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Office Space: Così Fan Tutte

Local opera companies serve an important role, bringing opera to their communities in smaller venues, closer to home (the suburbs), and at lower prices. Opera Theatre of Northern Virginia has been doing just that for 44 seasons now, with interesting, scaled-down productions of perennial favorites, as well as lesser-known works that major companies are unlikely to touch, like the company's planned May production of Haydn's La Canterina and Donizetti's Le convenienze teatrali -- and the Haydn is a Washington-area premiere. True, the difference in ticket price means a difference in the quality of music made, inevitably so when you have a chamber ensemble of 11 instruments instead of a full orchestra and singers hired from farther down the roster performing in a middle school auditorium. Those reservations aside, OTNV has done a good job with its latest production, Mozart's Così Fan Tutte, which we thought would appeal to more people looking for an affordable opera experience, at least more than showed up Friday night at the Thomas Jefferson Community Theatre in Arlington.

Mozart's last five years on this planet were time of which any opera composer would be proud: Le nozze di Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787), Così fan tutte (1790), and La Clemenza di Tito (arguably the only one that might be described as less than a masterpiece, perhaps a failure) and Die Zauberflöte (both in 1791). Of the big four, Così Fan Tutte, ossia La scuola degli amanti (libretto in English) is probably the least known and loved, with an odd libretto that is a kooky sex farce on the surface and possibly something much more profound on a deeper level. On second thought, maybe it's just silly. This production trims down not only the orchestra, but in another cost-saving move it also eliminates the chorus. This is not that important in the first act, where there is only the chorus of soldiers who serenade the two men going off to war. However, in the second act, I for one missed those chorus numbers, although reducing the opera to a series of ensembles and a few arias did make it into a leaner dramatic exercise.

Così Fan Tutte, Opera Theatre of Northern Virginia, March 3, 2006The singing was a mixed bag, led on the plus side by the solid soprano of Lisa Archibeque as Fiordiligi, ostensibly the lead female role, for the sort of soprano voice Mozart liked, with equally strong low and high registers. Baritone John Dooley brought a smooth and supple voice and a confident, even swaggering, stage presence to the role of Guglielmo. Mezzo-soprano Elaine Dalbo was visually a winner as the second, decidedly sluttier sweetheart, Dorabella. Bass Lewis Freeman had a good resonant sound as Don Alfonso; however, a lack of attention to detail led to a dropped or botched line here and there, and he sometimes rushed ahead, seemingly oblivious of the conductor. Freeman sang with some of the worst Italian pronunciation -- all diphthongs and American r's -- I have heard in a while, to the point that I was unsure if it was an intentional parody, although I have no idea what possible purpose that could have served.

The production was directed by Joe Banno, who in addition to a long record of directing work in regional theater and opera is one of the classical music critics for the Washington Post. OTNV's artistic director, John Edward Niles -- coincidentally, the son of John Jacob Niles, American composer and folk song collector -- also claimed some of the credit for the staging, which transposes the action in a cute and entertaining way from Mozart and Da Ponte's Naples to "Anytown, USA" in the present day. We find the story told in the modern old boys' club of business hell, and so Fiordiligi and Dorabella become office workers in identical cubicles with identical computer screens. Despina, instead of being their chambermaid, is the trashy bartender at the upscale martini bar they spend time in after work. In their business suits, Ferrando and Guglielmo, with their older boss, Don Alfonso (no longer a meddling philosopher), are men in need of sensitivity training, drinking and looking at girlie magazines in the office. The tragic bet is, by extension if not literally, a bit of water cooler braggadocio.

Other Reviews:

Mark J. Estren, Fiddling With 'Cosi' for Better and Worse (Washington Post, March 8)
Adding to the current events topicality, the men go off to their military duty in U.S. Army fatigues, with standard issue sidearms, and come back disguised as wealthy Arab sheikhs, complete with cheesy sunglasses, gutrah headdresses, and robes over their suits. Despina disguises herself as a butch EMT when she comes in as the medico in Act I, with defibrillator paddles, and as a power-suited lawyer when she is Beccavivi the notary. On occasion, the pop culture references were too much for my taste, as when one of the Arab-disguised suitors begins his serenade by holding up a boom box outside his beloved's window, à la Lloyd Dobler. The chamber orchestra -- string quintet plus five winds and piano -- contributed to and detracted from the performance in approximately equal parts. Again, there are reasons to pay more for an opera with a major company.

One word to the wise: Così is a sex farce, and this production pulls no punches. If you are tempted to take a youngster to see this opera -- the final performance is tomorrow, Sunday, March 5, at 2 pm -- be aware that there is more dry humping and bare skin here than you might associate with opera. If you don't want to explain to Junior what Despina and Don Alfonso were doing off stage, and why he hands her back her own red underwear after that, wait for another opera. As for the conclusion, the two women do not go back to their respective original lovers, as Da Ponte clearly indicates in the libretto, but switch for the men who seduced them in disguise. I agree with the brief program notes that Mozart's vocal casting -- soprano ends up instead with tenor, mezzo with baritone -- could support this inversion of what Da Ponte wanted.


jfl said...

I tend to find sex in productions among the very best means of keeping youngsters interested in just about anything... although not having children, I may not be allowed to chime in on that.

Smells a bit like Peter Sellars, from reading your review. And, although Wagner - among many others - almost gleefully pointed out that Cosi is the least popular of the three Da Ponte operas, there are more and more people that will agree that if Don Giovanni is the perfect opera, and Nozze the best - Cosi is the most enjoyable. At any rate, the music (which is why it must have been a bummer to get a chamber version) alone is absolutely sublime.

I'll see you for a drink "At Despina's".

Charles T. Downey said...

I think that the imagination of the average teenager would definitely be "aroused" by this production. That formerly always was and should be one of opera's primary draws as entertainment. I was thinking more of pre-middle school ages, where an explanation of the girlfriend swapping would be more problematic.

I agree with you about the quality of music in "Così," which especially represents the summa of Mozart's skill with brilliant dramatic vocal ensembles. The joy of listening to that music still conveys, even in a less than perfect performance.

Anonymous said...

Da Ponte "clearly indicates in the libretto" that "the women ... go back to their respective original lovers"??? Where, precisely? A lot of stage directors would have been spared a lot of hard thought over a lot of years if that were the case....

Charles T. Downey said...

Point taken about my choice of adverb. It's not clear. As I also wrote in the article, I agree that the ending is ambiguous enough to support alternate readings. However, I do think that if we had to ascribe a "default reading" to the libretto, it would be that the women recant of their infidelity, when they accuse Don Alfonso of deceiving them ("Ecco là il barbaro / Che c'ingannò"). When Alfonso "undoes his deception," it seems to me, things return to the way they were at the opera's opening, that is, the original pairings of lovers are restored. I think that's what the women mean when they sing "Compensar saprò il tuo core," that they will make up for their errors. That's the way I see it, anyway.