Friday, October 4, 2013

A Così without Fangs

September 28, 2013 - Così fan tutte at the Met

Levine’s Back! 

Lui: Excitement was in the air at what seemed like a full house at the Met as James Levine was back in the pit directing a revival of a production of Mozart's Così fan tutte that debuted in 1996. Mr. Levine's Così kept a lively tempo, the way it should be, pushing the singers briskly through their recitatives without compromising a word of Da Ponte's delicious language. 

Photo Credit: Marty Sohl/Met
Lei: It was indeed exciting to finally see James Levine back on the conductor’s podium after an absence of two years due to a spinal cord injury. I was craning my neck from our family circle seats hoping to get a glimpse of him coming in but could not see anything. Somehow he magically appeared on the podium (I later read that it happened thanks to a special lift built expressly for him) because all of a sudden I could see the top of his head and his little arms reaching out and then the overture exploded into the opera house, as fierily joyful as only Wolfie can be. 

At the end of Act I, Levine turned swiftly to greet the cheering public and it was then clear to all that he had been conducting from what looked like a high tech wheelchair that included a bar across his chest to keep him stable. The cheering roared even louder to salute and honor his bravery in getting back to conducting (and doing it so beautifully), despite not being able to stand on his feet. This time, too, I was moved to the edge of tears, though not by a singer performing some aria but rather by the extraordinarily inspiring Maestro Levine. 

Photo Credit: Marty Sohl/Met

An Overly Classic Production

Lui: This third and last of the Mozart/Da Ponte collaborations holds a special place in my heart, not least of all because it is the first opera that Zerlinetta and I first bonded over. Needless to say, I have almost every word of Da Ponte's libretto indelibly written in my mind. So I'm always eager to dig my teeth into any production I can get my hands on.  

Photo Credit: Marty Sohl/Met
Lei: Being so close to an opera to basically know its libretto by heart has its pros and cons. While, on the one hand, I have fun singing favorite arias in the shower at the top of my lungs (La mia Dorabella capace non è fedel quanto bella il cielo la fe’ – La mia Fiordiligi tradirmi non sa / uguale in lei credo costanza e beltà – È amore un ladroncello / un serpentello è amor etc.), on the other, I tend to take it personally when I feel that this wonderful Mozart/Da Ponte material is not realized thoroughly. I saw this production a few years ago and seeing it again now reminded me of just how plain and straightforward it is. In 2013, the Met should and could produce a more dynamic Così. From the sets to certain directorial choices, this rendition misses a myriad opportunities present in this great though often under-rated opera.

Lui: This year's revival of the Lesley Koenig 1996 production, with sets and costumes designed by Michael Yeargan, does present a slavish, classic take on the material. Although it may be flat in execution, it nevertheless features, like many classically-styled Met productions, several effective stage elements like the ship that comes and goes from one scene to the next. Utilizing much of the far reaches of the stage, it seems to lie out on the bay through a scrim of coastal fog out in the distance. While it may not present the sun-drenched Naples that some productions give us, it does have its suggestive moments.  

There were many clever staging conceits and directorial decisions in some of the nuances of the action. For instance, in the aria In uomini, in soldati, when Despina lectures Dorabella and Fiordiligi on the finer points of courtship, she takes their lockets from them. After she bestows such kernels of wisdom as: "Uno val l'altro, perchè nessun val nulla," she intentionally gives them the wrong lockets back so they have to exchange them again – foreshadowing the big mix up. The world of these naive young lovers starts to veer toward the topsy turvy. Men for Despina are just as interchangeable as women are for Don Alfonso. Despite the feminine gender bias of the opera's title, the battle of the sexes is waged on two sides.

Photo Credit: Marty Sohl/Met
Other directorial decisions also struck me in this production. Moving in unison as though connected at hip throughout most of the ensemble-heavy first act, Dorabella and Fiordiligi embodied in their acting style the baroque-psychedelic core of this drama of kaleidoscopic symmetries. Sung like siamese-twins, their duets were fabulous. They sang off each other, intertwining their voices into each other, beautifully depicting the fact that these two young woman still derive most of their individual strength from their sisterly collective. In fact, most people have a hard time distinguishing the two female characters and keeping them straight. This production seems to have deliberately added to the confusion. In the first act they not only have the same hair color but they are even wearing virtually the same dress, rendering them almost entirely interchangeable. After slowly emerging over the course of the first act, their individual identities do finally blossom in Act II, at which time, of course, their sturdy facade of certainty also begins to crumble. As cliff sides battered by the waves gradually succumb to the sea, so our chaste maidens give into temptation.  

