'Cosi' returns to Met with capable singing, handsome sets, but some flaws

The Metropolitan Opera has had its share of problems with Mozart operas in the past half-decade or so.

Revivals of ''Don Giovanni,'' ''Cosi fan tutte,'' and ''Die Zauberflote,'' have been generally below standard; a new production of ''Nozze di Figaro'' was an emphatic flop; and the more recent ''Abduction From the Seraglio'' only a qualified success.

Now comes a new production of ''Cosi'' boasting Kiri Te Kanawa's return to the Met after a dreadfully long absence, and one that will serve the house well for years to come. It is also the sort of small-scale, sliding panel-set affair that should be most handsome on tour, whenever the Met gets around to sending it out. Meanwhile, the production runs through March 4, with a broadcast Feb. 27 with Pilar Lorengar replacing Miss Te Kanawa.

The previous production of the opera was first seen in the early '50s with a glamour cast headed by Eleanor Steber. The recording of that production, in English, still available on the Odyssey label (Y3 - 32670), reveals a bold, occasionally stentorian account of the work, ideally suited for a big house. This old production landed on hard times, and by its last go-around was shabby and cheap.

There is nothing shabby about Hayden Griffin's sets or Deirdre Clancy's costumes. In fact, the latter are a joy to behold. The sets aim at reducing the size of the playing space, and in their way, they work well. The stage is raked , there is a smaller proscenium arch, and the panels slide out from the exposed sides, pushed by stagehands in costume.

Those open sides, with the visible foot traffic parading around to execute the changes (including costume changes), is somewhat distracting, however. The ever-present panorama of Naples in the background is said to feature Vesuvius with smoke cloud, though from my seats on the side, its presence had to be taken on faith.

The smooth, effortless transition from scene to scene enhances the overall mood of the opera. Of course, operatic mood is nothing without singers and the conductor. At the Met, it was ''situation good,'' if not quite up to the highest of international ensemble standards.

Miss Te Kanawa is not, in truth, an ideal Fiordiligi, her voice lacking the consistency in the crucial low register. But it proved a constant delight to hear this sumptuous instrument, handsomely used, and with a very real sense of the large space in which she was singing. Her acting was ebullient and majestic. Maria Ewing plays Dorabella as a lovable flibbertigibbet. She is a gifted comedienne, a good singer, and she made her approach seem altogether right at all times. Kathleen Battle, a charming Despina, sang, however, as if at the very edge of her resources.

The men were less successful in holding up their end of the cast, which is why the ensemble nature of ''Cosi'' lost its edge. Donald Gramm's Don Alfonso was a petulant older gentleman rather than the deus ex machina that kicks off and sustains the entire plot line of this opera. James Morris is not yet a great Guglielmo, but the bass-baritone seemed better suited to the role than one might have thought. David Rendall sings tastefully enough, but his acting in this case was limited, as was his vocal facility and tonal variety.

James Levine, at his best, kept the show moving lightly and brightly with his conducting. But some of the ensembles were entirely too fast, and an overall sense of where each number fitted into the whole was not yet evident on opening night.

Unfortunately, Colin Graham's direction kept the evening from greatness more than anything else. It was dutiful rather than inspired. There is no visible reason why this plot begins and sustains itself, since Alfonso is so weak a figure. And Mr. Graham has tampered with the ending. Suddenly, there is a swap of partners, with the clear indication that a doubt will pollute the faith and love that each had borne the other before the opera began. This tampering has nothing to do with Mozart, or with Lorenzo da Ponte's libretto. It should be removed at the earliest possible opportunity.

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