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OPERA REVIEW

A Cooler, Cuter 'Cosi Fan Tutte'

February 29, 1996|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Where is the "Cosi Fan Tutte" of yesterseason?

When the Music Center first staged Mozart's semisweet masterpiece in 1988, our guardians of operatic virtue flirted dangerously with perfection. Peter Hall's production scraped away most of the cutesy barnacles that have distorted this all-too-human comedy over the centuries. The inspired director focused instead on the pain that lies beneath the frivolous surface. Lorenzo da Ponte's libretto, after all, takes a cynical look at the nature of love and fidelity, and Mozart's miraculous score scales noble heights when it doesn't explore buffo depths.

Hall had at his command an extraordinarily stylish and resourceful cast led by Carol Vaness and Maria Ewing as the rather-switch-than-fight sisters. Accentuating the positive in the pit, Christof Perick sensitively reinforced the inherent light and shade.

When "Cosi" returned in 1991, Hall had gone on to other duties, a lesser maestro manned the podium, and a mostly different cast held the stage. Enter trivial farce. Exit brooding finesse.

Tuesday night, the opera came back to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for a third outing, with yet another team holding the musico-dramatic fort. The picture wasn't pretty.

Wait. I take that back. In some ways it was too pretty.

Everyone sang nicely--as nicely as the equipment at hand, and at throat, would permit. Everyone went through the prescribed paces looking both attractive and zealous. The sounds were graceful for the most part, the movements fluid. John Bury's Neapolitan mock-verismo decors cast their picturesque spell as before.

But the inherent standards had changed drastically once again. What originally wanted to be profound now seemed superficial. What once had been funny, now seemed coarse. What should have been poignant ended up mechanical. The Moet had turned to Coke.

*

Stephen Lawless, serving as on-the-premises apprentice to Hall's absent sorcerer, respected the letter of the original production law, but found the spirit elusive. He told the story outline neatly enough, but failed to fill in the psychological details, the subtle nuances and, perhaps most important, the anguished undertones. Essentially, this could have been any "Cosi," anywhere.

Ingo Metzmacher, a modern-music specialist about to assume control of the Hamburg Opera, sustained properly transparent textures with a rough but ready facsimile of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. He cued a motley crew of singers carefully and mouthed the text fastidiously. In this, his U.S. debut, he served notice of an interesting talent ascending. He didn't do much, however, to sustain either tension or propulsion, didn't reveal a great deal of interpretive independence, and didn't apply the rules of ornamentation with any consistency.

Peter Hemmings, administrative generalissimo of the Music Center Opera, compounded the problem by making some strange casting choices. For the female characters, he cast three cool, pale, slightly hard-edged voices. Forget sensuality. Forget contrast. For the male characters, he cast a tenor with vocal attributes remarkably like the sopranos', a dark, incisive baritone and a nearly voiceless pushed-up bass. So much for ensemble values.

Hillevi Martinpelto, the Swedish import entrusted with the fiendishly difficult, essentially heroic music of Fiordiligi, displayed considerable bravura, a weak trill and breathy bottom tones notwithstanding. She also displayed a tendency to reduce a potentially tragic figure to a silly goose.

Marie McLaughlin, an early replacement for Frederica von Stade, is not the first soprano to sing Dorabella--a role traditionally associated with mezzo-sopranos. Her illustrious if distant high-voiced predecessors include Frances Peralta, Luise Helletsgruber, Margaret Ritchie, Maud Cunitz and Sena Jurinac.

McLaughlin sang here with imposing poise and point, and the tessitura posed few problems. Still, the flighty sister's relatively subdued lines failed to take advantage of what we thought was the best part of her voice: the top. In this context, we waited in vain for climaxes that did not, could not, come. As an actress, she exerted a certain degree of stagey charm, but her tendency to strike tragic-clown poses seemed misguided.

Elizabeth Gale mustered pleasant tarnished-soubrette tones and manners as the scheming maid, Despina. She made no attempt, unfortunately, to replicate the seen-it-all-done-it-all earthiness of her illustrious predecessor, Anne Howells.

*

Michael Schade brought an eager persona, a reasonable semblance of ardor and a metallic if properly pliant mini-tenor to the charades of Ferrando. He dared sing all three arias and did so with bravado, some cuts in the most ornate challenge notwithstanding. Richard Bernstein, whose career is progressing beautifully, partnered him as an amiably bluff, dark-toned Guglielmo. Too bad he didn't (wasn't permitted to?) venture "Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo."

Claudio Desderi, fondly remembered as a Don Pasquale capable of pathos as well as jokes, seemed oddly straitjacketed by the worldly-wise bite-the-lip restraint of Don Alfonso. In fact, he seemed histrionically pallid, and vocally strained. Perhaps he had a cold.

The performance, which attracted considerably less than a capacity audience, began at 7:30 p.m. and ended at 11:10. In 1988, the hours sped all too quickly. This time, it was a long night at the opera.

* "Cosi Fan Tutte" presented by the Music Center Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. Remaining performances Saturday at 1 p.m., Monday, March 7 and 9 and 13 at 7:30. $22-$120. Student and senior rush tickets, $15, one hour before curtain if available. (213) 972-8001.

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