in: Reviews

March 16, 2013

Musical Theater or Poignant Meditation?

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Sandra Piques Eddy, Phyllis Pancella, Caroline Worra (Eric Antoniou photo)

Sandra Piques Eddy, Phyllis Pancella, Caroline Worra (Eric Antoniou photo)

Shorn of the aspects of masquerade and broad comedy, the best productions of Così serve as telling musical and poetic meditations on human frailty and the need for reconciliation. Now one of the most performed, Così was surprisingly one of the last of Mozart’s masterpieces to enter the repertoire, appearing for the first time in America at the Metropolitan Opera in 1922. Its librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, arrived in America long before his opera entered the canon. He taught Italian for a while at Columbia and was buried in Brooklyn in 1838.

The Boston Lyric Opera’s production last night at the Shubert Theatre banished all doubts that Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s Così fan tutte, or La scuola degli amanti (All women are like that, or The School for Lovers) is also an opera buffa. That was in large part due to stage director Thomas Allen’s (he also sang Don Alfonso) decision to use an English translation borrowed from the English National Opera (Marmaduke E. Browne, revised by John Cox).  The vernacular words produced a lot of laughs and chortles, unfortunately even at inappropriate moments. This production, with singers for the most part of a serviceable, regional level, wisely concentrated on the musical comedy aspects, much to the pleasure of the audience. It should be added, that the arias might as well have been in the original Italian, since they were largely unintelligible. The chorus sang in Italian, and in the opening serenade, “Secondate aurette amiche” in Act II, everyone on stage sang in Italian as well. A better compromise might have been to have performed all the recitatives in English and the arias and ensemble pieces in Italian, since simultaneous translations of the singers’ English were screened and very much needed.

The overture at once revealed the evening’s chief antagonist, The Shubert Theatre. This space does no favors at all to singers and instrumentalists. The hall is very dry and sucks up all of the bass and provides no bloom on orchestra or voices. That said, conductor David Angus and the BLO orchestra gave a very good account throughout the evening. He was attentive to the singers, of course, but also he and his players were the great nuanced Mozartians of the evening. And special note should be made of Brett Hodgdon, fortepianist and rehearsal coach, who accompanied the recitatives with great panache.

Act I opened on a plain blue scrim with the projected motto of François de La Rochefoucauld, “One is never so happy or so unhappy as one may think.” As the overture concluded, John Conklin’s set, reflecting Allen’s schema of Neapolitan beach party, emerged. The stage was covered with “non-allergenic sand;” the two-layered cyclorama was painted with a foreboding cloudscape; there was a 20 ft. square platform of boards; and there were assorted flats with doorways and an akimbo Mount Vesuvius. The look was more “desert of Louisiana” than Bay of Naples, though. The only contrasting between interior and exterior scenes was through the raising and lowering of a pair of molded doorways. The only stagehand with anything to do was the master of the flyloft.

Sir Thomas Allen, Paul Appleby, Matthew Worth (Eric Antoniou photo)

Sir Thomas Allen, Paul Appleby, Matthew Worth (Eric Antoniou photo)

As the action commences, we see Ferrando (an indisposed Paul Appleby) and Guglielmo ( a sonorous Matthew Worth) barefoot and dressed in Edwardian (?) tailored beachwear arguing with Don Alfonso (Thomas Allen), looking elegant in black breeches and cutaway, about the fickleness of women. It was probably Allen’s conceit to cast himself as a puppet master/philosopher of all on stage rather than a scheming, wagering, good-old-boy that made him appear to have stepped in from another Mozart opera altogether. Striking dramatic and rather stiff balletic poses, he might have been the Commendatore’s ghost. Of his voice one could say that there was a guarded lyrical quality, as if he were saving himself for a moment which unfortunately we did not hear. He nevertheless commanded the stage as did no one else in this production, even when he was hiding behind Mount Vesuvius.

As a stage director Allen seemingly took more pains with his own stage deportment than with others’. At many points in the evening, the singers addressed the audience with arms placed stiffly at their sides rather than interacting with each other. And there really was very little action to disturb the sand on the mostly vacant and unoccupied stage. Alas, there was also none of  the expected stage business of a ship to enter and leave the harbor; the cast and chorus looked offstage for the phantom.

