In Lowell House Opera’s run of Così Fan Tutte, stage director Adrienne Boris has mounted a spirited defense of women. Not for Boris the misogynist portrayal of Fiordiligi and Dorabella as ditzes. And she reduced the male counterparts, Guglielmo and Ferrando, to misguided puppies / puppets at the hands of string-pullers Don Alfonso and Despina, respectively lacrosse coach and housemother in a Naples Florida prep school dining hall. Placing the action among the privileged and callow in unattractive dishabille narrows the possibilities for transformative stage magic, however, and Boris’s suggestion that fickleness constitutes a general condition of hormonally imbalanced youth blunts the possibility for Mozart’s satisfying reconciliation. Rich and slovenly hardly substitute for princely and refined. While commonplace vernacular may get a guffaw, Da Ponte knew what he was doing, b’gawd: leave his words alone. Selfies, “what the fuck”s and references to the Internet … meh. Class status is less of a factor in this opera than in, say, Le Nozze, yet the fact that housemother Despina seemed classier and more mature than her charges inverted authorial intent, even if we, and she, still enjoyed the bright soubretteishness. Finally, portraying Don Alfonso as a sourpuss denied him the role of bemused cynic and stand-in for the supreme ironist Da Ponte.
Conductor Edward Jones marshaled the volunteer players with great understanding and effectively guided vocal ensembles to ontime and intact arrivals. And as this is an opera where ensembles predominate, it’s a relief to report that in the penultimate night of the run (Friday), they worked as intended. Jones’s continuo also supported the recitatives commendably, although his over-amplified electric piano made ghastly un-HIP sounds. The winds gratified. Altogether, Mozart escaped any serious scathing, and the onstage enjoyment proved infectious, even if no moments of great hilarity or deep poignancy ensued.
The serviceable unit set with stone floor and illuminated back window provided plenty of working space for the principal singers and the small effective chorus. Shell games with tables and chairs proved inadequate to convey changes of scene; morphing of color and lighting intensity felt mostly arbitrary — except during Firodiligi’s standup wedding-toast moment, during which the universe briefly stopped in its tracks. That was one of few episodes of interesting blocking. Thirty years ago, Peter Sellars did a modern-dress coffee shop Cosi; his Kabuki gestures responded to the score HERE with a well-developed concept.
As Fiordiligi, Ketti Jane Muschler commanded the stage with dramatic intensity and pipes to match, meeting the test of steadfastness in “Come scoglio,” although she could have been costumed more considerately. Emerald Barbour, the Dorabella, took on a flighty undergraduate callowness convincingly, but might have relaxed more into her legato. Their duets would have benefited from greater differentiations of fach. As Ferrando, Martin Pizzaro acquitted himself well in the recitatives and ensembles and reached the frequent As without incident. But his primo passagio sometimes sounded strangulated in the major aria “Un’aura amorosa.”
Two undergraduates enjoyed great vocal successes. Senior Arianna Paz’s Despina gave nonstop pleasure. Her warmth of timber and accomplishments as a comedienne placed her in select company. Freshman Henrique Neves brought a seamless, sumptuous and long-phrased baritone to the role of Guglielmo, surprisingly polished for such a young man. Veteran singer, doctor, and BMInt writer James Liu provided reliable solidity and equaled the considerable demands of Don Alfonso, though we would have enjoyed a bit more smiling menace and livelier theatrical sardonics.
Now that the run has concluded, we can share the spoiler: Don Alfonso received a beating from the other principals at the end, suggesting that #MeToo exploitations of students by teachers need to be called out. “Like its [Da Ponte] Don Giovanni cousin, Cosi constantly slips between comic and darker moments, but at least in Giovanni the serial rapist gets dragged to hell at the end,” Boris writes. But is the Don a serial rapist? Don’t most of his “conquests” desire him for a time?* Do the Cosi lovers need much convincing to join the plots? And are the women really so dumb as to believe in the mistaken identities? Perhaps they only pretend to be confused. In willingly acceding to the risqué, couple-swapping charade, they could be thought to maintain personal agency.
We prefer to witness a concluding general confession with forgiveness and reconciliation such as characterize the most moving of Cosis. But we agree with Boris that “we are all like that”… not just women. (The production poster and title are pointed about it: LA SCUOLA DEGLI AMANTI, OSSIA: COSÌ FAN TUTTI.) So why blame Don Alfonso when fickleness and human frailty run rampant? Take Da Ponte’s advice: “…amid the tempests of this world, find sweet peace,” and don’t beat up the messenger.
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One wonders about the raisons d’être for the company. “Established in 1938, the Lowell House Opera is the longest continually performing opera company in New England, featuring students, professionals, and community members from both Harvard and the greater Boston area. For undergraduates in particular, the [company] offers a unique opportunity to work with more experienced artists who have devoted their professional lives to opera, music, and theater.” Only three of the 12 singers (in the alternating casts) were undergrads this year, and the two I heard already sang at least as well as the experienced hands. Half of the staff on the production side were undergrads. Is it for the advancement of these individuals that the company prospers? From an audience perspective, I wonder if we need to hear familiar operas done in budget productions in this age of great videos. The nostalgic former — and wildly enthusiastic current — Lowell House residents and singers’ friends and families evidently think we do.
*Directors should not attempt to trivialize the great figure of Don Giovanni and deny the agency of the women who desired him. “If he did not exist, women would invent him — and this would be a great gift on their part. He haunts the imagination of men and women alike because he is the symbol of desire that remains desire. And what Mozart realized is that it is this very unfulfillability of desire in us that carves out a need for ideality and gives birth to opera, music, poetry.” — Ashley (a feminist with creds) commented HERE.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer