The Casual Blog

Tag: Cosi Fan Tutte

A great Mozart opera

There’s a classic New Yorker cartoon titled “Life without Mozart,” which shows a desert with a few scattered pieces of junk. Such pith! It is probably an overstatement to say that Mozart is the source of all meaning and order in life, but it is difficult to imagine so much harmony without him.

On Saturday afternoon, I took D, my mother-in-law, up to North Hills Cinema, to experience a live HD broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte. The music is some of Mozart’s greatest. I’ve listened to the opera a lot recently while working out, and the glorious fountains of melody carries me through the tough intervals.

The basic plot seems sexist and jarring to 21st century sensibilities. Here’s the concept: two soldiers are wooing two sisters and praising their faithfulness, when an older, more cynical friend asserts that all women are by nature prone to stray. They argue, make a wager, and then the soldiers put on disguises and each seduces the other sister. It’s supposed to be light and funny, but the amorality of the plot line is disorienting. Why would the guys do such a crummy thing? But this production explored a more humane side, and also more difficult, aspect of the story.

James Levine conducted this performance. Maestro Levine is a transcendently great musician, but has been in poor health these last few years, and I doubted we would see him again. But he was in great form on Saturday. The broadcast showed close-ups of his face as he conducted the overture, which showed that he conducts with his face as much as his hands. He smiled with pleasure at the beautiful phrases, and I imagined that his musicians felt well supported and inspired by his warmth and enthusiasm.

The show was altogether wonderful, and much more emotionally complex than I expected. There was humor but also strong notes of pain. The sisters seemed genuinely conflicted and struggling with the temptation of new lovers, and the lovers were tortured by forces they did not understand.

The work is an ensemble piece, in the sense that various combinations of voices have great moments – duets, trios, quartets, quintets, and sextets. The acting of this cast was particularly compelling. Susanna Philips as one of the sisters (Fiordiligi) seemed to truly anguished in struggling with the temptation of new love. Her soprano was a little thin at the bottom but full at the top, and very expressive. She had a way of easing into notes, so that the sound seemed to emerge gently from the silence. She had a couple of long pauses where the silence itself was filled with powerful emotion.

The other sister (Dorabella), played by Isabel Leonard, was less complex, but she sang well and looked sensational – she’s quite a beautiful woman. As to the soldiers, there were not simply heartless cads, but in part victims pushed by larger forces (authority, peer pressure, pride, vanity) to betray their lovers and themselves. Tenor Matthew Polenzani and baritone Rodion Pogossov as the soldiers/Turkish suitors both had great moments, and Maurizio Muraro as Don Alfonso anchored the ensemble with a full bass baritone. I thought Danielle de Niese as Despina, the scheming house maid, was funny and sexy, but as a full on proponent of the view that love meant nothing other than having fun, too exuberant and bubbly for this darker Cosi.

On Sunday I had a piano lesson with Olga. She’d warned me that she was juggling a lot of end-of-school-year projects and could only give me an hour, but in the end we worked for an hour and a half. Like Maestro Levine, she’s a generous musical spirit, patient but also exacting. We did a Brahms Op. 39 waltz, Rachmaninoff’s Elegie, and Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu. We talked about slow versus fast attacks and worked on some pedaling techniques that were new to me, including doing a slow release. I always go in thinking I’ve been listening to the music carefully, and she always makes me hear new things.

An eye update, and a very musical weekend

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It was quite a musical weekend, with three concerts, but before I get to that, for those kind souls following my eye surgery saga, a brief update: my one week postop checkup was last Tuesday. While Dr. M was away speaking at a conference, I got examined up by Dr. S, one of his fellows. I did substantially better on the chart test, seeing part of three rows (up from zero the previous week). But things were still very foggy. Dr. S detected corneal edema, which sometimes happens after surgery, and likely would clear up in a few weeks. From what he could see of the retina, he thought it was doing OK.

Friday evening was mild and clear, and we sat outside for dinner at Buku. Their pad thai may be the best in town In any case, it was delicious. I tried the flight of three wines from Naples, which were worth trying. For dessert we got two spoons and one apple tart with cinnamon ice cream, which was a treat, then walked three blocks to hear the N.C. Symphony.

It was our first symphony concert of this season, and I was looking forward to it. The highlight of the evening was Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espagnol, a piece with rich colors and textures that featured sectional solos from most subgroups of the orchestra. The sound was fantastic. I was particularly struck by the warmth and vibrancy of the strings, which made me think of the famous Philadelphia sound. Conductor Grant Llewelleyn always looks great, but at times he’s struck me as too rhythmically literal and rigid. Not last night – there was a lot of rhythm flexibility as well as high energy. It was a brilliant performance worthy of a great ensemble.

Also featured on the program was a young Korean pianist named Joyce Wang, who played Cesar Frank’s Symphonic Variations and Manuel De Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain. I liked the de Falla, and I really liked her. She was unquestionably a real musician — sensitive, imaginative, and willing to take risks. And she had a spectacular silver shimmering gown, which fit her nicely.

Does it matter how a pianist looks? I’d like to think that the sound is ultimately what matters, but a recent short piece in the Economist points strongly the other way. Experts and musical amateurs tried to rank the three top finishers in a piano competition based on either sound alone or video alone. With sound alone, the amateurs didn’t get close to agreeing with the original judges – but neither did the experts. With video, both amateurs and experts came much closer to the actual results, and agreed together. This suggests that showmanship is a big part of what we enjoy about a musical performance, and how we distinguish one player from another.

On Saturday night Diane, my mother-in-law, and I went to the N.C. Opera’s new production of Mozart/da Ponte’s Cosi Fan Tutte. I’d enjoyed listening to it on my iPad during my morning workouts, but had never seen it. It was a really good show! The set was classically elegant, and the period costumes almost sumptuous. English subtitles were projected above the stage. The six principles were all musically and comically gifted. And Mozart’s music is sublime. So much melody, so natural but so inventive and surprising!

The plot device is oddly dissonant to a non-eighteenth-century audience: it is a comedy on the theme of women’s (but not men’s) inconstancy in love. There are moments that seem harshly cynical and misogynistic. But the meta message is more cheerful: human attraction is unquenchable, touching, and also at times very funny.

On Sunday afternoon Sally and I went to a concert by the Jerusalem Quartet, which played Mozart, Shostakovich, and Dvorak. They were four intense young men in dark suits and ties, and they were excellent. This is really a world-class ensemble, with a brilliant first violinist. I