Music Review: ‘Così Fan Tutte,’ at Peter Jay Sharp Theater

November 18th, 2012

Ruby Washington/The New York Times

Così Fan Tutte From left, Alexander Lewis, Wallis Giunta, Emalie Savoy and Luthando Qave in Stephen Wadsworth’s staging of this Mozart opera at Peter Jay Sharp Theater.

Besides being an achievement on its own terms, the fresh production of Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte” that opened at the Juilliard School on Wednesday night is a demonstration of how constituent organizations at Lincoln Center can work together effectively. This was the third collaboration between Juilliard, through its institute for vocal arts, and the Metropolitan Opera, through its young artist development program, which have been in partnership since 2011.

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Five of the six singers in the winning, gifted cast are members of the Met’s young artist program. The sixth is a student at Juilliard, as are the choristers and members of the impressive orchestra. In a way, the New York Philharmonic is also taking part through the participation of its music director, Alan Gilbert, who drew a flowing, clear-textured performance of this long opera from the orchestra and cast. Mr. Gilbert is also the director of conducting and orchestral studies at Juilliard.

But what matters for audiences is that this “Così Fan Tutte” is so good. The director Stephen Wadsworth’s production is a timely reminder that an opera’s setting does not have to be updated to give the work contemporary resonance. Charlie Corcoran’s sets and Camille Assaf’s costumes are handsomely traditional and suggest the libretto’s setting of 18th-century Naples. The strength of this staging comes from the way Mr. Wadsworth has worked with the cast members to develop their portrayals of the characters.

In the libretto Don Alfonso is described as an old philosopher. In this production, featuring young artists, the Alfonso was, naturally, young: Evan Hughes, an appealing, trim, rich-voiced bass-baritone. Mr. Wadsworth just goes with it. Mr. Hughes is presented as just a little older than his young officer friends, Ferrando and Guglielmo, who are (or think they are) utterly in love with their devoted (or so they assume) fiancées, the sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi.

This Alfonso is less the cynical, crusty bachelor you usually see than a bookish and jaded younger man. The first scene is set in a little courtyard in front of Alfonso’s home, and upstairs we glimpse his study through an open window, the walls lined with books. During the overture, in an invented silent scene, Mr. Hughes is seen seated at a writing table just outside his front door, absorbed in a book and taking notes with a quill. But Ferrando keeps interrupting Alfonso to show off a photo of his betrothed.

The two cocky officers come across as easy targets for the wager Alfonso proposes to test the fidelity of their wives-to-be, those supposed paragons of virtue. Alexander Lewis, a lyric tenor with a clear, light and pliant voice, makes an aptly impetuous Ferrando. Luthando Qave, a robust baritone with a gift for supple phrasing, is more of a smooth operator as Guglielmo.

The soprano Emalie Savoy brings a luminous and touching vulnerability to Fiordiligi. Wallis Giunta, with her chocolaty and penetrating mezzo-soprano voice, is a more down-to-earth Dorabella. And Naomi O’Connell, a rich mezzo-soprano and a student at Juilliard, makes a sassy Despina, the maid to the sisters. This is a Despina who reads newspapers, knows how the real world works and thinks her bosses a little ridiculous.

It was a pleasure to hear a Mozart opera performed in the school’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater, which has just over 900 seats. Especially during the ensembles (and “Così” is an opera driven by ensembles), the music had wonderful transparency and intimacy.

The orchestra’s playing was technically strong and full of character. Under Mr. Gilbert, the overall structure and shape of the opera came through with new vitality. Only after a few of the showcase arias did the audience break into applause. Otherwise, this “Così” just swept forward, never hard-driven, just urgent and natural.

“Così Fan Tutte” will be repeated on Saturday afternoon and Monday evening at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, Juilliard School, 155 West 65th Street, Lincoln Center; (212) 721-6500, juilliard.org.

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