Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times
The Mostly Mozart Festival is now in many ways unrecognizable from its ancestor, “Midsummer Serenades — A Mozart Festival,” which began in 1966 when Lincoln Center’s new theaters opened, complete with air-conditioning.
Fifty years later, there’s far more contemporary music on the agenda. The festival has, of late, pulled the stage at David Geffen (once Avery Fisher, once Philharmonic) Hall a few rows into the audience and surrounded it with seating on three sides: In one fell swoop, at least some of the place’s infamous intimacy issues were solved.
This year, instead of opening with the standard orchestral concert, the festival officially began on Monday with “The Illuminated Heart,” lightly staged excerpts from Mozart operas. Alertly conducted by Louis Langrée and surrounded by vaguely atmospheric projections — excuse me, the program calls them “illuminations” — by the British theater artist Netia Jones, an impressive cast passed smoothly through 15 selections, heavy on popular favorites.
Was it an innovative introduction to this most canonical of composers? Not really. It was a greatest-hits gala, gussied up.
Which isn’t to say it wasn’t entertaining. It was hard to object to Peter Mattei, the peerlessly charismatic baritone, raging his way through “Vedrò mentr’io sospiro,” Count Almaviva’s aria of blustery revenge from “Le Nozze di Figaro.” In “Crudel! Perché finora,” from the same opera, Mr. Mattei’s insinuating sexuality fairly overwhelmed Nadine Sierra’s attractive, if slender, soprano.
Ms. Sierra spun a long, focused line in “Ruhe sanft,” from the rarity “Zaide.” Marianne Crebassa was a potent Sesto in two numbers of “La Clemenza di Tito.” Ana María Martínez brought her unsettled, dark-toned soprano to “Mi tradì,” from “Don Giovanni.” In “Dalla sua pace,” from that opera, Matthew Polenzani sang with what can only be called hot-blooded poise.
The evening’s climax was Christine Goerke’s rendition of the ferocious aria “D’Oreste, d’Ajace,” from “Idomeneo.” (René Jacobs will conduct a concertperformance of this underplayed opera at Mostly Mozart on Aug. 18.) Emoting with her usual generosity, Ms. Goerke reveled in her chocolaty middle voice, but sounded pinched as she pushed upward through her range.
When so much of Mostly Mozart now feels thoughtfully determined, a hit parade stands out more; while “The Illuminated Heart” was clearly organized with care, it felt a bit scattershot. And also a bit insubstantial: These operas are deep, dark works, but you wouldn’t know that from a presentation that took arias and ensembles from their contexts and placed them in innocuously pretty settings that made them feel merely decorative.
While contemporary work has entered the festival in a big way, that repertory has barely touched the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra’s core concert series — still stuck, more or less, in 1966. Even the helpings of Mozart stick to the standards (the “Jupiter” Symphony, Piano Concerto No. 21, the Requiem).
“The Illuminated Heart” kept to this pattern: All but a handful of the selections were from “Nozze,” “Così Fan Tutte” or “Giovanni.” The performance, attractive and polished, didn’t teach us anything about Mozart that we didn’t already know.