Tuesday, July 02, 2013

So Do They All

To the last SFO Cosi fan tutte of the season last night, and boy, was it dispiriting, almost top to bottom. If this is the best a big company such as SFO can offer in Mozart, Houston, we have a problem.

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 personenregie 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-Brachman, 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.


John Marcher said...

A friend went, largely expecting great things because I told her Cosi was Mozart's best opera, and she hated it, which surprised me- but now I have an idea why. I was really disappointed I didn't make it to see this (because it is Mozart's best opera), but feel a little better about that after reading this.

Civic Center said...

Glad to hear that Susannah Biller was one of the few exceptions in a dreary cast. I like her.

Ran into Brian from Out West Arts on Saturday night on Van Ness Avenue as he was fleeing with his partner from the same production at intermission. His report was similarly gloomy to yours.

I walked out of Luisotti conducting The Marriage of Figaro a couple of years ago because it was so obvious he was clueless about conducting Mozart. Any great production of one of his operas has to start with a conductor who has an affinity for Mozart's music, which is rarer than one would expect after all these centuries. You can be a great Verdi conductor (like Luisotti) or a great Wagner conductor (like Runnicles) and still not have a clue when it comes to Mozart (although Runnicles, to his credit, got better over the years).

Oh, well.

Lisa Hirsch said...

John, I love Cosi, but I'd have to argue over whether it's Mozart's greatest, because I'll go with received opinion on Nozze.

Mike, I knew Brian would be here this past weekend, but I was out of town at jujitsu camp and missed seeing him. Walked out, eh? Too bad about Luisotti, who is turning out to be a somewhat limited conductor.

Runnicles conducted the 2007 Don Giovanni, the one with Mariusz Kwiecien and the unfortunate brouhaha over Hope Briggs, and he was top-notch in that.

doug said...

This Cosi is a train wreck of imagination and I agree wholeheartedly with your review Lisa. I don't care for Cox's production to begin with and Condemi has made it lifeless. Luisotti seemed in way over his head with Mozart -- lackluster at best, none of the required crisp, sharp attacks. My husband and I left at intermission - a Mozart first for us. I continue to sigh over Gockley's artistic leadership...but keep hoping for more bright lights each season.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Sigh, indeed, and exactly on all counts.

CruzSF said...

Has Condemi ever directed anything you liked? I have come to think of him as more a traffic cop.

I'm glad I saw a performance earlier in the run, as I was still able to enjoy it despite the production's flaws. I don't understand the fascination with Dehn either, but on the night I heard her, she gave the best performance I've seen by her. Her first act was pretty good. She seemed to lose focus in the second act and her sounded a little fatigued.

Biller and Sly were the highlights for me. I hope to hear from them, especially Sly, who gave a very good performance, especially considering his young age. I don't mean in just voice (which was the best of the ensemble, I agree) but in his acting, too.

I hope you were able to attend a performance of Così at L.A. Opera a couple of years ago. I thought the performances were all good to great, top to bottom.

CruzSF said...

*She seemed to lose focus in the second act and her voice sounded fatigued.

Left out the all-important "voice." Ironic or apropos, given the singer.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Good question about Condemi.

Looking over his SFO record at the archive, he has mostly been an assistant or associate stage director. He directed some revivals (such as this and the last couple of Tosca runs) and maybe ONE new SF Opera production. The last Tosca revival was okay, better than the 2009.

"Traffic cop" is about right.

I did not see the LAO Cosi, alas.

Vajra said...

I though the production was ok. Just. The whole production had a stolid air. The cast seemed to move about aimlessly. And I couldn't remember who was who because of the rather lifeless and dull characterizations. At times I wondered if the cast and the conductor were in the same opera. No bubbles in this champagne.