Théâtre des Champs-Elysées 2022-23 Review: Così fan tutte

Julia Lezhneva, Emőke Baráth & Sandrine Piao lead compelling concert presentation

By João Marcos Copertino

Théâtre des Champs-Elysées’s “Così fan tutte” was a night of great pleasures and punctual—but bitter—disappointments. The greatest triumph of the night was its making something new of one of Mozart’s most played operas.

This “Così” was advertised as an “opera in concert version,” but ten minutes into the show, that was forgotten. Salomé Im Hof’s stage direction is truly a triumph. The simple and efficient costumes and clear scenic movements—united with the great theatrical sense of Giovanni Antonini’s conducting—made the night fully theatrical. Im Hof employed simple but efficient costumes, preserving the classical ambiguity: which couple forms the opera’s better match? Ferrando and Fiordiligi wore turquoise, while Guglielmo and Dorabella wore red.

Antonini imposed great dynamic sense on the music direction. His orchestra conversed with the singing on the stage, making all the diegetic sounds extremely surprising—like the timpani calling the soldiers to the war—while referencing motifs of Mozart’s that had not been noticed before. The orchestra did have their slips (the horns were not properly in tune during “Per pietá, ben mio,” for example), but they were better in synch with the drama than is the case in most renditions of “Così.”

In fact, it was because of this great approach to the dramatical text that many or even most arias in “Così” sounded as fresh and new as they should. Compared to the other two Mozart and Da Ponte operas, “Così” does not have much action. This production brought compelling scenic action to the arias. The best example of the night was Julia Lezhneva’s “Come Scoglio”: each coloratura, each new verse brought something new, as if the aria were being composed as she sang it.

Lezhneva, Baráth, and Piao Shined

And what a great night for Lezhneva! Her Fiordiligi was full of tasteful coloraturas and very attentive to Da Ponte’s text. She had a better time singing the comic part of the role—in the first act, especially. I was impressed by how she handled the difficult intervals Mozart wrote into most of Fiordiligi’s arias. Lezhneva has a well-developed lower register while keeping a soprano tonality. Many expect a particular tonality in the lower voice from singers of Fiordiligi; such a tonality, though, is more of a gimmick and does not necessarily contribute to any elegance of phrasing. Lezhneva, conversely, sang all the lower notes with good projection while never forcing the voice, which brought to the role a necessary sense of Fiordiligi’s youth. The most scandalous thing about her performance, nevertheless, was her control in the sustained notes: in the famous “Soave sia il Vento,” her pianissimos were to die for.

Another great charm of the night was the Hungarian soprano Emőke Baráth. Her voice had a fresh mezzo tone that contrasted well with Lezhneva’s lighter tone. Her Dorabella was visceral: her “Smania impacabile” was extremely fast, as if in an abrupt sincere complaint about the feelings of youth. She could breathe only in the last phrase when she did a charming decrescendo. Her Dorabella, nevertheless, did not undergo the same kind of transformation that Fiordiligi’s suffered. It was as if she, along with Guglielmo, remained in narcissist mode. It is refreshing to see a singer who showed such a clear musical understanding of her character musically in the context of the opera.

Sandrine Piao was quite likely the most beloved singer of the cast—Parisians treated her as their hometown girl, as they should. Piao was extremely comfortable on the stage; her voice, though with a thick vibrato, efficiently articulated the text with many expressions.

Male Cast Not as Solid

The male cast was less optimal than their female castmates, though.

Konstantin Wolff’s Don Alfonso was precise and correct. The German singer has a particularly opaque tone, especially in his higher notes, that makes him sound significantly older than he is. It worked for Don Alfonso, though. The character—arguably along with Despina—does need a sense of maturity to bring a counterbalance to the youthful fools of protagonists. Wolff’s Italian was expressive, and his projection efficient.

Tomasso Barea’s Guglielmo was as skeptical as the character can be. Although, scenically, the baritone seemed to be less comfortable than his castmates, he was comically efficient and impressed the audience with his good understanding of Guglielmo’s mind. Somehow, the character becomes only more and more self-centered and sure of himself as the opera progresses. Barea made his voice louder and louder throughout the night. In the first act, he was a Mozartean singer, but by the end of the opera, he was a lost character in “Simon Boccanegra.”  It all worked as if Guglielmo’s progress were in opposition to Fiordiligi and Ferrando’s.

Alasdair Kent, however, really had a tough night. The tenor sounded technically much greener than the rest of the cast. As an actor, he had a certain sprightly energy that made Ferrando more pathetic and less of an idealist. Vocally he started the night better than he ended. His “un’aura amorosa” was slower than most of the music of the opera, showcasing his good legato. I particularly appreciated his variations at the end of the aria, but he was incapable of tuning any of the high As when not in pianissimo. It was evident that he has a great upper range, but Ferrando requires a consistent—and cerebral, to use Kent’s words—use of the medium register, too. Difficulties came to follow. The first act finale’s coloratura was almost a stutter. His worst moment, however, was in the rather difficult “Tradito, Schernito dal Perfido cor;” none of the many sevenths were properly in tune—and his voice cracked more than it hit the notes. That problem persisted until the end of the night, making it hard to appreciate the duo “Fra gli amplessi.” It was evident that the singer was not having his best night—it happens, and Ferrando is not an easy part— but it is disappointing when it does.

TCE’s “Così” is a very charming and scenically compelling rendition of Mozart and Da Ponte’s final collaboration. It has great merits and a very good musical direction, but it is not perfect—the cast is uneven but might improve over the course of the performances.


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