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Miller's School for Lovers

Joel Prieto (Ferrando), Elizabeth Futral (Fiordiligi), Renata Pokupić
(Dorabella), and Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Guglielmo) in Così fan tutte,
Washington National Opera, 2011 (photo by Scott Suchman)
Così fan tutte, Mozart’s final collaboration with Lorenzo da Ponte, is something of a sphinx, an opera that asks questions and makes you wait for answers, whether they come or not. It is also an opera that is often enjoyed without truly being understood, to which audiences are willing to respond with laughter when its underlying message should make us squirm with discomfort. Washington National Opera's new production, directed by Jonathan Miller and retrofitted to snobby Washington from his latest updating of the opera at Covent Garden, does not provide any real illumination of the work’s meaning, preferring to gloss over the work itself by tinkering with the libretto. It was not a good sign that the biggest laughs from the opening night crowd, on Saturday at the Kennedy Center Opera House, were prompted by jokes about Manassas and Baltimore, obviously not even in the libretto but inserted into it through the supertitle machine.

The cast was led by the Don Alfonso of William Shimell, smooth as glass in a welcome and long-overdue company debut, a sort of senior partner to the besuited lawyers of Guglielmo and Ferrando. He was seconded by the stout-voiced Despina of Christine Brandes, as a somewhat butch, latte-fetching executive assistant. Of the two men of the lead couples, Teddy Tahu Rhodes had the upper hand vocally, a baritone of rough-hewn power, although he could have been singing in Albanian for all I knew from his diction. As Ferrando, tenor Joel Prieto, in a disappointing company debut, mostly held his own in the ensemble numbers, with a sometimes disturbing lack of agility on the runs, but tended to sag flat on his own, making his solo moments, especially the luscious aria “Un'aura amorosa,” less than pleasing. There was a similar disparity between the women, with the chesty Fiordiligi of Elizabeth Futral outweighing the wispy Dorabella of Renata Pokupić. The two roles are now generally cast with a soprano and mezzo-soprano, although even more than Susanna and the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro, the two sisters often exchange musical lines, an "implicit demonstration of their interchangeability," as scholar Bruce Alan Brown once put it.

available at Amazon
B. A. Brown, Così fan tutte (Cambridge Opera Handbooks)
The first Fiordiligi was Da Ponte's mistress, Adriana Ferrarese, a fact leading him to make the sisters from Ferrara, although the action is set in Naples. Jonathan Miller, who also designed the sets and costumes (the latter here updated by Timm Burrow), sets the story instead in Washington, with the men as lawyers or lobbyists and the women as fashion designers or Real Housewives in Training, taking potshots at the suburbs. The single set is a nondescript eggshell-on-ivory affair, with a heavy-handed mirror prop near the door, in which all the characters repeatedly make sure to check their reflections. To complete the ruse of their departure, the men are called up with their reserve unit, appearing in U.S. Army fatigues to take their leave. Inexplicably, they return as tattooed biker dudes instead of as Albanian soldiers: the Austrian Emperor's war against the Turks in eastern Europe was the backdrop for Da Ponte's libretto. Having the men come back as Afghan war lords or something might have made sense; having the supertitles have them say things like "Most righteous of babes, we salute you" was another example of going for the cheapest of laughs.

One of the oddest moments in the opera is, in the words of Bruce Alan Brown, "the extravagant Mesmerian charade in the first finale," when the disguised men are cured of the poison they have supposedly taken by the magnetic cure of Franz Anton Mesmer. The German-born, Vienna-based quack supposedly financed the young Mozart's opera Bastien und Bastienne, although there is no reason to think that Wolfgang or Leopold ever actually believed in the magnetic cure. Mesmerism was officially debunked in 1784, by a commission that included Benjamin Franklin, which found that the apparent cures were due mostly to the suggestibility of Mesmer's female patients. Brown noted that Jonathan Miller, in an earlier production, "has staged the scene quite seriously," where other directors often eliminate or replace the magnetic cure with some more believable ploy. This time, somewhat disappointingly, Miller used a machine that looked like a heart defibrillator, when any number of recent healing "miracles" could have served as well. It is true that the libretto is odd: it was long rumored that Mozart's contemporary Salieri had tried and failed to set it as an opera. This suspicion was not proved until John Rice discovered an autograph score, in Salieri's hand, of that composer's music for two of the numbers, after which he simply stopped.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Washington National Opera’s ‘Cosi fan tutte’ (Washington Post, February 27)

Tim Smith, Washington National Opera gives musical, theatrical jolt to 'Cosi fan tutte' (Baltimore Sun, February 27)

Simon Chin, Così fan tutte at the Washington National Opera (Maryland Theater Guide, February 27)
If not much about the original libretto remained and if the cast was varied, the orchestral score was in good hands with music director Philippe Auguin, who showed an uncanny knack for finding just the right tempo and for bringing out subtle colors from the strings, as in the undulating waves of Soave il vento. Leading with confidence and immaculately placed cues, Auguin guided the Opera House Orchestra through a capable performance, featuring solid woodwinds (sparkling in the many runs of the overture) and slightly shaky horns and trumpets. The largely unnecessary chorus sounded in good form but wandered on and off in an unexplained role, looking like little time had been spent giving them business to do. A mellow, quite lovely fortepiano, played with verve and wit by Michael Baitzer, was a nice touch for the recitatives, not least when it provided the ring to Don Alfonso's smartphone. As Miller sees the ending of this enigmatic opera, the lovers go back to neither pairing, before or after the disguise: when the ruse is revealed, all six people leave the stage in different directions, more alone than ever.

This production continues through March 15, in the Kennedy Center Opera House.


jfl said...

A troubled opera and a not-so-new staging that has divided reviewers for very nearly two decades now. Very hard to tell what a superb cast and careful touch-ups can to do change it in either the "miraculous" or "wonderful" direction. The disguise-thing (I certainly don't need or want Albanian soldiers with fake mustachios, but initially cringed when the bikers entered) is ever iffy.

That said, the central mirror is key to the staging and the work, and when I saw it in its second-to last (?) updating at Covent Garden in 2010, it was the first and only Così I ever fully enjoyed dramatically. In fact, I thought it was (wait for it!) ... mesmerizing!

Anonymous said...

Another (and similarly negative) take on this production from Maryland Theatre Guide: