Friday, 8 November 2019

Engagingly youthful: Mozart's Cosi fan tutte from Ian Page and the Mozartists

Playbill of the first performance of Cosi fan Tutte at the Burgtheater, Vienna, 26 January 1790
Playbill of the first performance of Cosi fan Tutte at the Burgtheater, Vienna, 26 January 1790
Mozart Cosi fan tutte; Ana Maria Labin, Emily Edmonds, Matthew Swensen, Benjamin Appl, Rebecca Bottone, Richard Burkhard, The Mozartists, cond: Ian Page; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 6 November 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A lithe and youthfully engaging account of Mozart and Da Ponte's final, enigmatic masterpiece

The problem with celebrating Mozart's career year by year, is that it leaves a lot of the good things until the end, particularly when it comes to opera. So every so often Ian Page and The Mozartists cheat and take a break from the year by year exploration of Mozart 250 and give us something from Mozart's maturity.

So, on Wednesday 6 November 2019 at Cadogan Hall, Ian Page conducted the Mozartists in a concert performance of Cosi fan tutte with soloists Ana Maria Labin (soprano) as Fiordiligi, Emily Edmonds (mezzo-soprano) as Dorabella, Matthew Swensen (tenor) as Ferrando, Benjamin Appl (baritone) as Guglielmo, Rebecca Bottone (soprano) as Despina and Richard Burkhard (baritone) as Don Alfonso.

Cosi van tutte remains a somewhat enigmatic opera, no amount of research can ever quite put us in the position of those in the first night audience so that we understand the plot in the terms which they or the composer and librettist did. Even the title, one of those which is never translated, is puzzling, is it serious or ironic? It doesn't help that after a handful of performances following the premiere, the theatres were closed owing to the Emperor's death. So we don't have the sort of extensive contemporary comment on the opera that we do for the earlier Mozart/Da Ponte ones.

The advantage of a concert performance is that we don't have to worry as much about production concept, and can concentrate on Mozart's music and Da Ponte's words. Though, of course, that places a lot of onus on the performers and whilst I have enjoyed countless concert performances, I have also been to plenty where the opera failed to cross the footlights.

Thankfully there was no problem with that here, the cast were uniformly involved and engagingly direct in their performances. Whilst the singers were using scores, no-one had their head buried one or used it for protection, and instead dialogue was just that, dialogue between two people, statements could elicit reactions and there was a delightful sense of ensemble in this most ensemble of Mozart operas. Ian Page's programme note pointed out that we have to wait a long time for the first large-scale aria, and that the first time a singer is really alone on stage for their aria is not until the second act, prior to that the entire piece has been acted ensemble.

This was a youthful and lithe performance, starting with Ian Page's lively and stylish account of the overture. We have reached the point where period instrument performances of this music are relatively common, but I still find the range of colour and timbre that a good performance brings, to be completely magical. Textures were light, but everything was full of colour and transparency did not imply lack of emotional depth.

Ana Maria Labin made an affecting Fiordiligi, albeit one with a rather fiery temperament. Vocally, I have to confess that occasionally Labin's tone in this music reminded me a little of Victoria de los Angeles, which is no bad model to have. 'Come scoglio' was vibrant but lyrical, only gradually building to a powerful climax. It was much more of an interior monologue than a virtuoso opera seria aria. 'Per pieta' was intimate and intense, but still full of personality, and she was able to take advantage of the lightness of the texture of the orchestra to fine her voice right down.

Emily Edmonds was announced as suffering from a cold, but happily this was not immediately apparent. She made quite a strong Dorabella, at first rather serious though still girlish and only gradually coming out of her shell. Her Act one aria was nicely vigorous, whilst her second was full of perky charm.

American tenor Matthew Swensen was completely new to me (he trained at the Juilliard School and is currently a member of the ensemble at Frankfurt Opera). He had a wonderfully sweet tone, lyric tenor voice that is an instrument of great beauty, though there were times that I wished he would have opened up a bit more and let go. Initially his Ferrando was quite serious, with the character gradually relaxing. 'Un aura amorosa' was sung as an intimate piece, yet deeply felt, whilst his second act aria (the one that is 'traditionally' cut) was nicely impassioned.

Benjamin Appl was clearly enjoying himself as Guglielmo, bringing out a real sense of character, yet always singing with his customary beauty of phrasing. His voice was full of dark tones and colours, whilst still having an ease at the top, which lent Guglielmo gravitas too. This was very much in evidence in his Act One aria (a relatively lightweight aria which was a replacement for a larger scale piece which did not fit dramatically), whilst his second aria was vividly done, with a lively swagger.

But, as I have said, you don't just go to Cosi fan tutte for the arias, and all four young lovers interacted in a delightfully engaging way in the various ensembles, thus giving the opera's musical drama a real sense of thrust.

As Despina and Don Alfonso, Rebecca Bottone and Richard Burkhard brought a real sense of character to the piece, and created the engine by which the drama seemed to unfold even in this concert setting. Bottone's Despina was full of vibrant theatricality in everything she did, even when sitting demurely waiting for orders. This was a masterly display of timing and theatrical presence, but also the role was beautifully and engagingly sung, with Bottone clearly having great fun. Burkhard was similarly characterfully engaging, and his Don Alfonso was also finely sung. He was older than the two young lovers, true, but not that old, and also not as nastily manipulative as in some staging.

There was no chorus, instead mezzo-soprano Laura Hocking and tenor Dominic Bevan joined Bottone and Burkhard to provide the choruses in both acts, a neat solution which kept the intimacy of the performance.

Of course 'engagingly youtful' is not the only way to treat this piece, and whilst it is common nowadays for performances to emphasise the relative youth of the lovers, the opera can also work very well as an exploration of mid-life crisis!

The idea of historically authentic performance is unachievable, partly because no matter how accurate the style of playing and singing, we can never re-capture the historical audience, we listen with modern ears (a truism whose original author I have, I am afraid, forgotten). This is particularly the case with Cosi fan tutte, where recovering the original attitudes to the enigmatic plot remain difficult. This performance in concert cut through many of the Gordian Knots, and gave us a youthful, lithe and engagingly fresh account of Mozart and Da Ponte's final masterpiece.

Elsewhere on this blog
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  • The Exiled Outsiders: music by Hans Gál, Max Kowalski, Peter Gellhorn at London Song Festival  (★★★★) - concert review
  • An artist should be careful not to put themselves in a box: I chat to tenor Leonardo Capalbo about the challenges of singing the title role in Verdi's Don Carlos - interview
  • Kiandra Howarth takes first prize at the Grange Festival International Singing Competition - my article
  • 'The first great example of British exceptionalism': Purcell's King Arthur re-thought in an engaging performance and accompany CDs from Paul McCreesh and Gabrieli  (★★★★★)  - CD & Opera review
  • A ravishing and heart-rending evening: Massenet's Manon from the Met, Live in HD (★★★★) - opera review
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