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.
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.”