Photo Credit: Marty Sohl/Met
The Singing Swingers Party

Lui: Susanna Phillips' Fiordiligi carried the show for me. I really got into her character arc in the second act. She has some of the great female arias in this piece, and she led me to see Fiordiligi's wavering through fresh eyes. Matthew Polenzani was also very strong and carried the drama alongside with Phillips. Though his Aura amorosa was too throaty, and neither warm nor round enough for my tastes, he, nevertheless, struck a forceful presence.

Lei: Though not warm or sweet enough, Matthew Polenzani was a fine Ferrando, with a clear powerful voice and good articulation. I liked him better than in last year’s Elisir but remain not fully convinced by his ability to melt me from the inside – the test of a true tenor for me. Baritone Rodion Pogossov as Guglielmo was generally a good actor but not a bold enough singer, plus his recitatives were often off Italian-wise. In the role of Don Alfonso, Maurizio Muraro’s singing and acting were not powerful or incisive enough and generally felt too slow. I will say, however, that all singers sounded almost muffled through Act I but seemed to have warmed up with renewed energy in Act II. The ladies dominated the singing: soprano Susanna Phillips was wonderful as Fiordiligi, mezzo Isabel Leonard was a fiery Dorabella, and the always excellent coloratura soprano Danielle de Niese offered the most charismatic acting as a vezzosetta Despinetta.  

Photo Credit: Marty Sohl/Met
Where Are the Fangs?

Lei: Don Alfonso is the key character of the opera, being the mastermind behind the affront to feminine fidelity that initiates the flurry of tricks, treachery and the trading of partners between the two couples. In this rendition he comes off as a jovial old fellow merely amusing himself by setting up the young lovers for deceit. Otherwise, he does not seem particularly endowed with much in terms of his background and motivation. There are many ways he could be played, with nuances ranging from bitter to cynical to ironic to love-master, and this production simply misses the opportunity to give Don Alfonso (and Così) some depth.

Lui: The problem with playing Don Alfonso so straight leads to a number of issues. Taming him into a benign old man may seem to make for a more harmless finale: a simple "lesson in love." Yet if no one ends up hurt at the end and you take Don Alfonso's fangs away with the original couples being restored no questions asked with little or no sweat off anyone's back, then you end up with a story that resolves on a note that love does not exist. Don Alfonso's lesson in love suddenly becomes a lesson the art of the swinger party. This week you hooked up with each other's girl, next time we can see if they have any cousins, get another couple of couples involved in this thing, and we'll all trade partners again!

Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg/NYC Opera
Back in Spring 2012, Christopher Alden's Così for the New York City Opera proposed a creepy, park-dwelling Mephistopheles-style mentor for the naive young men at the center of the story. He was a shadowy figure who wore a Count Dracula cape and borrowed moves from a silent-film era Nosferatu. This shadowy street urchin version of Don Alfonso may have seemed a startling interpretation of Da Ponte's character but it provided food for thought. If you take away all of Don Alfonso's cynicism and strip the old man of his apparent malice, the force that his elaborate burla can potentially have on the young men and women alike is lost. In the finale of Alden's more malicious take on the story, all four of our young lovers are left shipwrecked against the rocks of betrayal in a sea of heartache and pain. Counter-intuitively, this not the cynical take at all. On the contrary, the palpable residue of hurt that remains at the end of Alden's production is the very proof that love exists. As it turns out, Alden's production is perhaps the most optimistic way to stage Così of all.

Even better yet, in my mind, is the rare production that stages, just before the curtain goes down, a last-minute switch from the original pairs back to the new coupling that transpired over the course of the opera. In this case, Don Alfonso's lesson will have doubled over as a formative journey of self-discovery by means of which all four of the young lovers will have learned not only a thing or two about themselves and each other, but they also will have experienced the pleasure of seduction. They come out of the wringer of Don Alfonso's dirty trick having found their voices as budding sexual beings and enjoyed the challenge of having had to work to attain the object of their desire. When they switch back, their former partner lacks that original luster of first love and they find that in the meantime they actually have fallen – in a more profound and now slightly more grown up way – for the person whose affections they were forced to win thanks to Don Alfonso's dirty dealing. This simple unscripted move at the end of the opera casts a whole new light on the story as it is typically told.
Photo Credit: Marty Sohl/Met
This year's Met production is solid and pleasurable as Mozart always is, particularly with Levine conducting, but lacks some of the fireworks that could ignite this otherwise deceptively light material.

Lei: Now that Levine's back (and NYC Opera is going bankrupt) it seems like the right time for the Met to rise to the occasion and start producing operas that dare to get deeper and fresher than this Così

Playbill of the first Così performance, Vienna (1790)

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