Deco Farce Echo: Opening Night of Lyric Opera's Cosi fan tutte
I'm not one to go sniffing out reasons not to do Mozart, but seeing Così relatively hot on the heels of Die Fledermaus could lead to farce overload, particularly given that both are structured around plots that are positively Holtzian in their complexity and overdeveloped sense of vengeance (although I guess Don Alfonso is running on universal bitterness, rather than the specific, if bizarre, beef of the bat). But I note that the 2007-2008 season features La traviata and La Bohème. Lyric got both kinds: Country and Western, apparently.
I was a touch late in picking up my sister-in-law, thanks to traffic and long lights. I then biffed and turned too soon for "my" parking garage and ended up in a horrible substitute. As a result, we were booking up the stairs as the flashed the lights and rang the bells furiously—moves that had no discernible effect on the herds in our way. I barely had time to read the first part of the synopsis (and squee at the lusciously deco costume sketch beside it) before the lights officially dimmed and hadn't even touched on any of the performer/production blurbs or the Pompous Essay, featuring the triumphant return of regular PE, Roger Pines.
The delay in consuming most of the written portion of the evening's entertainment meant that some of the more objective objections (as opposed to my season-based quibbles) that one might raise to Così. I refer, of course, to the most baggage-laden e in the history of art. For those of you not familiar with Italian, not familiar with opera, and/or not familiar with the fevered inner workings of my brain, tutti = all those guys (or all those guys and gals) whereas tutte = all those gals, specifically. Thus, Mozart's title translates, roughly, into "Hos. Whaddaya gonna do?"
As for what that's all about, I'll try my hand at a synopsis. Ferrando and Guglielmo (that's "googly elmo" for those of you looking for a spelling mnemonic) are young soldiers in love with two sisters (Dorabella and Fiordiligi [I got nothin' on the spelling mnemonic front], respectively). Their older and more worldly friend, Don Alfonso, ridicules them for their attachment to these women, claiming that they are as fickle as any others. He bets his young friends that the sisters will stray at the first opportunity. Ferrando and Guglielmo agree not only to the bet, but also to Don Alfonso's byzantine implementation of it: The two will tell their lovers that they have been called off to war. They will then return, in disguise as the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Men, and woo the sisters. And just in case they run low on wackiness, each man will pursue the other's lover.
On the feminine side of the equation, Dorabella and Fiordiligi are devastated by the departure of their lovers and fearful that they'll be lost in battle. The maid, Despina, takes Don Alfonso's view of things, telling them that they're well rid of their men. She encourages the sisters to play the field and assures them that their fiancés certainly will be doing so at their earliest convenience and at every opportunity. But the two hold up remarkably well under some aggressively pitched woo. (Dressing up like Miranda Richardson dressing up like Nurse Mary undoubtedly helps.) In fact, they are only moved to show basic kindness when the men are apparently dying (proximate cause: deliberately ingested arsenic; distal cause: cruel, cruel biatches).
In Act II, Dorabella, in particular, is intrigued by the idea loving the one she's with (and she's not too particular about which one) and would like to receive his newsletter. Her skankiness appears to be catching, and even the uptight Fiordiligi is thinking about a little extracurricular activity. She holds out for another couple of lovesick serenades, before deciding that distance is the better part of fidelity. She resolves to disguise herself as a man and join her lover at the front; however, she is waylaid by Ferrando whose sense of purpose has been renewed by Dorabella's desertion and Guglielmo's implication that Iron Man has a very tiny penis indeed. Fiordiligi finally caves as Guglielmo looks on in agony.
Don Alfonso advises his friends not to despair: The outcome is no worse than he predicted to them, and he has a lesson to give them all. With the help of Despina, he arranges a double wedding, but the lovely joke is interrupted by real soldiers returning from the real front. Ferrando and Guglielmo shed their disguises and chastise their lovers, swearing vengeance on their seducers. The sisters beg forgiveness and hope for death. Don Alfonso reveals the rest of the plot's details and has a good chuckle at everyone's expense. Fortunately, the young gentlemen are then called off to war for real and are thus saved from death by embarrassment via the strong possibility of death by global conflict.
