The music world has made an international superstar of the young Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli,which was why her Metropolitan Opera debut Feb. 8, in a ravishing new production of “Cosi fan Tutte,” was all the more remarkable: Though she surely could have chosen Dorabella, a role she has sung before, she picked instead Despina, the worldly wise servant all too willing to shake things up in Naples with a little sexual mischief.
Whatever the reason for the more modest choice, it’s a brilliant one, played to the hilt. Her entrance in the third scene of actone is a visual joke that finds Despina literally dragging out her own scenery — the entire seaside villa she and her mistresses inhabit — as she grumbles about life’s drudgeries.
Bartoli is utterly believable as a maid enlisted by Don Alfonso (Thomas Allen) in the service of betraying her sex. Piqued by their lovestruck mooning, Don Alfonso has bet the smug Guglielmo (Dwayne Croft) and the even smugger Ferrando (Jerry Hadley) that their lovers — the sisters Fiordiligi (Carol Vaness) and Dorabella (Susanne Mentzer) — will, given just a little encouragement, betray them. His reasoning: “cosi fan tutte,” all women are like that.
Over the next 24 hours, the sisters ultimately succumb to the shameless hustling of two foreigners — Ferrando and Guglielmo in disguise, of course — as Despina and the Don egg them on through several of the most beautiful arias, trios and quintets in all of Mozart.
Bartoli sings Despina with a completely winning mix of effortless shimmer and earthiness, and her acting is the same. She almost disappears when she’s not singing, and yet she can dominate without chewing the scenery.
Bartoli’s Met debut had Major Cultural Event stamped all over it, but there are plenty of other reasons to celebrate this premiere, too. There isn’t a weak spot in the six-member cast, essential in so intimate an opera. Vaness almost brings down the house with Fiordiligi’s treacherous act-two aria “Per pieta.”
Michael Yeargan’s airy seaside design is drenched in Adriatic blue and the unrelenting beach light from Duane Schuler’s lighting; here, burnished slatted windows hide eavesdropping busybodies; there, a cypress grove sets off a grape arbor. It’s simple and beautiful, as are Yeargan’s timeless Empire costumes.
Musical director James Levine and his stage director, Lesley Koenig, haven’t turned out a “Cosi” that soberly addresses this troubling opera’s big questions — the commedia scenes have a real burlesque quality. But they haven’t glossed over them, either. They’ve just grabbed their singers and tumbled off the high board into Mozart’s intoxicating music — something you’re aware of in the orchestra’s response to Levine. It’s slightly less crystalline than usual, but roiling with passion, a kind of reveling in the score that we can fully appreciate and hungrily share.