Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
September 19, 2011
Los Angeles Opera’s new production of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, which opened on Sunday, shares a lot with the production of Eugene Onegin. Both feature strong ensemble casts led by LAO music director James Conlon. Both were presented in imported British productions, this Cosi having originated at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2006 from Nicholas Hytner. And both have water features as part of the set design. But whatever similarities or differences may predominate in the two shows, one thing is certain – this Cosi fan tutte is vocal dynamite. Most vocalists with an active operatic career undertake Mozart at one point, but few excel at it on a world stage. That LA Opera has assembled six performers as good as those in this cast is a feat in itself.
There are two international superstars in the cast who deliver all the promised goods. Soprano Aleksandra Kurzak is taking on the role of Fiordiligi for the first time in Los Angeles. She is known for her Mozart roles, and her turn here is a stunner. Her voice is bright and lovely, and her performance of “Per pietà, ben mio, perdona” is powerfully felt. She’s a superb actor as well, which makes her an excellent match for her betrothed Guglielmo, sung here by Ildebrando D’Arcangelo. The Italian baritone is known in part for his swarthy good looks. When his character goes into full seduction mode in Mozart’s comedy, you can feel the heat. That his voice barrels through the tricky acoustics of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is breathtaking at times. He’s ferociously fun to watch. The rest of the cast is equally good. Ruxandra Donose returns to L.A. as Dorabella with a rich, warm tone. Samir Pirgu, so memorable in Woody Allen’s version of Gianni Schicchi a few ears ago proves an agile and admirable Ferrando. Bass Lorenzo Regazzo is never blustery as Don Alfanso and could give either of the supposedly younger lovers a run in the looks department. Meanwhile, Roxana Constantinescu sang Despina, Don Alfanso’s partner in crime in his bet that the two young women won’t remain faithful to their soldier fiancées once they are out of sight. She was mischievous and ceded no ground against the remarkable vocalism on display in the show.
Conlon took relaxed paces throughout, but his biggest achievement was wrangling the multiple 4, 5, or 6 person ensembles Mozart wrote into the score. Cosi contains some of Mozart’s most intricate vocal writing and it can get away from the best of ensembles easily. But not here, everyone was together and on point the whole afternoon and the orchestra delivered a world class Mozart performance.
So with great singing, superb musicianship, and first-class comedic acting chops from the cast, what’s not to love? Well maybe Nicholas Hytner’s bland staging, which was directed here by Ashley Dean. Hytner is one of the world’s most respected directors, and his leadership of Britain’s National Theater is justly well-regarded. But his opera stagings, like the Metropolitan Opera’s recent Don Carlo, tend toward vacant architectural designs. Hytner’s vision places all of his theatrical eggs in the basket of his casts’ skills. Here that works just fine, but it isn’t always the case. The set, a single sparse 18th-century room that opens upstage into a patio area is almost devoid of color. A movable wall of shutters is pushed aside to reveal the patio area which has a small inexplicable pool and looks more like the travertine walls of the Getty Museum that anything associated with the casts’ period costumes. Cosi fan tutte is a comedy about mismatched lovers and productions can easily amp this war between the sexes in a number of spirited, broad ways. And while there are many laughs in the new L.A. Opera staging, Hytner’s vision is decidedly less than comic and looking for something deeper.
By the time one gets around to the large red tent stretched above the lovers as all is revealed in the finale, it wasn’t clear to me that those secret depths had been found. They are there to be sure, and this cast of artistic miners dig deep even if Hytner only lets them get so far. But it was really no matter. This Cosi fan tutte is at its best when it’s singing its heart out. It often does and that is reason enough to go. The show continues through October 8.