So, is this a condemnation of my sex? Ought I to be kerfuffling myself out of my comfortable shoes? (Let's leave aside the fact that I wore my shiny new chunky-heeled patent leather mary janes on Saturday for the moment.) At intermission, I prioritized reading the rest of the synopsis and only caught enough of a glimpse of the blurbs by Ferrando (Eric Cutler) and Guglielmo (Nathan Gunn) to confirm that they shared a certain nervous, defensive quality with actor blurbs from any given staging of Taming of the Shrew.
Cutler argues that the plot is "bitter and angry, but that's part of life It teaches us a lot about our own development into adulthood. . . . I don't quite understand why women view it as being so misogynistic" although he then allows parenthetically: "maybe because of the title." I suppose one could view this as either cynical or realistic, but when paired with the assertion that "[Don Alfonso is] the really unfortunate character . . . I am saddened by him," it's just a little baffling. Gunn's take is stranger still (although I applaud him for infantilizating parity in referring to the main characters as "boys" and "girls"):
the problem people have with the plot often comes from an idea that the girls are the victims — I think they're more aware than that. Just as the boys give into an instinctual suspicion of their girlfriends' fidelity, the girls give in to their instinctual desire to find the best-suited mate. They both [I will be charitable here and assume that 'both' in this case refers to both genders, not both women—Ed.] act animalistically rather humanly — thus the lesson.
Mr. Gunn, I beg of you to stop talking wrong sociobiology and leave the postmodern problematization of historical gender politics to the experts.
It's not that I'm yearning for a read of the libretto that gives me permission to enjoy it. Don't get me wrong: I'm a big fan of postmodern problematizing—boy howdy is that a good time—but there are times when you've got to assume that your audience has opted into the art, politically incorrect warts and all, and get on with it.
Fortunately, I think this production at Lyric strikes a nice balance in tone. For the most part, it takes Così for what it is: Beautiful, sparkling, funny, and overall lighthearted Mozart. It is unabashedly celebratory of it all, without assuming a defensive "Why do you hate America?" posture about the celebration. But the specific choice of setting for Lyri'cs production (the Mediterranean, 1914) opens up some opportunities for a Postmodern Problematization Gathering (mellow song stylings, brie—no hootnannies, thank you, we're Austrian).
At intermission, my sister-in-law (leave it to a historian) commented that setting a happy-go-lucky farce in (or on the eve of) WWI is an odd move, as it's never been said of the War to End All Wars that a good time was had by all. (To this observation I'll add my own anecdote of victimization. My second year in college, my British-raised [but American-born] roommate had introduced me to Blackadder, and we'd spent the last few weeks of the quarter watching it fairly incessantly. On my first, very mopey, sweet-Baal-is-this-interminable-summer-over? night home, I found a Blackadder episode while flipping through the channels. I thought what a lucky circumstance it was and felt all warm and fuzzy and close to my nearest and dearest. It turned out to be the last episode of Blackadder Goes Forth. Yeah. That's the feel-good ending of the year.)
But—and I'm not just being a shameless whore for Art Deco here—I think that's rather the point. WIthout sacrificing one iota of the funny, shoving the events forward six score or so gave this production the opportunity to cast light on a lot of what's wrong with this picture by modern standards, which tempers the misogyny, or at least recognizes that it's embedded in an overarchingly flawed context. There is room to take the characterizations of the sisters as set down in the libretto and explore their implications in the modern world.
For example, Fiordiligi addresses Despina in withering tones with pointedly correct pronunciation. This adds a touch of class politics and an unsavory layer to the "virtues" of her more traditional nature. The stage director also cleverly accented this note by judicious use of extras: As the audience is drinking in the comic image of the sisters in their nurses' habits, a few hifalutin supers stroll by giving them a rather pointed look. A moment later, a third nurse helps a seriously wounded soldier across the stage, drawing a number of positively hairy eyeballs from vacationers appalled by the sudden influx of literally scabby, unwashed masses. These together create a sense of class consciousness and impending social change that doesn't quite translate to the late eighteenth century.
