening.
Taking on the role of Dorabella, Mezzo-Soprano Jennifer Holloway made a lesser impression, though at times I wondered if this was a case of the voice not serving the role at hand rather than an issue with the instrument itself. It is an attractive voice for sure, easily produced through most of its range and capable of dominating the ensemble when pressed to do so. During her aria “Smanie implacabili”, she seemed at home with Dorabella’s uncomfortably raw instance of “woe is me,” though her stage direction underlined the melodramatic undertones of this number. It was for the majority of the second act, where more kittenish qualities should come forth, where the development of the character decelerated. Her second act aria, “E amore un ladroncello,” was delivered in a generalized manner, and at times her declamation stuck out of the sleeve of sound created by the rest of her colleagues. She ultimately rose to the occasion during the sublime last pages of the score, blending her sound beautifully with Ms. Alkema’s and at times creating a “third voice” out of their combined powers.
The character of Mozart’s cynical yet charming maid Despina was portrayed by soprano Kiera Duffy. Under Mr. Condemi’s direction, she was presented as a jittery pedantic harpy who nervously moved about the stage as if she was running out of time to find the ladies room. Every utterance was punctuated with an incessant array of arm movements and facial gestures regardless of the moment’s comic significance. This behavior even spilled over to scenes that did not require her participation, and when the situation finally required comedy, the antics became even more exaggerated in a case of “more plus more equals more.” It quickly registered as an irritant, and while this brand of direction may secure an easy laugh, the character’s unfair reputation as a one-dimensional stock figure was sadly reinforced by this treatment. Once the eye grew to accept this presentation, the ear began to assess her performance in its proper context. It is a soprano voice of light color and high extension, clear and more resonant in the extreme top. Pressing upon the middle voice to full resonance proved a sketchier affair, and her singing in this region was frequently affected by shrillness; and though the physical presentation was quite energetic, her declamation lacked panache. Ultimately she sang the notes well enough, moved with the energy of an MC Hammer back-up dancer, but made little musical impression. This young artist was a finalist in the 2007 Metropolitan opera auditions, and is establishing a fine reputation in today’s operatic scene. It is hoped that the remainder presentations of the opera will find her in improved musical form, as she has the ingredients to become an artist of significance.
In addition to Despina, Mozart provides Cosi fan tutte with a second comic role in the character of Guglielmo, performed at the Atlanta Opera by baritone Phillip Addis. Mr. Addis cuts a striking figure onstage (ie: he’s adorable) and is capable of producing a clear forward sound, noteworthy for its sonority rather than its texture and color. Despite a winning stage presence, his singing was hampered by the constant faceless quality of his phrasing; so while his antics onstage told of a zany chap who enjoys terrorizing the sisters, his voice did little to express this through song. As an operatic interpretation it was found severely wanting. When the clown must turn the lover with Dorabella in act two’s “Il core vi dono,” the voice did not bend with the melody and it failed to seduce the ear (mind you, the eyes were convinced…). It is interesting to note that both of the more actively comic characters in the opera focused the bulk of their interpretation through the way they moved onstage rather than through musical means, thus greatly limiting their effect.
A greater impression was made by tenor Matthew Plenk in the role of the more sensitive soldier Ferrando. With a lightly colored yet penetrating voice, aided by the use of a quick vibrato, his is an art that could either emulate an old school sensibility, or degenerate in what the Italians call “caprino” (bleating). During his first act aria “Un’aura amorosa,” he made it clear that he was going for the first of the two options as he artfully shaped his beautiful melody to capture the wistful scent of the aria. A more lachrymose quality overtook his singing of the second aria â€œTradito, schernitoâ€, and the musical gesture combined with the text to portray Ferrando’s feeling of tragic disillusionment. As a comedic actor, he repeatedly eclipsed Mr. Addis with the use of a priceless lotus-eating grin that inspired laughter through little movement.
As the grand master of ceremonies, and the man that stirred the polenta at every turn, we had the Don Alfonso of bass Jason Hardy. Through the use of a rich, dark instrument and a polished characterization delivered by intuitive phrasing, his was surely the great operatic performance of the evening. A seasoned artist (he made his debut with the company in 1998,) the benefits of experience were vividly realized in the strikingly tall, handsome singer. The voice is evenly colored and remarkably fresh despite a career that has already spanned more than twenty years. More importantly, his instrument was rarely pushed beyond its natural limitations, and rather encouraged to achieve sonority through the sheer glow of its better qualities. Hence, he effortlessly sounded like a member of a higher class. Once the quality of the voice was established, it was his tasteful, elegant phrasing that set him apart from the rest of the members of the cast. He made sense of the musical effects hinted in the score, and gave the impression of having said his words to greater people in better times. When physical humor was required, only a slight movement was necessary to create the most delightful effect. For instance, Don Alfonso explains to the hapless men that the only solution to their situation is to marry the women, for there really is no other reasonable alternative. “You must be philosophical,” he says, and a knowing look flashed through Don Alfonso’s face as he uttered these words, surely recalling a time when he himself did not accept these conditions, and which perhaps led to his permanent status as a bachelor. These sensitive array of details abounded in Mr. Hardy’s portrayal, and his Don Alfonso will remain with me for a long time.
All things considered, I recommend this run of Cosi fan tutte to patrons hungry to hear a performance of one of Mozart’s greatest jewels. Despite the various shortcomings, they do not sufficiently mar from the genius of Mozart and Da Ponte, whose magic always comes through. I struggled to keep my emotions in check as the women, after being discovered for their infidelity, admitted the truth and veritably demanded the forgiveness of the men. Phrase by phrase, Mozart destroys the structural musical beams of his opera as our frail human beauty is revealed through these lines, which echoed past the theater into space and for eternity: “Idol mio, se questo e vero, colla fede e coll’amore compensar sapro il tuo core, adorarti ornor sapro’/Te lo credo, gioia bella, ma la prova far non vo” (My love, if this is true, with fidelity and with love I will make good what I have done, and adore you evermore/I believe you, my fair one, but I won’t put it to the test). If for anything, come to the show to hear that. The production and cast are not perfect (they rarely are), and if we were to think of Mozart as pastry, this was a case of an over baked crust and an unevenly cooked gooey middle. Yet somehow, the sum of its parts yielded a more than acceptable experience, so do what I do when I have a less than ideal experiment in the kitchen: Dunk it in milk, and enjoy.
The Atlanta Opera’s new production of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte continues through April 12, 15 and 17. For tickets, please contact the ticket office at 404.881.8885 or visit www.atlantaopera.org for more information.