‘Mostly Mozart’ Barely Does the Master Justice

Freiburg Baroque Orchestra.

Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. Marco Borggreve

The Mostly Mozart Festival of classical music, held annually each summer at Lincoln Center, has served musical life in NYC with great distinction since 1966, when it went by the name “Midsummer Serenades — A Mozart Festival.”

It’s hardly surprising, then, that Mostly Mozart should choose to honor itself on the occasion of its 50th anniversary this summer by presenting a special gala performance. Sadly, that performance of something called The Illuminated Heart turned out to be neither special nor a gala. As an attempt to honor so distinguished an institution, the piece fell far short of its mark.

The basic problem with Illuminated Heart is that, even though its creators were aware it would be targeted primarily to people who regularly buy tickets to Mostly Mozart, the piece as performed on July 28 in Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall felt more like something devised for people who had never heard of Mozart before.

The musical program consisted of 15 selections from Mozart’s operas, by far the bulk of them from his best works in that genre: Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro and Così fan Tutte. These three are inarguably masterpieces, of course, and they include many of Mozart’s greatest melodies. But when an aria here and a duet there are pulled out of their original context and inserted into the Illuminated Heart set list, a vital sense of continuity is lost: What can sound exhilarating or heartbreaking in the opera comes off as blandly pretty. And “celebrating” Mozart’s ability to crank out catchy tunes hardly does him honor.

Additionally, this one was complicated by the insertion of a distinctive visual layer. Illuminated Heart was staged in a somewhat operatic style by British director Netia Jones. I say “somewhat” because her production was more distinctive for its carefully edited color palette than for any sense of emotional truth.

Surrounding the stage of Geffen Hall was a gauzy white box set that was handsome both on its own and as a surface for still and video projections.

That set, though, had the unintended consequence of exacerbating the Geffen’s notoriously lousy acoustics. While the orchestra, placed in an improvised “pit” just before the stage, achieved a sound that merged lushness with crispness, the singers had no such luck.  Though the voices projected well, they all sounded muddy, as if their singing was being piped in from a nearby parking garage.

That issue seems to have been the only one to daunt conductor Louis Langrée, who otherwise led an exemplary performance. I realize not everyone will buy into the dash of romanticism he brings to Mozart, but the polished and easy grace he inspires in his players is commendable.

He found a kindred spirit in baritone Peter Mattei, in relaxed and elegant voice for two scenes from Figaro. Mattei is a born farceur as well: his jittery reactions in his duet with Susanna would not be out of place on Fawlty Towers.

For sheer beauty of singing the prize would go soprano Ana Maria Martinez proving you don’t need to make ugly noises to depict Donna Elvira’s anguish. And tenor Matthew Polenzani brought down the house with his ravishing take on “Dalla sua pace.”

Of course the house also came down for Christine Goerke’s loud and pitchy attack on “D’Oreste, d’Ajace” from Idomeneo. With galas, you take what you can get.

‘Mostly Mozart’ Barely Does the Master Justice