For Dorabella's part, the updated setting provides the opportunity to play her not simply as the trampier, suggestible sister, but as a woman ahead of her time. This was played out nicely in this production. Returning from . . . ahem . . . having succumbed to Guglielmo, she strips out of her comparatively demure peach evening gown to distinctly flapper-like undergarments. (Fiordiligi, in contrast, has her decidedly unsexy man's wool overcoat removed by Ferrando, and her evening gown still pointedly covers her from clavicle to calcaneus.) As Dorabella drapes her sated self across the chaise lounge, her seduction seems not so much a fall from grace as it is "I'll have what she's having."
On the masculine front, the shifts are not so dramatic. Certainly Gunn and Cutler don't have to work quite so hard at the buffo elements, because much more of the sexual innuendo is taken as read with Victoria more than a decade in the ground. This leaves them freer to play the later tension between Guglielmo and Ferrando as uglier and more physical.
But like the women, Don Alfonso's character benefits from the later setting, shading considerably darker in 1914 than in 1786. He is suaver, more manipulative and less avuncular than typically portrayed. He is dashing in the blackest and most fashionable of evening clothes, suggesting that he is still a sexual force to be reckoned with. As he literally rakes his friends' bets across the roulette table, there is the faintest flash of avarice and low-life hunger. He is the plausible progenitor of every not-quite-villain ever played by George Sanders. But while the updated setting makes that all possible, credit for its delicious realization goes to Sir Thomas Allen who also gives the most cogent of the cast members' readings of the libretto and its "moral":
Years ago singers used to play the philosopher as a benign, twinkly grey eminence. . . . But as we've moved on in time, our psychological understanding of what makes us tick has advanced. There was previously a need to present the work as a 'happy end/life goes on,' as if nothing had ever happened. In fact, something disastrous happens —everything happens!
So, on balance, the temporal transplant worked for me. If it hadn't, I feel confident that I could have completely fanwanked some other justification for that luscious, luscious Art Deco set and costume design. Sadly, none of the pictures really does justice to the set, giving me license to be verbose.
The fact that the setting remains relatively constant throughout (this, being the most play-like of Mozart's librettos [Yes, I know the libretto is DaPonte's, which I think I made clear elsewhere, but apparently not clear enough as this elision has irritated a friend. Thus, I clarify-Ed.], conforms to the Aristotelian unities) gave Robert Perdziola (he of the overall lickable Carmen sets from last year and the Faust fantasia from 2003-2004) the luxury of creating the world's most beautiful floor. Up stage, it shaded from lapis to cerulean. A scatter of brightly colored umbrellas just downstage of a making it equally suggestive of a lavish poolside mosaic and the sea itself. Down stage the dozen blues were the backdrop for a series of bone-colored outlining a pediment-and-frieze, as if a classical temple had just lay down for some well-deserved rest. Sweeps of darker blue tiles formed more curvilinear deco designs within the geometric elements. Thus, the floor has indoor and outdoor elements that blend seamlessly into one another.
The other permanent feature of the set were two "colonnades," one for each side of the stage. From my vantage point in the back of the first balcony, the roofs of these appeared to be triangular and supported by three columns. They were moveable, though, and later perspectives suggested that there must have been at least four columns supporting each, so I'm not sure what shape the tops were. Two faces of the columns had a lovely chevron design in pale blue-green and gold that, of course, set off the opera house's own decor beautifully. The faces adjacent these were simply bone colored with fluting near the floor. These two structures could be brought close together, forming a triangle with the apex up center, or they could be angled apart, providing a sort of aisle running down center from upstage to down.
