We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Saturday, November 16, 2019


William Socolof, James Ley, Kathleen O’Mara, Mer Wohlgemuth, Megan Moore, and Erik van Heyningen (photo by Richard Termine)
One cannot find better voices than one finds at Juilliard Vocal Arts. It was a revelation to hear six healthy young voices interpreting the characters of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte just as they should be. In the incredibly challenging role of Fiordiligi, soprano Kathleen O'Mara fearlessly tackled the high lying tessitura and broad upward jumps of "Come scoglio" and "Per pietà" maintaining clarity of tone in two very different emotional states.

As the somewhat more mutable Dorabella, mezzo-soprano Megan Moore dazzled us with her histrionic outpouring in "Smanie implacabili" and later, as her resolve weakens, with "É amore un ladroncello". We particularly appreciated the varying colors as her intention changed.

The role of Despina was splendidly realized by soprano Mer Wohlgemuth whose acting was completely persuasive and whose singing never showed a hint of "technique" but rather seemed completely natural. Her dramatic intention did not vary but she had an opportunity to show off her style in "Una donna a quindici anni".

The men were similarly outstanding. James Ley made a fine Ferrando and did complete justice to the marvelously tender and melodic "Un aura amorosa", then varied his coloration effectively for the bitter "Tradito, schernito".

As his friend Guglielmo, baritone Erik van Heyningen lived up to his full potential, managing to convey both the triumph in seducing his friend's fiancée as well as disappointment in "Donne mie, le fate a tanti".

We were more than usually impressed with the performance of bass-baritone William Socolof who performed the role of Don Alfonso, lightening his substantial voice sufficiently to perform the most exquisitely precise turns in the vocal line. We love to hear voices that possess both size and flexibility.

Duets and ensembles were effectively rendered with perfect balance among the voices, giving Mozart the attention to detail that his interweaving lines demand.

In the pit we had the superb Juilliard Orchestra responding just as one would expect to the astute conducting of Nimrod David Pfeffer. When we could tear our eyes away from the stage we enjoyed watching his expressive hand working in tandem with his precise baton. It was a performance filled with lyricism and subtlety. Nathaniel LaNasa played the harpsichord continuo.

And what about the production? Da Ponte's story was pulled up by the roots and transplanted to contemporary America. The story is set in a high school in a town called West Naples which could have been anywhere but by name alone, suggested the West coast of Florida. During the overture, the four young people have just graduated. They are therefore meant to be about 18 years old and therefore vulnerable to the machinations of the older Don Alfonso, who seemed to be an athletic coach.

Despina was transformed into a teacher and, in an original dramatic subtext, appeared to have had a one time problematic relationship with the aforementioned coach. Instead of a servant offering the girls their morning chocolate, she delivered academic papers.

Kristen Robinson's sets fell in line with this take on the story. Act I takes place in what appears to be a dormitory bathroom, complete with stalls with open doors. The "poison" taken by the "Albanians" is swigged from jugs of bleach drawn from what must be a janitorial closet.

Other scenes take place behind the bleachers of an athletic field where the two girls seem to hang out on beach chairs surrounded by detritus, including a puzzling broken bottom half of a torso--the kind used as window dressing. Or so we thought.

For the final act, the bleachers were turned around and the characters scampered up and down with some risk of stumbles. At the top was a booth to which repaired the newly formed couples for some canoodling, followed by "walks of shame".

Sara Jean Tosetti's costumes also fell in line with the story. Most effective was Despina's reserved suit with sensible shoes. The four young graduates wore motley costumes with doofy hats and, in a clever and original twist, the men did not fool their sweethearts by dressing in exotic costumes. Rather, they wore preppie clothes and neatly trimmed hair. Guess they could have fooled their sweethearts!

In one puzzling scene, Dorabella, newly mated with Guglielmo, pulls off his wig. We expected this to indicate that she recognized the ruse but the remainder of the scene did not fulfill our expectations.

When the phony rescue of the two "Albanians" takes place, Despina appears in a ridiculous and not convincing costume and when the fake marriage takes place, she appears in a white and gold jumpsuit suggesting Elvis Presley as the marriage officiant.

The audience loved all these sight gags and laughed every time the girls took selfies of themselves or used their cell phones. Did we love it?  No, we did not. We felt that the story was shoehorned into a "concept" which worked only partially. We read the notes of Director David Paul when we got home (as we usually do, to avoid coloring our perception of any work of art). His words made a case for the temporal and geographical transposition in terms of contemporary resonance.

However, regular readers will recall that we like to do the work ourself, instead of being spoon fed. We remember with overwhelming pleasure the production from seven years ago, directed by Stephen Wadsworth. It was true to time and place and told Da Ponte's story well, although darkly, with lots of anger and confusion. We spent quite a bit of time thinking about how consistent human feeling is from the 19th c. to the 21st and also about what is different.

Mr. Paul's view wound up similarly dark with no marriage at the end and no pairing off. We will say that we enjoyed the way he directed his cast and, within the framework he chose, the acting was valid and meaningful. We just didn't care for fitting the story into his Procrustean bed.  We guess it's a question of taste. We don't mind updating if such updating tells us something new but this production did not. 

© meche kroop

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