IN: Reviews

We’re All Like What?

by

Ketti Jane Muschler & Martin Pizarro (Brendan Chapuis)

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.

Emerald Barbour and Henrique Neves (Brendan Chapuis photo)

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.

* * *

Arinanna Paz and James Liu (Brendan Chapuis photo)

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.

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*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

9 Comments »

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9 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. To the Editor,
    I was disappointed to read that you did not enjoy your recent experience of an ADAPTATION of the classic Cosí Fan Tutte. I have only one question for you. WAS IT REALLY NECESSARY TO WRITE A SCATHING REVIEW? Sure you didn’t find it as polished as some Peter Sellers version you can watch on TV. Opera is not meant to be watched on TV. It is a live theater Experience. In today’s day and age it is sad that an old man such as yourself would rage against a group of artists creating work for an audience of their peers simply because you don’t get it. Well sir, this performance wasn’t for you.
    I can see from a quick google search that your prowess in opera is lacking compared to that of Ms. Boris and her delightful team of designers who you failed to mention entirely.

    Comment by The costume lady — April 22, 2019 at 7:12 pm

  2. Old? Guilty as charged! Prowess lacking? Dunno about that. Scathing? I don’t think so. I enjoyed the show and am very glad to learn that Ms. Boris had a delightful team.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — April 22, 2019 at 7:27 pm

  3. This is not a scathing review. All I’ll say about the Peter Sellers productions is that while the settings, costumes, and concepts can be completely outré, he didn’t TOUCH the music or the libretto.

    Comment by Thomas Dawkins — April 23, 2019 at 3:07 am

  4. Oh, my! Should The Boston Musical Intelligencer have an age test for its reviewers? Just how old and decrepit are you, Mr. Eiseman? By the way, I saw the performance and thought your review was appropriately kind and generous.

    Comment by Mary Runkel — April 23, 2019 at 10:20 am

  5. I am extremely troubled by the reviewer’s question of whether Don Giovanni is a serial rapist. The reviewer’s language about Don G’s behavior fits in with the male sentiment that “no means yes.” That we “like it” when we are harassed. Please join the 21st Century.

    Comment by Megan — April 24, 2019 at 8:25 am

  6. While Regretfully I had to pass up several operas (OK 2/3rds of Trittico (new) and Die Fledermaus (once) and I’m probably missing Vixen which I’ve seen twice before) I also passed up this one by choice. Before commenting further later I need to say that in 1984 I saw Peter Sellars’ Cosi at Castle Hill up in Ipswich while they were still doing such things before the performance series got canned a few years later. IT WAS AWFUL! Yes, it too was set in a modern ’50’s diner (no barrel-roofed Worcester); what I particularly remember is that besides the production’s inane deadness it started at 8:45pm and with two intermissions and many many retunings of the strings due to a fog’s coming in from the ocean it finally ground to a halt at 1:20am and I never figured out whether they had reached the end or just given up. At four and a half hours the production was at least seven hours too long–that is my take. I remember especially two things: 1) the squirting of the ketchup bottles, and 2) the scene where some group of people were supposed to come on stage which they did by coming down the hillside behind the stage through the fog with lights carrying plastic model helicopters a la that movie Apocalypse Something. I have ever since described “Cosi fan Tutti” as the most boring opera ever written beating out Schuller’s “The Fisherman and His Wife” by two blocks worth of Huntington Avenue. Strangely there was no review supposedly of Cosi of Castle Hill in the Boston papers it was that bad and of course Sellars was regarded then as a local worthy genius to be guarded. About a year later Ralph de Toledano in National Review of all places briefly mentioned this production as having been uniformly bad–and deliberately ignored. That is all I will say to the Sellars production–but remember this because it pertains to modern stagings that DON’T work..

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — April 27, 2019 at 8:11 pm

  7. As promised I resume 1) Me-Tooism (the modern kind) is au courant right now and we just came from BLO’s doing a virtual rape-crisis intervention in the talk-back for Britten’s Lucretia 6 weeks ago; I saw something similar happen after a performance of “Carousel” regarding spousal abuse. ENOUGH! Works from two centuries ago often don’t take kindly to such treatment because customs were different etc. and after getting lectured audiences may start to go do something else instead for the time. 1a) There is a certain candidate running around loose right now who will be given a pass by the Me-Too people just like a certain President was given a pass some time ago. This pertains to how sincere Me-Too will be. 1c) Observing all the young children around many young males and females must be getting along with each other. 1d) Audiences DO grow tired of being lectured at; be smart about how you go about doing such. “Cosi” is possibly one of the least amenable pieces to being reworked without being turned into a non-“Cosi”. I’ve only once seen such reworking done successfully when OperaHub reworked Marschner’s “Der Vampyr” with a related story with (mostly) the same music back in 2014 to great delight–saw it twice.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — April 27, 2019 at 9:35 pm

  8. OK. Lowell House’s productions, and why Lowell House Opera exists. In 1971 I saw them do a traditional Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” (BTW Stravinsky was still alive then; when he died in 1972 it was front-page news–today his passing’d be ignored by the Globe.) Then for decades I lost track of them until Boston Opera Calendar and the vogue for putting ads in concert programs for other companies’ productions (log-rolling for a good purpose) let me know they still existed. Lowell House has given me a Salieri opera (rare), a strange Queen of Spades, and a Le Comte Ory (rare). Cosi I’ve told you all about; last year the BosCon students showed me it’s not Totally Boring but it does have stretches of the deadly “Mozart Dullness” in it and I’m NOT going to go see it for a third time. Thus if Lowell House goes to a diet of warhorses I won’t be there. Why Lowell House has existed for one production a year since 1938? I dunno. Probably it’s a Harvard Thing. I notice Lowell House is not just Harvard students but Harvard hangers-on, neighbors, etc. They do have staff turnover; Lydia L. did several productions but she’s not connected with them now. Staging: the conceit of having “Spades” take place in a “madhouse” enabled getting rid of some scenes plausible but fortunately the music carried the changes enough to make a satisfying whole. Which brings up what I’ve said before that any changes must “work” else a production falls flat through awkwardness. Sounds like “Spades” hobbled through while “Cosi” tripped and fell down; I was tangling with tax returns instead at the time. Do keep doing your “thing”, Lowell House Opera. Yes, I saw there is a “rival” Harvard Opera or something like that–you’ve got competition!

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — April 27, 2019 at 10:11 pm

  9. Hope this piece didn’t come across as a Sellars apologia. I decamped from that mosquito-ridden downer of a show in Ipswich. I added the clip just to show that contemporary conceits could be more fully developed, but doesn’t it look dated already?

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — April 28, 2019 at 12:04 pm

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