Many years ago I heard a concert by the Juilliard School student orchestra conducted by Jorge Mester, then the musical director of the Louisville Orchestra. On the program was a seldom played Mozart symphony, which they performed with great precision. What impressed me was the extraordinary conscientiousness of the student musicians -- you knew that if the marking at some point was pp (extra soft) they would demarcate it clearly from p (plain soft.)
Quite by chance a few months later I happened to be in Boston. It was shortly after the Boston Symphony's legendary music director Charles Munch died. Jorge Mester was the guest conductor and performed the same program he had with the Juilliard. Naturally the Boston Symphony played the Mozart with polish and finesse, but not the intensity of the student musicians I had heard a few months earlier.
I was reminded of this last week when, in the same hall, I attended a performance of Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte" at the Manhattan School of Music, which took over the Juilliard building about 40 years ago. Again, there was a passionate intensity to the student performance that you don't always hear in conventional concerts.
In this production, splendidly directed by Dona D. Vaughn, the cynical opera about the fickleness of women is set in Colonial North Africa a century ago. In this setting wealthy women spend their time playing badminton and doing embroidery, as we see when we first meet Fiordiligi and Dorabella. Their lovers have made a bet with a cynical friend that the sisters will remain true to them even when they court them as two other men. Here they disguise themselves as Musselmen. Their costumes are absurd but in this setting they work.
The miracle of "Cosi" is that though the action verges on farce the music always has an emotional verity, which makes it difficult to perform. The singers must be skillful comics but also emotionally believable. Under Vaughn's direction this ensemble brings off this remarkable feat.
Soprano Rebecca Krynski has a rich, shimmering soprano voice. She negotiates the technical challenges of Fiordiligi's two showpiece arias with enormous skill and confidence and also manages to make the character appealing. Similarly, Kaitlin Costello-Fain, as Dorabella, has a solid mezzo voice, and she gives her character wonderful spunk.
There is great nobility to the golden tenor voice of Brett Sprague, and he sings Ferrando with elegance.
Baritone Nickoli Strummer has a natural ease on the stage as well as a robust, sensuous baritone voice -- he is a marvelous Gugliemo.
Andrea Carroll has great comic skills and a powerful soprano to make a compelling Despina, the partner-in-cynicism of Don Alfonso, sung and played with great authority and power by Gideon Dabi.
In addition to the polish they bring to the arias, the young singers handle the opera's gorgeous ensemble numbers beautifully, and the orchestra brings out the myriad colors of the score marvelously under the direction of conductor Israel Gursky.
The sets, by Raul Abrego, conjure up the exotic with handsome restraint. Daniel James Cole has designed the costumes with great flair.
In the excellent program notes by Jane Vial Jaffe I learned that only 10 performances of "Cosi" were given in Mozart's admittedly short life. The first five took place after the successful premiere, and it is likely Mozart was in Vienna to enjoy them. The others were the following summer -- given his extraordinarily busy professional life, we don't know if he attended any of the subsequent ones.
That means that I have heard the opera many more times than he did -- except he heard it in his head, and none of us can imagine how magical that must have sounded. "Cosi" will be repeated Sunday afternoon at the Manhattan School with the same cast and on Friday evening with a different one.