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OPERA REVIEW : Bartoli's Modest but Memorable Met Debut

February 10, 1996|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

NEW YORK — Cecilia Bartoli's power and popularity in the world of opera can be rivaled these days only by a trio of tenorissimos. She is, to say the least, a phenomenon.

The Roman mezzo-soprano, still in her 20s, probably could have written her own ticket to the Metropolitan Opera. She could have made her belated, much ballyhooed debut as one of Rossini's florid heroines or as a rarefied bel-canto diva or even, perhaps, as Carmen.

But that might not have been her style. Instead of an obvious bravura vehicle, she chose an amazingly--and revealingly--modest alternative: Despina in Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte." Most singers regard Despina as a silly secondary character, as a formula soubrette, as a chirping maid of all work, as a merely decorative, mildly whimsical counterforce to the bona fide principals.

Bartoli, of course, isn't like most singers. She is a thinker, and an independent thinker at that. She doesn't settle for secondhand solutions to old problems. She knows how to project wit and charm without calling attention to either quality, and, wonder of operatic wonders, she seems to savor the challenge of being a member of a team.

So there she was, Thursday night at Lincoln Center, winning all hearts as a supporting player. The Met had the good sense to build a new production of Mozart's wry and elusive masterpiece around her. Lesley Koenig, the director, missed no legitimate opportunity to shine the spotlight, figuratively if not literally, on the stellar servant on duty. Still, this was no star turn.

Bartoli's Despina--tough and bright, plump and pretty, earthy and funny--never overstepped inherent musical and theatrical boundaries. She knew when to stand still, when to listen, when to blend into the surroundings and when to disappear. She also knew when the stage was legitimately hers and made the most of every such moment. She never even hinted at the possibility that she was slumming.

Some skeptics had worried that her voice might be small for a house that seats nearly 4,000. No need to worry. Some purists had fretted about her ability to sustain a role usually associated with high sopranos such as Graziella Sciutti, Roberta Peters, Kathleen Battle and Teresa Stratas. No need to fret.

Bartoli was granted one extrovert concession. When Despina finally got to make her entrance, some 45 minutes after the overture, she was required to literally pull a house onto Michael Yeargan's lovely, sparsely stylized set. It was a harmless gimmick, and it seemed to amuse the singer as much as it delighted her assembled admirers.

As the plot progressed, the gimmick took on a certain emblematic sense of its own. Bartoli's Despina, after all, was no simpering sweetie-pie, no campy glamour-queen in high heels. She turned out to be a hard-working, warmhearted, street-smart urchin who enjoys a little intrigue when she isn't too busy scrubbing the pots or soaking her aching feet in the kitchen.

She curled her gutsy mezzo-soprano around the Mozartian cantilena with natural grace and rolled the recitatives with insinuating point. She was irresistible, even when she flirted with danger--introducing grotesque vocal distortion to her masquerades as doctor and notary. She also added a nice in-joke in the latter disguise when her Italian patter suddenly took on an Anglo-Saxon twang.

Bartoli was terrific as Despina. No doubt about it. Still, the new "Cosi Fan Tutte" at the Met would have been a success even with a lesser domestic lecturing the sisters, sweeping the floor and washing the clothes.

Koenig, whose previous Met assignments have involved reheating other directors' productions, motivated the complex action cannily, created affecting stage pictures and never contradicted either the letter of the libretto or the spirit of the score. She stressed tragicomic irony with a light hand, avoided lazy cliches and even managed to traverse the sobering if not painful finale without resorting to false jollity.

The drama on the stage perfectly reflected the drama in the pit, where James Levine--celebrating 25 years of distinguished leadership at the Met--enforced speed without haste, grace without affectation and sentiment without fussiness. Other conductors may place a higher value on elegance and introspection, but few achieve comparable vitality.

Levine, not incidentally, chose to play the long score virtually complete. His generosity never suggested too much of a good thing, and he enjoyed the advantage of a splendidly responsive cast.

Carol Vaness' vulnerable yet heroic Fiordiligi remains uniquely poignant and uniquely virtuosic, some breathy low notes notwithstanding. Susanne Mentzer matched her perfectly as a remarkably flighty, remarkably adorable Dorabella.

Jerry Hadley's plangent tenor found the lyric challenges of Ferrando more congenial than the florid convolutions, but he was always intelligent, always sympathetic. Dwayne Croft's Guglielmo sounded so mellifluous and looked so commanding that one wished he had ventured "Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo" instead of the more familiar, less demanding alternate aria, "Non siate ritrosi."

As Don Alfonso, the senior puppeteer in residence, Thomas Allen invoked the brooding savoir-faire, understated cynicism and stylish sensitivity that made him such a compelling Don Giovanni in Los Angeles. One longs to see him as Wagner's Beckmesser.

If only "Cosi Fan Tutte" were always like this. If only opera were always like this.

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