12 Jun 2013

Così fan tutte in San Francisco

Tucked away somewhere in the San Francisco Opera warehouse was an old John Cox production of Così fan tutte from Monte Carlo. Well, not that old by current standards at San Francisco Opera.

It first appeared at the Prince Rainier Auditorium in 2004, the temporary home of Opéra Monte Carlo while the Casino’s magnificent Salle Garnier was in restoration. Perhaps this explains why its false proscenium is so wide and low, in fact disconcertingly so.

The production is a relic from the Pamela Rosenberg era at San Francisco Opera, when high concept productions were the norm rather than the exception. John Cox is one of the British opera producers cabal so for its time the production had some prestige.

Così fan tutte is the bête noire of the trilogy (with Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro), a far fetched little story about the trivialities of puppy love. Of course it gets serious there for a while, and even explores the darker side of love if you want (and know how) to go there.

John Cox and his American designer Robert Perdziola told the story in Monte Carlo where young ladies have lives of ease and young men have money to wager. Croupiers are dashing and dangerous and hotels have maids. The Hotel de Paris is next to the Casino, and the harbor is just below — an intimate and very definable locale, maybe better than Mozart’s Bay of Naples.

Ignoring the fantasy battles of young lovers messieurs Cox and Perdziola imposed a real war, World War I, so that the young men were actually inducted. The Hotel de Paris became a military hospital to the chagrin of remaining guests, and the young ladies become nurses. In the end the young men leave the young ladies standing there as they march back into battle.

Into these colliding worlds of fiction and non-fiction stage director Jose Maria Condemi had the task of moving his actors through the paces of the story, which he thoroughly and carefully accomplished, establishing character and providing schtick. Though sometimes there was simply nothing to do.

It was up to Mozart and the maestro, Nicola Luisotti to make music, after all these young artists had torments to express for which they were more or less capable. San Francisco Opera’s reigning Mozart heroine, Ellie Dehn (the Countess in Le nozze [2010] Donna Anna in Giovanni [2011]) sang Fiordiligi. This heroine has much to sing, some of it quite difficult as it exploits the limits of the soprano range, the lower extreme not really in Mlle. Dehn’s voice. The vocal high point of the performance was Dorabella’s first aria Smanie implacabili, sung by German mezzo soprano Christel Lötzsch where the jagged vocal line found a rare synergy with the maestro who discovered an orchestral roughness to make this aria a true duet of vibrant musical forces.

While both ladies are accomplished singers they are also shapely singers, all the better to model the fine imitations of art deco couture created by designer Perdziola, one of the more apparent pleasures of the afternoon.

Maestro Luisotti finds drama, or emotive detail that illuminates the Mozart genius in sometimes unexpected and always immensely pleasurable ways. These discoveries were in evidence throughout the performance, though rarely in collaboration with his singers in their arias. There were however moments of exquisite beauty in many of the ensembles, particularly in the early on trio Soave sia il vento (May the wind be gentle) where all motion became sublimated into a frozen moment of time. These few sublime instances overwhelmed any dramatic tension that might have developed during the afternoon.

The biggest tensions of the performance occurred in the overture. The maestro has raised the pit so that the tips of the bass viols are just at stage level. This gives a brighter and more immediate sound, and there was great fun to be had watching the maestro tease the woodwinds to achieve their solos at breakneck speeds. And there was severe distress created by the dragging tempos of the trumpets. This bizarre problem persisted well into the performance, placing distrust in the musical forces that we would endure for three and one half hours.

Ferrando was sung by Italian tenor Francesco Demuro. Mr. Demuro is much more Italianate vocally than Mozartian, in fact his credits include no Mozart roles at all. Guglielmo was sung by first year Adler Fellow Philippe Sly, a highly communicative performer in an auspicious main stage debut. Don Alfonso was sung by Italian bass-baritone Marco Vinco who made a case for this usually cynical personage to be a careless gambler, however a bit timid one vocally. Former Adler Fellow Susannah Biller ably went through the paces of a typical Despina.

It was a long, very long afternoon at the opera.

Michael Milenski

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Cast and Production Information:

Fiordiligi: Ellie Dehn; Dorabella: Christel Lötzsch; Despina: Susannah Biller; Ferrando: Francesco Demuro; Guglielmo: Philippe Sly; Don Alfonso: Marco Vinco. San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti. Stage Director: Jose Maria Condemi; Production Designer: Robert Perdziola. War Memorial Opera House, June 9, 2013.