Above: Maestro Louis Langrée, surrounded by members of the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra; photo © Jennifer Taylor
Tuesday July 26th, 2016 - Opera director and video artist Netia Jones has created The Illuminated Heart, a program of arias and ensembles from Mozart’s operas performed live in a multi-media installation with video projections: this was the opening offering of the 2016 Mostly Mozart Festival. The Festival's well-loved music director, Louis Langrée, presided over the 90-minute evening (presented without intermission) marking the 50th anniversary of Mostly Mozart.
The Mostly Mozart musicians were in the pit and the Geffen Hall stage was taken up by a large, white, simple room. Imaginative projections - including fanciful flights of birds during Papageno's aria - filled the space, and English translations of the pieces being sung moved unobtrusively across the rear wall. As Maestro Langrée led a lively NOZZE DI FIGARO overture, "Susanna" appeared, removing dust-covers from stage furnishings and polishing up. Fortuntely, no attempt was made to turn the random operatic selections into a narrative, as the Met did so tediously with THE ENCHANTED ISLAND. Each solo, duet, or ensemble was done as a free-standing set piece, the singers costumed in a 'timeless' style.
Following the overture, things got off to a rather raw start: the voices seemed very harsh (I almost thought they were being miked) and there was a feeling of relentlessness to the singing, with little elegance or refinement to be heard. Nadine Sierra, singing Susanna to Peter Mattei's Almaviva in the Act I NOZZE duet, wore a dress that made her look pregnant. Christopher Maltman, in Papageno's Act I aria, seemed to be auditioning for Wotan: more than ample sound, to be sure, but lacking in charm. The Act I finale of COSI FAN TUTTE doesn't play well out of context.
Ms. Sierra sang the 'rarest' work of the evening: "Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben" from ZAIDE. She has the right feeling for the music, and did some attractive soft singing, but to me she often seems to hover just a bit sharp of the pitch.
Ana Maria Martinez's performance of "Mi tradi" from DON GIOVANNI signaled the start of a progression of four arias that formed the vocal centerpiece of the evening. Ms. Martinez's voice has a nice weight for this music, and she was able to carry off the more florid passages with assurance whilst bringing dramatic urgency to her singing.
New to me was the distinctive voice of Marianne Crebassa (above); this comely French-born mezzo-soprano gave a performance of "Parto, parto" from LA CLEMENZA DI TITO that could stand comfortably beside such wonderful versions of this aria as those of Teresa Berganza, Tatiana Troyanos, Anne Sofie von Otter, and Elina Garanca. Ms. Crebassa's timbre is unique, with a nice duskiness in the lower range, and she sailed thru the coloratura passages with deft surety. Matching the mezzo in expression and poised musical embroidery was the excellent clarinetist Jon Manasse.
Simply superb: Peter Mattei (above) sang Count Almaviva's "Hai gia vinto la causa..." from NOZZE with plush, commanding sound and vivid dramatic inflections, handling the speedy passage-work as the aria rushes to its close with aplomb. A masterful performance!
Matthew Polenzani (above) gave the evening's most moving singing with his heartfelt "Dalla sua pace" from DON GIOVANNI. Kneeling at the back of the performing space, Polenzani sang with great tenderness and refinement; his touching command of piano nuances, and his wonderfully sincere rendering of the words made for a spell-binding performance. His Idomeneo at The Met cannot get here soon enough. Bravo, bravo, bravo...
Ms. Martinez and mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack sounded fine in the COSI trio, "Soave sia il vento", but it was Mr. Mattei's singing as Don Alfonso that dominated: so rich, firm, and lovingly phrased. An ensemble from CLEMENZA - nicely sung by Christine Goerke, Mlles. Sierra and Crebassa, and Mr. Polenzani - seemed a bit aimless out of context. Moving immediately into Elettra's aria might have made things seem more cohesive, but instead Ms. Goerke remained onstage, pondering, whilst Mr. Maltman popped out - wine bottle in hand - to sing Don Giovanni's vigorous "Finch'an del vino".
Ms. Goerke then came forward for Elettra's "O smania, O furie!" Her vivid declamation was spot on, and she brilliantly conveyed the character's dementia in "'Oreste, D'Ajace". But the voice tightens as she goes higher up, and so the effect of this mad scene's climax was somewhat compromised.
Everyone joined in for the NOZZE DI FIGARO finale,including soprano Kiera Duffy, who had had no real opportunity to shine vocally in the course of the evening.
Overall, The Illuminated Heart worked quite well. I would have chosen some slightly different pieces, and maybe slightly different singers, and would have included a basso to sing one of Sarastro's arias. The 90-minute time-span, without intermission, was ideal. Mr. Maestro Langrée's propulsive pacing and the swift staging transformations from one number to the next made the concert fly by.