Together, the floor and the colonnade structures made for elegant transitions from space to space with minimal fuss. Interior scenes in public spaces were achieved by flying in a row of transparent drapery cutting across center, suggesting floor-to-ceiling windows through which the beach was just visible. For more intimate interiors, Perdziola employed two flats painted in Klimt-reminiscent style, each about 8 feet square. The stage right piece was formally akin to the Tree of Life, but more in the color palette of Expectation. The stage-left version was a fairly direct knock-off of Beech Trees (not that that's not a worthy subject off which to knock). These were rolled in from each wing and angled slightly toward up center. A few furniture pieces set in front of these (a glass-fronted cabinet and a table and chairs at right, a chaise and club chair at left) and violas! Private rooms!
The intermission was justified by the miniature Venetian Night set upstage. Each side of the stage featured half a dozen tiny boats with their sheets outlined in lights. All were oriented with fore toward center, aft toward their respective wings. They were on tracks so that they could part in the center to allow for Ferrando to ebb and flow from the scene on his much bigger, manlier boat, which glided from upstage to center and back again. I am a sucker for boat metaphors for manliness, I guess, because this made me laugh each and every time.
Robert Bryan deserves mention for the lighting design on this production, too. It's steady and subtle, but he rotates the Earth inexorably on its axis, reminding us that the women have gone from hospital habits to evening wear in mere hours. When Dorabella asks "Can feelings change so in a single day?" its the skillful lighting design that draws the unexpected laugh.
Onward to the music. I'm not sure how any principal survives the opening of Mozart without having a heart attack. And, as Roger Pines, PE, points out, Così, even more so than any given Mozart, is about chemistry among its players. In a departure from his typical "Here's an F#, bitch" have at it, with Così, it's the gentlemen who are the recipients of the brilliant little bastard's opening salvo. Guglielmo and Ferrando are immediately catapulted into a wordy, complex duet punctuated by Don Alfonso's casual interjections. It must be said that this was a hairy and not entirely successful minute or so on Saturday night, and I had a bit of fear for the vocal quality of the performance. (Actually, I probably had more than usual, given the conductor issues in Die Fledermaus.) Happily, the problems were passing.
Whatever Gunn and Cutler's shortcomings may be in the arena of literary criticism, they were an ideal pair for Guglielmo and Ferrando in every way. Gunn is a lithe, height-challenged baritone, Cutler a towering, beefy tenor. They played the physical contrast (and the vocal reversal of what you'd expect) to the hilt, and as they warmed up vocally, they settled into a great dramatic rapport with one another. They played with the timing in their duets, rushing or delaying a line just slightly to inject an edge of competition here, then coming back together in perfect synchrony as they turn on other characters to achieve a common goal. It seems unfair to choose one over the other, but if I had to I'd pick Gunn as the more confident and technically accomplished, whereas Cutler, without exactly muffing anything, seemed to be more visibly working at it. But of course, you have to factor in my pro-baritone bias there.
I last saw Erin Wall and Lauren McNeese sing together way back in Faust. I remember in that production being outraged to hear that some of the most beautiful moments that Marguerite and Siebel have are often cut. Around that same time, I was falling in love with Lauren McNeese's performances in various trouser roles and caught a tantalizing glimpse of her playing an actual woman in Pirates of Penzance. Dorabella is the role I've been waiting to hear her in, and Erin Wall must be the Aristotelian ideal Fiordiligi to play against her.
As with their lovers, these two women are nice physical counterpoints to one another: Erin Wall is a tall, handsome woman, Lauren McNeese a small, pixie-ish figure. The physical "mismatches" between voice and figure are replicated in the pairings. Tiny Dorabella's "original" fiance is the hulking Ferrando; stately Fiordiligi is paired with the small and compact, but well-muscled Guglielmo.
I don't think I've ever loved Roger Pines, in all his pompous glory, more than when he wrote this of Fiordiligi:
Providing the opera's virtuoso element was Italian soprano Adriana Ferrarese del Bene, for whose character, appearance, voice, and artistry Mozart had no particular fondness. Still, she was Da Ponte's [Mozart's librettist on this, La nozze di Figaro, and Don Giovanni] mistress, which no doubt influenced her being awarded the role of Fiordiligi. onstage Ferrarese would typically stun her audience with wide vocal leaps and extremes of range. Consequently those particular weapons in her vocal armory were exploited — with a vengeance — by Mozart.
