|Amanda Majeski, Jarrett Ott, Rod Gilfry, Ben Bliss, and Emily D'Angelo|
(Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera)
It was at the tail end of the Enlightenment when Mozart and Da Ponte created their puzzling masterpiece Cosi fan tutte, puzzling because it has one foot in comedy and the other in tragedy. It must have scandalized the opera-going public at that time. As late as the 20th c. audiences might have understood the shame experienced by cheating fiancées; but 21st century morality has changed and partner swapping no longer shocks or shames.
Given Mozart's marvelous music and an attractive young cast, we expected a captivating telling of the tale, especially since we have previously enjoyed the fresh takes on Händel's operas provided by Stage Director R.B. Schlather. To say we were disappointed would be a gross understatement; in fact we were appalled by this meretricious production.
We frequently closed our eyes during the "important" arias so we could focus on the glorious voices. It was indeed a casting coup to have engaged these artists who were excellent vocally and who worked well as an ensemble, apparently doing their best to give Mr. Schlather what he wanted.
Tenor Ben Bliss, possessor of a gorgeous instrument, could have melted anyone's heart with his "Un'aura amorosa". His voice has expanded in the past couple of years without losing any of its tonal luster. It was amazing that Fiordiligi could hold out for so long!
Baritone Jarrett Ott has a compelling stage presence and sings with baritonal beauty that was never lost in this low lying tessitura. Mozart did not give him a memorable aria but "Non siate ritrosi" was given a fine delivery. He was memorable in his seduction of Dorabella.
The role of Dorabella was performed by the excellent young mezzo-soprano Emily D'Angelo who possesses an instrument of distinctive texture. We particularly enjoyed her performance of "Smanie implacabili" for its gorgeous vocalism and over-the-top dramatics.
The soprano role of Fiordiligi was performed by Amanda Majeski who readily conquered the wide skips of the showpiece aria "Come scoglio". However we were distressed by a hard edge in her voice that sounded shrill. In duets and ensembles this feature created an unpleasant imbalance in the harmonies. Also, her ornamentation could have been crisper in its articulation.
Baritone Rod Gilfry is always a welcome presence, even when he portrays un unlikeable character like Don Alfonso. How can one like an older man who treats his young friends as puppets to play with! We call him guilty of entrapment.
Soprano Tracy Dahl got a lot of laughs as Despina and we loved the particular timbre of her high soprano. It was particularly funny that her height brought her barely to the shoulders of the other artists. "Una donna a quindici anni" was given plenty of sass.
We always enjoy Mozart's duets and ensembles, especially "Soave sia il vento". The esteemed conductor Maestro Harry Bicket led the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra in a lively reading of the score, also giving the lyrical moments plenty of space.
We also noticed that moments of comedy were enhanced by leaving an extra beat of silence right before a humorous line. We don't know whether Mo. Bicket or Mr. Shlather was responsible for this but it worked well.
Now, about the production--we found it illogical, incomprehensible, and just plain ugly. It would take forever to relate every single instance of directorial waywardness but let us name a few. In Act I, all four of the young lovers were directed to move jerkily around the stage, roll on the floor, fight, and bounce off the walls.
Despina has a magic wand to "heal" the poisoned "Albanians" (who in this case were silver-clad cowboys) and appears to use it to advance Don Alfonso's machinations. If "magic" is involved, it undercuts the theme of human foibles and succumbing to the pull of romantic variety. In this production the women can't really take responsibility for their lapses although they do feel shame.
The final scene was particularly confusing. Don Alfonso makes all four young lovers kneel as if preparing for an ISIS beheading; then he pours water or some other liquid on their heads.
Characters were often onstage when they were not supposed to be. Don Alfonso had no justification for announcing the return of the fiancés just when everyone was partially deshabillé.
Terese Waddens' costume design furthered the confusion. The young men first appear in what seems to be tennis whites, as do the young women. The men then appear dressed as cowboys, so that when they next appear as the "Albanians" the only apparent difference is that their moustaches are gone. This makes it even more preposterous that the ladies don't recognize their fiancés.
Despina is costumed in an unflattering housedress and later in a spangled evening gown that harmonizes with those of her employers robbing her of her special role in the plot. No attempt was made to convince anyone that she was a notary or a doctor.
Dorabella at first looks very feminine with long hair. Toward the end she appears wearing a man's suit and very short hair. Why?
Paul Tate De Poo III's minimalistic set design was similarly ill advised. Flat architectural elements had square spaces cut out of them through which characters emerged in somersaults or fell through. The floor had a similar square hole through which characters emerged or descended. None of these movements served the plot. There were no props except for Despina's magic wand.
Perhaps Mr. De Poo and Ms. Wadden were just giving Mr. Schlather what he wanted, just like the singers. But the overall effect added nothing to our understanding of the characters. We speculate that Mr. Schlather wanted his audience to focus on the psychology of the characters and the emotional effects of their interaction. This is not the way to do it!
When we see a production that honors the intent of the librettist and composer and is given a specific context of time and place, we in the audience do the work of finding parallels with our own time and place, as well as differences. It gives us a feeling of participation and a sense of understanding of our place in history.
On the other hand, a barren production like this one was devoid of context. Such abstraction leaves us feeling alienated and disconnected, when we should be identifying with the characters and caring about their destinies.
So...Mozart 10: Schlather 2! It was the production which was guilty of infidelity and the audience which was betrayed!
(c) meche kroop