Fresh voices and a new setting for a Mozart opera
LENOX -- As anyone who caught the blazing performance of Verdi's "Don Carlo" at Tanglewood this summer can testify, James Levine's investment in the young musicians at the Tanglewood Music Center is reaping real results. And to a large degree, that investment has been centered on opera. For "Don Carlo," Levine worked exhaustively with the TMC players, turning them into a passionately committed and finely honed opera orchestra, and this weekend, he returned to his newly minted ensemble to lead a fully staged production of Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" at the Tanglewood Theater. The first performance took place on Saturday afternoon, and the final pair will be tonight (led by TMC conducting fellow Kazem Abdullah) and tomorrow (led by Levine).
Last month's "Don Carlo" featured Met-caliber soloists, but in "Cosi," two casts of young TMC vocal fellows are alternating in the principal roles. At Satur day's performance, the modest resumes of the singers seemed of little import, as the combination of Levine's veteran hand in the pit, Ira Siff's nimble modern-dress staging, and the clear excitement of these young musicians to be performing in this context made for an easily enjoyable traversal of Mozart's much-loved opera.
The production opened with a quick shout-out to that other opera house at which Levine has been known to make an appearance: a Met-style snowflake ascended to the ceiling, drawing a few knowing laughs from the audience. But truth be told, the Met's stage always seems too large for "Cosi," and the intimate proportions of this no-frills theater served the work just fine. Moreover, the virtue of Siff's staging is largely in how it eschews the conventions, or at least the clichés, of grand opera, investing this "Cosi" with the tight feel of a chamber comedy set in an airy present-day villa by the sea. Dorabella and Fiordiligi ogle pictures of their fiances on cellphones. Ferrando and Guglielmo go off to war, and return "disguised" in vintage 1970s club attire.
There were no major discoveries among the cast but it was a capable group of young singers, several of whom are still completing their formal training, and clearly gaining invaluable experience through a project like this one. Michael Weyandt was a solid Guglielmo; Ramone Diggs has a handsomely resonant tenor but also showed some vocal uneasiness as Ferrando; Paul Scholten has a modestly proportioned baritone but he deployed it with good dramatic presence as Don Alfonso; Kathryn Leemhuis acted vividly and showed smart vocal instincts as Dorabella; Emily Albrink was a livewire Despina, dominating most scenes in which she appeared; and Lauren Skuce stood out for her vocal purity and control as Fiordiligi.
Chugging away throughout was the TMC Orchestra, sounding remarkably tight, full, and energetic under Levine's baton. This is obviously a work that Levine knows inside out, and the process of imparting its secrets to so many young musicians appears to have been invigorating for all parties involved. Saturday's audience seemed plenty grateful to be there, even though there was nary a diva in sight.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.