Normally the dramatic highpoint of the opera is a rip-roarin’ “Come scoglio” (translated “Like a fortress”), but Caroline Worra as Fiordiligi, though bright and powerful of tone, did little to convey anger, resoluteness, ambivalence or nobility as much as how pleased she was to be on stage. She was not abetted by having to sing to “self-poisoned” lovers who placed their hats over their crotches.

Phyllis Pancella gave us a Despina lacking in flirtatiousness—she was more of a harridan. As a Mesmerian, she entered with a rather distracting, cardboardish Wimshurst static machine complete with Leyden jars instead of the deploying the traditional large magnets. We got wimpy flickers from a “cookied” ellipsoidal spotlight instead of real sparks or strobe flashes. In her turn as the notary, she adopted a very strange lisping Brooklyn accent.

The Dorabella of Sandra Piques Eddy was the favorite of the choristers, apparently, and we could see why. She had warmth of tone and vulnerability in her stage persona which was entirely consistent with her being the first of the two ladies to yield to her own heart and accept her lover’s.

Striking a good balance between pathos and bathos in Così is a challenge which was not met in this production. Così (like Le nozze di Figaro) depicts moments of heartbreaking reconciliation which humanize the characters and timelessly connect them with audiences. This did not happen for this reviewer, though a majority of the audience seemed pleased with the production as musical comedy.

Reflecting on the many Cosìs I have seen, I can’t help but remember a lavish production at  Salzburg in 1982, when I heard Ricardo Muti conduct James Morris, Kathleen Battle, Agnes Baltsa, Margaret Marshall and Francisco Araiza. Other productions such as a remembered one set in a roadhouse at a mosquito-infested Castle Hill were quite disappointing. But let it be said again, “One is never so happy or so unhappy as one may think.”

Salzburg production of 1982

Salzburg production of 1982

 Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.

4 Comments

  1. I can’t believe that in addition to having seen the BLO production Friday night,I was also present at the Castle Hill production of Cosi many years ago. I left at the intermission because there really was a voracious army of mosquitoes as darkness descended upon the lawn. Even if I had had DEET,I still would have left because I couldn’t abide Peter Sellers pranks. While the BLO production was also played for laughs,at least it didn’t overshadow the music.

    Comment by Beth Wilson — March 17, 2013 at 8:27 pm

  2. Perhaps my close association with the Sellars Da Ponte Operas makes objectivity impossible, but I can tell you with assurance that his Act II did not play for laughs. Cosi is interesting in so many ways: a first act that is recklessly playful and filled with some of the most sublime ensembles ever written; a second act in which the ensembles largely disappear as the tone becomes darker and more interior. It is a troubling structure because Act I IS funny, and Act II simply is NOT. I always felt that Sellars (and Craig Smith) understood this. Are not the emotions and heartbreak of these characters to be taken seriously? These people do terrible things to each other. At the end of the opera – in an ironic musical coup – the words ‘Bella calma si trovera’ [something like: there you will find a sublime calm] are set by Mozart in the most frenetic fashion imaginable: the singers wailing away amid a chaotic and swirling orchestral texture – anything BUT calm – as if the prospect for finding peace after such damaging behavior is too much to hope for.

    Sellars staged these pieces from the orchestra score (which he had memorized). His directorial choices were invariably thought out and executed with great care and based on a deep understanding of the music and the libretto. In defending him I don’t expect to change minds; his work is not for everyone. But the work was serious and – for those of us lucky enough to work with him – among the most rewarding of our careers.

    The BLO production had some very fine singing – better than ‘regional’ I would say! It’s a shame that budgetary restrictions (I assume) necessitated rather severe and jarring cutting – both in the recits and ensembles and most alarmingly the beginning of the Act II finale. The musical performance was of a quality that would have warranted a more complete rendition.

    The translation – indeed the subject of opera in translation – is a subject for another time (or another comment?)

    Comment by Michael Beattie — March 17, 2013 at 11:23 pm

  3. re- No ship in Cosi… Maybe BLO is anticipating their April production of Flying Dutchman and perhaps have mistakenly engaged a ship that will never dock.

    Comment by de novo2 — March 18, 2013 at 8:03 pm

  4. We finally saw the production on 24 March. The theater, indeed, is a problem, noticeable immediately in the overture: no bloom, no resonance to the admirable playing. The translation was a nuisance, offering almost no intelligibility, while trading DaPonte’s mellifluous verse for some patter-like chatter. The singing was better than just regional, especially given the acoustic.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — March 25, 2013 at 8:50 am

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