All that in a comedy! We know what treachery, deceit and betrayal look like in the 21st c. but to learn what they looked like in the 18th c. we must put our eyes and ears in the hands of Mozart and Da Ponte who explored those very issues in the comedy Cosi fan Tutte. We have sat through this opera countless times, most unthankfully when the director updated the story to the mid 20th c. and placed it in a diner in Queens, and recently when it was updated to contemporary times and placed in a Wall Street firm. We did not appreciate being spoon fed the notion that interaction between the sexes has not changed.
Fortuitously, director Kay Walker Castaldo has presented the story the way it was written but has put her personal stamp on the Prelude to Performance production at Hunter College. Ms. Castaldo had enough original ideas for two productions and most of them added to our understanding and enjoyment. The overture was visualized for us by a framing device that seemed to show a troop of actors bustling about preparing for the performance. One wished to have returned to this situation at the close! A non-singing role was added-- that of a sourpuss dueña played in travesti by Oliver Wolf; along with the presence of crosses, this emphasized the notion that we were in an upper class Catholic home where two sisters will be tempted into misbehavior by two devilish presences, that of the cynical Don Alfonso, effectively portrayed and sung by bass-baritone André Courville and that of the charmingly sassy ladies' maid Despina, splendidly acted and sung by soprano Mizuho Takeshita. These morally loose characters were made far more appealing than the strict black-garbed guardian of morality.
One realizes soon what the director was going for--a battle between love and lust. Originally, the two sisters Fiordiligi, sung by bell-voiced soprano Clara Heikyung Yu and Dorabella, sung and engagingly acted by mezzo Yiselle S. Blum are betrothed respectively to the tall handsome Guglielmo, richly sung and acted by Steven LaBrie and the adorable blond Ferrando, sung by sweet-voiced tenor Rogelio B. Peñaverde. Having wagered with the devil incarnate Don Alfonso over the fidelity of their sweethearts, they woo each other's intended. By Act II, the minimal but consummately effective set (credited to Peter Harrison) was awash in symbolism of The Fall. Trees and flowerpots were overturned; there was a basket of apples; Dorabella and Guglielmo are snuggling (or snogging) under a blanket. Bad boy Mozart would have loved it!
With so much talent onstage it is difficult to single out any one performer; all worked together as an ensemble. There are, however, some memorable stage pictures. As the curtain rose we saw a silhouette of one of the performers vividly outlined against a yellow-lit backdrop. When the opera itself began, we witnessed Don Alfonso, Ferrando and Guglielmo being bounced along in an invisible coach. The trio were so good at this that we could actually see the coach in our mind's eye. Another image we won't soon forget is the entrance of the two men pretending to be Albanians, dressed to the nines in the most outlandish and yet wildly becoming costumes (credited to Charles Caine whom we have decided is one of the best in the business). Yet another is the struggle on the face of Dorabella as she contemplated giving in to her lust for the disguised Guglielmo and thereby betraying her love for Ferrando. We further enjoyed the set changes being performed by a quartet of housemaids, each one of which had a personality of her own.
If we have a cavil or two, it might be that occasionally the always hilarious stage business occurred during a major aria and distracted one's attention from the singer. Also, it seemed excessive to toss the dueña over a wall to get rid of her. The sybolism was clear but it reminded us too much of poor Falstaff being tossed into the Thames the previous night.
We particularly enjoyed the spacious pacing of Maestro Steven White which gave the uniformly talented singers space to caress the vowels. This is not to say that the action lagged in any way; on the contrary, the action moved right along.
This will become the Cosi against which all our future Cosi's will be measured, just as last night's Falstaff did. We are clamoring for more of these exceptional evenings. And yes, this is a love letter to Martina Arroyo who has made such a remarkable difference in the New York City opera scene. MWAH!
(c) meche kroop