If the beauty of Così itself hadn't won me over in spite of the story, knowing that Mozart wrote Fiordiligi to punk a pain-in-the-ass soprano certainly would have. One senses that Erin Wall is a fan of the irony as well and is more than game for the role. She plays her FIordiligi with terrifying intensity, bringing the melodramatic musical passages to the very brink of actual drama. Juxtaposed with McNeese's fizzing, sparkling sexuality, this is the highest comedy.
But Wall's choices also make for a likeable Fiordiligi. She is never the stuffy killjoy that the character could easily become. Instead, she is sincere, believable, and terribly young. The moment in Act II, when she finally succumbs to Ferrando, was played with particular delicacy. She simultaneously bowed her head with grief and relaxed just a little against Ferrando. Cutler responded beautifully to this lead, slipping the coat from her shoulders and stepping just slightly back from her, reflexively not providing the physical support she's seeking. It felt like I was watching a moment where two performers unearth something new and unexpected in the text.
With regard to Mozart's wicked intentions for Fiordiligi, I'll admit that Wall had me on the edge of my seat more than once as she hurtled through some of the more death-defying passages. But she always pulled it in no matter how convinced I was that someone was bound to lose an eye before the evening was out.
Lauren McNeese also managed to live up to my considerable expectations of what it would be like to finally hear her in a leading role. Vocally, she simply is Dorabella for this production. Tiny, but mighty; flighty, but with very definite desires and the will to realize them; a romantic with a dark, not-entirely-feminine-for-her-time sexual side. She moves easily from the playful, girlish tones of her early relationship with Ferrando into the richer, seductive vocal color that characterizes her interaction with Guglielmo. Physically, she allows herself to be engulfed by Ferrando, who lifts her into his embrace. As the worm of the relationships turned, Gunn seemed to take his cues from McNeese as well. He had a way of looking thoroughly in control of the seduction one minute and the next as though he'd walked full-steam into a brick wall every time Dorabella eagerly met a lecherous line with a suggestive look, a roll of the shoulder, or a sway of her hips.
Despina's role in this production had to stand more on its own than I imagine it might in another. Pines mentions that a past liaison between Don Alfonso and Despina is not out of the question, but here, the two roles are played as completely separate forces for chaos. Nuccia Focile packs enough of a punch as a vocalist and as an actress to sustain that approach, but I was such a fan of both her and Allen that I have some regrets at missing how they'd have handled a more active partnership. Of Despina, Focile says
The role needs a fuller sort of voice, rather than making it sound like a pretty little girl. To me, she's quite a woman —with a lot of experience with men!
Obviously there are some pretty overt parallels to be drawn between Die Fledermaus's Adele and Despina. If I were to compare Marlis Petersen's Adele with Focile's Despina, I'd say Petersen is Carol Burnette (elongated, gawky, but developing into something rich, willowy, and beautiful) and Focile is Madeline Kahn (tiny, fierce, and fiery from minute one).
I raised an eyebrow at Perdziola's decision to clothe the hotel help entirely in red, but I'm happy to make an exception for Despina's costume and Focile in it. It's a fitted, puffed sleeve affair that makes one seriously entertain the idea that raising the hemline to reveal the ankle could drive the world wild with desire. Her disguises as the Mesmeric doctor and the notary had a great Charlie Chaplin quality (or, more accurately, a Baldrick-doing-his-slug-balancing-act quality). The gag at the end when she pulls off her notary disguise and has her maid's cap, still firmly affixed underneath, made me laugh a lot harder than it had any right to.
If this production's approach had any flaws, I'd cite the ending. The Ferrando and Guglielmo that the audience got to know were too resilient and alive to be quite so thoroughly flattened by the "lesson." Likewise, having what seemed to be the ghosts of young men who'd actually died ad the front while our players were having their fun was a bit bleaker than needed. But even a somewhat flaccid ending couldn't do much damage to a wonderful production.