Monday, March 2, 2015

Opera Cabaret: A Caribbean Così

Così fan tutte
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Opera Coopertive 
February 28, 2015 - Park Avenue United Methodist Church

Opera Collective takes Wolfie to the Caribbean
Our second independent opera of the weekend, Opera Cooperative’s Così fan tutte provided an enlightening counterpoint to our experience with New York Opera Exchange’s musically thrilling but theatrically insipid production of Lucia di Lammermoor. Opera Cooperative is the latest addition to New York’s already thriving independent opera scene and this was their maiden production. Director Annie Shikany and music director George Stelluto gave us a production of this Mozart-Da Ponte comic masterpiece that was fresh and had vision. And it’s not that they needed massive funding or elaborate sets or even a stage to do so, which just goes to show that vision can articulate itself in many ways. At every step there were striking little touches that helped to flesh out the characters, further the plot and enliven each scene.

A little imagination can go a long way
The production notes tell us that the opera is set in a Caribbean resort, present day. The sets were simple yet effective in suggesting a hotel suite on one end of the “stage” and a bar on the other, the costumes were summer vacation chic, and the two couples were definitely modern day youngsters glued to their iPhones and taking selfies. The English supertitles also got a present day facelift, peppered with lines like “OMG!,” “Baby, promise to text me twice a day,” and “Despina, you arrogant slut.” Purists may cringe but I have to say that these free translations really conveyed the carefree spirit of adolescents discovering the pains of love, which at the end of the day is the very core of this opera. Taking the characters out of powdered wigs and corsets and making the supertitles funkier made the opera more approachable to non-Italian speakers unfamiliar with Così, all while displaying the utmost respect for the original score, the fierce beauty of its arias and duets, the theatrical narrative and the pronunciation of the original Italian (both sung and recitatif). All it took were some modern clothes, a couple of iPhones and a vision. 

Robert Balonek
The singers were all game and mostly did a great job in acting with great comic timing and a good dose of slapstick, especially baritone Robert Balonek, in the role of Guglielmo, whom he played as the consummate dude and rightly so. Balonek has all the comic control of his body language and facial expressions of a good comic actor. His low, virile voice provided a deeper, more visceral counterpoint to tenor Chad Cygan, in the role of Ferrando, than you usually find in this duo. Cygan has an instrument that is strongest in the middle of his range and was at his best in the ensemble bits, blending nicely with the rest of the cast’s voices. I laughed out loud several times but also found myself perched at the edge of my seat during the most tender and passionate arias. George Bernard Shaw once said that the greatness of Mozart is found in conveying the most profound things while remaining flippant and lively. This unique duality definitely came across in Opera Cooperative’s production.

Chad Cygan
Their presentation of this beloved opera was full of observant details. The way Shikany handled the breakdown during the rather touchy Act II finale was honest and real: the lovers neither reconcile, nor form new couples, but rather seem very skeptical of the whole affair and freeze mid-air each one by him or herself. How can there be anything but hard feelings and resentment after everything the cynical old fogey has put them through in testing the loyalty of their lovers along with their own resilience. Guglielmo’s utter disappointment is felt as is Ferrando’s acceptance of the folly of the whole situation, who is last seen clinking beer bottles with Fiordiligi. Shikany takes her characters from the adolescent phase of text message jargon and all the frivolity of youth to the more jaded phase of what it is to love like an adult, and she doesn’t spare them any of the concomitant growth pains along the way. Così seems frivolous and light at first blush but beneath the surface is a whole world of hurt and disillusionment. It demands deeper treatment than it often gets when your average production tries to reconstitute the original couples with no questions asked. Thank you, Annie Shikany.
Mustacchi, trionfi, pennacchi d'amor
Allyson Herman
In terms of the singers, the female leads really stole the show tonight. Allyson Herman and Eva Parr sang off each other beautifully as Fiordiligi and Dorabella. Herman’s Fiordiligi was the airy breeze (il vento) to the cresting waves (le onde) of Parr’s Dorabella in their rendition of Soave sia il vento in Act I. It sent tingles through my body with its melancholic, yet phony farewell to their two true loves. Rarely do you get such a pronounced difference between the two roles. Parr’s chesty mezzo voice beautifully served to ground Herman’s soaring soprano that was always intrepid and sure. Herman effortlessly floated her higher registers out in front of the pack seizing a leadership role in her contribution to all of the many ensemble pieces. Her Fiordiligi carried the cast without a doubt from start to finish. I usually like my Come scoglio to show a bit more sass, stronger conviction, more teeth, more bite, but Herman nevertheless managed to own it, if not with her sass, then with the forcefulness of her technical ability and winning stage presence. 

Eva Parr
The duets between the tormented sisters are one of the strongest focal points of this opera and Herman and Parr inhabited them beautifully. They sang like a unit whether across the stage from each other or holding hands like life support to one another in their futile quest to remain constant and true. I couldn’t take my eyes off them, they were so much fun to watch and listen to as they flitted around snapping selfies and flipping through photos of their respected beloveds on their smart phones.

I was very fond of Robert Mellon's incarnation of the scheming Don Alfonso, though at times it seemed like he was straining his voice a bit. The brutality of his bass-baritone that reverberated forcefully in this little space on the third floor of the church on East 86th Street lent his Don Alfonso an air of the embittered older man who has a bone to pick not only with the opposite sex but also with the young and naive. He’s out to teach everybody a lesson, if not to simply bring everybody around him down into his level. He has suffered heartbreak, potentially, and so others should too. Mellon’s performance did not necessarily imbue his character with much of a backstory per se, but rather he embodied Don Alfonso’s foibles with a masculine wrath and rage, almost like an Old Testament God pulling the strings of his latest human subjects. Mellon's Don Alfonso was the charismatic glue of the evening. Anytime he was on stage, he keep the pace of the story humming right along, never compromising the fun even of the recitatives even once, with his fully articulated Italian pronunciation. He was like an old pro up there.

Robert Mellon
Though I like to see even Despina give a couple of her aria-lectures to the girls with an even more developed sense of the fact that she (a bit like Don Alfonso) is speaking from a position of experience, experience that may not always have been positive, Kathryn Papa’s interpretation of the girls’ mischievous maid was playful, flippant and knowing all at the same time. Papa’s singing equally embodied all of these qualities with an effortless panache and her Italian was always clear and correct. Aside from knowing this opera almost by heart, I virtually never found myself needing to even glance at the supertitles while Despina sang. She was that immediate and engaging.

Kathryn Papa
The set up of the audience had a more relaxed vibe, with a mix of traditional rows of seats and “cabaret-like” tables at the edge of the stage area, equipped with bottles of wine and flower vases. Next time Opera Cooperative may want to consider transforming more of the seating into cabaret tables, judging by the evening we attended, the “cabaret” tickets were far more popular than the traditional seats, so much so that we did not get our reserved table (but we could sip our wine from the front of the house anyway so no complaints there). The whole affair would turn into a modern day chamber musical salon, in a very good way.

A promising debut for this opera company founded in September 2014 that showed it has the right ideas to prove wrong the haters who say opera is dying and stuffy – we greatly anticipate their next outing with Elisir d’Amore this summer.

Lui & Lei

In soldati, sperare fedeltà?!?!

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