To take the most egregious problem first, Nicola Luisotti does not understand what Mozart conducting requires: a bubbling sense of forward motion; a pulse that fits the harmonic tempo; snappy rhythms and accents. He doesn't understand Mozart's phrasing, either, or if he does, he didn't communicate it to the singers. The overall result was a sluggish and enervated performance that barely came to musical life and only in the second act.
The second most egregious problem was terrible direction from Jose Maria Condemi. What to say? The personregie was awful; singers didn't characterize very much and their physical timing was poor. Condemi deployed the cast too symmetrically too much of the time and moved them around clumsily. The singers looked clueless and out of touch with the plot.
Maybe that's because, as a writer I respect pointed out, they were all debuting in their respective roles, including Luisotti, who has had rather limited experience with Mozart. And they were a mixed bunch, with Susannah Biller (Despina) and Phillipe Sly (Guglielmo) standing head and shoulders above the others. Biller pretty much stole the show with a winning combination of charm and insolence, and also good singing. She gets the Mozart line. Sly did too, mostly, and he has a gorgeous voice, the best on stage. He was a pleasure to listen to and should be back in the future as Figaro, the Count, Don Giovanni, or Leporello. Yeah, he could give a good account of any of those roles.
Marco Vinco (Don Alfonso) has one of those voices with no core, so while he was obviously singing melodies, he sounds weirdly pitchless and approximate. This was his second appearance at SFO, too. He cuts a good figure and seems to have some acting ability, but with that voice, he should not be hired back. Francesco Demuro was pretty good as Ferrando, delivering a fine account of "Un aura amorosa" with a melting second verse, certainly better than his subpar Duke of Mantua last year. Still, my Ferrando of choice was unavailable for this performance, being otherwise occupied at the War Memorial just now.
Ellie Dehn (Fiodiligi) and Christel Lotzsch (Dorabella) were both second-rate. Lotzsch sounds squeezed at times; Dehn has a pretty voice and evidently can trill but her phrasing was choppy and full of awkward breaths. This is Dehn's third appearance here in a leading Mozart role, and I just don't get it. The world is full of better Mozart singers, some of them very fine indeed. For that matter, there are plenty of better Mozart conductors than Luisotti; it would be nice to get Cornelius Meister back, considering that the Abduction performance I heard him lead a few years ago was one of the two or three best-conducted Mozart operas I've ever had the pleasure of hearing.
The previous staging of this production also left something to be desired in how the women's part were cast. We had Flicka, as always a wonderful stage presence but audibly past her fabulous prime; Alexandra Deshorties, singing Fiordiligi but sounding more like a Dorabella, and the mostly forgettable Claudia Mahnke as Dorabella. I saw it in June (after an unfortunate incident in September - don't ask) and got Nathan Gunn instead of Hanno Mueller-Bachman, along with Paul Groves and Richard Stillwell. I remember this first bring-up as being much more solidly directed. I don't remember Anne Manson's conducting at all.
So, an unfortunate night at the opera. It's tremendously sad that a lot of people undoubtedly left the house last night thinking that Cosi is not a very good opera, when in fact it is a great opera. And an opera house like San Francisco should be doing much, much better, all around, by Mozart's operas.