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Performances

Susanna Phillips, Katharine Goeldner and Susanne Mentzer [Ken Howard © 2007]
13 Aug 2007

Così fan tutte Deconstructed

W. A. Mozart’s Così fan tutte, heard on a stormy night July 11, proved a sorry exercise in deconstruction, something I never expected to endure at Santa Fe Opera.

Above: Susanna Phillips, Katharine Goeldner and Susanne Mentzer
W. A. Mozart, Così fan tutte
Santa Fe Opera, 2007

All photos taken by Ken Howard © 2007 courtesy of Santa Fe Opera

 

Last heard at Santa Fe in 2003, in a then-innovative and refreshing presentation by James Robinson of the Colorado Opera, the same visual production was back, with an entirely new cast, but given considerable new ‘method’ by Robinson the on-going stage director. It did not wear well.

Politely put, Robinson’s Così was a gag-filled, vulgar romp. Such is not Mozart’s Così, an elegant, ironic comedy – not an ambiguous study of human nature requiring Regietheatre treatment, as is the present day style with this piece. To make Così into slapstick comedy combined with faux psychological exploration of the characters is to miss the point.

Essentially a bittersweet comedy of character types, set to some of Mozart’s most exhilarating and beautiful music, Così indeed has dark edges that serve to heighten amusement over the foibles of human nature. I am bored by producers treating Così as a post-Wagnerian or neo-Freudian exercise of great profundity. Yes, the tormented bad conscience of Fiordiligi, as she wavers between passion for her new lover and duty to her old one, can touch the heart (through the music) – but right away Mozart tells us, ‘don’t take it so seriously – look how the boys are acting!’ Mozart has Don Alfonso (the agent provocateur of the show), mocking the insensitive lovers who have foolishly set out to trap their ladies into unfaithfulness, and got what they deserved. Of course, “women are like that,” as the title tells us, but so are men. That’s the show! What really counts in an evening of Così are the music and the singing, done in tongue-in-cheek 18th Century style. Director Robinson’s endless sight-gags and slapstick, as well as the over-wrought posturing of his characters, just got in the way. How many times can you throw a wedding bouquet around the stage or bang a baritone over the head with a huge Valentine box of chocolates?

Ironically, the Santa Fe Program book, always an interesting document, reserves a page to recall how a Metropolitan Opera production of Così, introduced December 1951 (your writer was privileged to attend the piano dress and five subsequent performances of that production in early 1952 ), was such a vital musical and theatrical success it inspired a young John O. Crosby, founder of the Santa Fe Opera, to establish his festival company in the mountains of Northern New Mexico some fifty years ago.

American actor Alfred Lunt was credited with the production, though Met manager Rudolf Bing and conductor Fritz Stiedry had major input. The Met’s old Così endured for many seasons and had no ‘concept’ beyond Mozart’s. Lunt’s chief contribution was to appear as a servant in full livery to prance about the stage during the overture lighting the footlights, which he did with nimble elegance and humor. From that point on, the Met’s celebrated Così was a straightforward rendering of the Mozart-DaPonte show, as written, based on the tasteful style of the famous Glyndebourne productions first heard in the seminal Mozart revivals of the 1930s. Soprano Eleanor Steber, Fiordiligi in the Met production, imparted to this writer, “Lunt never gave us any individual direction; Blanche (Thebom) had sung it at Glyndebourne so she showed us what to do.” That was a long time ago, but the germinal Glyndebourne influence long endured. The Met got it right in the 1950s, and on up through the 1990s was playing Così from the Mozart-DaPonte book. Nowadays, in sharp contract to Mr Lunt’s elegance, SFO had a dozen young men dressed in underwear lined up across the stage during the overture, waiting for their physical exams to enter “the school for love,” Mozart’s sub-title for Così. No comment needed. There is always hope Santa Fe Opera will return to the fold and present real Mozart. A new production of The Marriage of Figaro is scheduled for Season 2008, and there is talk of Don Giovanni soon thereafter.

A part of my problem with this summer’s Così comes from the prissy, unimaginative conducting of British maestro William Lacey. At times he had the excellent Santa Fe orchestra sounding like perfect chamber music; at other times it was thick in texture and sticky in tempo; only rarely was it theatre music with shape and point. One had to chuckle at one of the moments Lacey was dragging tempos, to see the well experienced Suzanne Mentzer (Despina) literally beat time from the stage with her arm, attempting to move things along.

Susanna Phillips, a gifted young soprano from Alabama, displayed a strong, superlative voice as Fiordiligi, but her great second act scene and aria, “Per pieta,” came near bogging down in Lacey’s slogging accompaniment. The musical style of the evening had all the principals ornamenting Mozart’s vocal lines with lavish decoration – runs, roulades, inserted high notes, none from the score and often counter to mood. It is not outside performance tradition of Mozart’s day to ornament, but the extent of it at SFO was excessive and tasteless.

The singing cast, aside from the interesting if unripe Phillips and the able Mentzer, was mainly unremarkable. A handsome tenor, Norman Reinhardt, was not unskilled as Ferrando, but his lovely Act I aria, “Un aura amoroso,” turned tentative and tight, the voice sounding wan in its upper register with little tonal appeal. The senior American bass, Dale Travis, was a faint Don Alfonso, playing well enough, but sketchy of voice. Katharine Goeldner brought a pungent reliable mezzo to Dorabella, combined with good stage skills. A baritone, Mark Stone, came from England to sing Guglielmo and one wondered why, as the product was not of export quality.

James Robinson, who managed to mangle Bizet’s Carmen almost beyond recognition at Seattle a few seasons ago, needs tutoring in hubris management. He is a well-educated gentleman, but his concept productions (or ‘method’ direction, in the lingo of the deconstructionist world, a corrupt domain ready for abandonment), have long since reached the point of diminishing return. The 1970s nouvelle vague of deconstructing masterworks of art to suit the “vision” of the director has waned in most artistic disciplines, yet operatic direction remains one of the last backwaters of that perverse fad. It got to Santa Fe late; let’s hope it leaves soon. Let me end with a question: Who would you like to trust with your expensive evening at the opera? A genius named Wolfie, or a would-be auteur, uncertain of his next stage move?

J.A.VanSant © 2007

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