Those who like Saturday Night Fever, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Motley Crue and Vegas Elvis will appreciate how guest stage director James Marvel’s plastic-coiffed, sometimes androgynous comic singers frugged to Mozart’s beat and vocalized vernacularized Da Ponte’s lyrics. For this neither prudish nor humorless writer, though, the only satisfactions arrived in the rare occasions when the director got out of the singers’ and composer’s way. Each of the six principals had at least one such turn, when the stage business left off and the music was permitted its place.
It has been said before on these pages that Così fan tutte, ossia La scuola degli amanti (Women Are Like That, or the School for Lovers) proves an inevitable vehicle for college companies, not only because it provides great solo moments for the principals, but also because there are so many fine ensembles to share the spotlight (in this case a strangely wobbly one). It doesn’t hurt that in better productions the first act encourages opera buffa exaggeration while the second partakes deeply of reconciliation. Friday night’s take, in which, “… plastics … represent the superficiality … of the world” (through Sunday) at the BU Theater showed off the College of Fine Arts’ accomplishments to mixed effect. One wonders why, in an academic setting, the producer chose to bring in a high-concept (perhaps low-concept) director who did so little to support his singers, and why, with seemingly ample resources he chose to frame the characters in surroundings so philosophically at odds with their post-Enlightenment origins.
Conductor / fortepianist William Lumpkin presided amicably over an ensemble fully up to Mozart’s demands. The winds figured prominently and engagingly in writing and execution; one was pleased to be in their company. Seemingly immersed more in Mozart’s world than in the onstage shenanigans, Lumpkin served as the singers’ and players’ best friend, advocating with great refinement both with his baton and his rippling, nuanced fortepianisms.
The principal singers invested fully in a concept which found them beating Mozart’s time with semaphore-like gestures while mugging at the audience. After perhaps 125 butt slaps, 99 pelvic thrusts and countless TV dance moves, one felt relieved each of the few times the hard sell relented. Benjamin Taylor delivered Guglielmo with a rubbery hoofer’s confidence in focused, attractive, dominating tones; he was the individual most able to project a blustering, human character. His Ferrando, tenor Jesse Darden, possesses an attractive light tone, which, when allowed to bloom, as when he stood alone onstage for “Un’aura amorosa,” conveyed genuine heartbreak. In portraying the puppetmaster Don Alfonso, Isaac Kim participated in the show’s one great coup de théâtre. He stood above the set and mimed (again in time to the beat) some sort of cross between pulling strings and conducting. While his instrument is not unattractive, he needs to work with a language coach and also develop expressions more nuanced than a fixed grin. He came across more like an actor having fun than a calculating DaPontiavelli.
Costumer Megan Mills hampered the sisters mightily with almost misogynistic Minnie Mouse outfits and contrasting fright wigs that denied them the slightest visual charm. Each cavorted with disco gestures which fought rather than supported compelling vocalism. The comic shtick imposed on Chelsea Seener, the Fiordiligi, sabotaged her “Come scoglio,” where laughter and guffaws nearly covered the raging drama. Yet her second-act reluctant defiance, “Fra gli amplessi,” provided another moving example of how Mozart is best served straight up. Dorabella’s seduction scene with Guglielmo, “Il Core Vi Dono,” had the beauty of tone and honesty of feeling that much of the other staging denied her (even as there was erotic romper room low jinks). Whether as a dominatrix in 6” spikes, a Vegas Elvis or a Mesmer-less apothecary, Ruby White’s Despina entertainingly adapted to the comic proceedings with contagious enthusiasm. The motley choristers had great vocal moments whenever they could escape their tableaux vivants or their line dancing. The trio/chorus “Soave sia il vento” scored high points for singers and winds.
Staging and surtitles mixed periods and styles to such an extent one really wondered where the adults were. Do hangman’s nooses really come in Hermes bags? What would Da Ponte have thought of his character saying, “This could be a primetime sitcom” or “We are two crazy guys with great bodies”? After enduring a kick in the balls, Ferrando directed an apostrophe to us, “Oh God, why?” as the surtitles crowed in Italian.
Did Jeffrey Petersen’s “lush set,” which looked like a model apartment in an ’80s Trump Tower really “invite the removal of artifice” that Marvel led us to expect? I can report that absence of artifice hardly ever happened.
When Ferrando and Guglielmo finally dropped their Albanian masks, they emerged as more or less normal guys. In more-respectful productions, where the sisters are not treated so cartoonishly, they are not another pair of ridiculous masqueraders. But James Marvel’s not so marvelous vision imprisoned the ladies from beginning to end in unfortunate bonbon wrappers. He may have made something more moving of the reconciliation had he dropped the gags and let the sisters ultimately emerge as recognizably human.
Balancing the humor and the pathos in Così requires subtle artistry that was evidenced mainly in the pit on this night.