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Seen and Heard International Opera Review


Così o non Così – Mozart for Better or Worse – by Bernard Jacobson


Mozart, Così fan tutte Curtis Opera Theatre/Otto-Werner Mueller, Prince Music Theater, Philadelphia, 18 November 2004


Mozart, Così fan tutte Academy of Vocal Arts/Christofer Macatsoris, Centennial Hall, Haverford, Pennsylvania, 20 November 2004


First the general questions. What it is about directing opera that makes a man forget the normal uses of furniture? Put a chair on stage, and within a few minutes someone is going to stand on it; operatic tables, on the other hand, are for sitting on, and if a character wants to write a letter, he is almost certain to do so kneeling on the floor and resting the paper on that same chair he was standing on a little earlier. And what is it about directing opera, these days, that dictates some kind of dumb show, relevant or not to the story about to be unfolded, before the overture has even finished?


Well, I suppose I know the answer to the second question. It is that we live in a time when it would be risky to suppose an audience capable of surviving for five minutes without visual input. "Relevant or not?" In the production of Così directed for the Curtis Institute of Music’s Opera Theatre by Thor Steingraber, the idea of taking the "School for Lovers" subtitle literally was an entertaining enough comic notion, and it would have taken a bigger prig than even I am to object to it–only it didn’t need to anticipate the rise of the curtain. In the production directed for Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts by Chuck Hudson, the corresponding bit of business depicting a spat between Don Alfonso and Despina, in addition to detracting from the musical effect, injected into the proceedings a factitious sub-plot that was not merely unnecessary but completely upset the relationship between those two characters and the social assumptions of the plot.


In pretty well every other respect, however, it was the AVA production that was better, and the Curtis production that was worse. In the latter, the musical side of things was bad enough: how it is possible for a conductor to give us a Così overture totally without a trace of sparkle, or to make the magical Soave sia il vento terzettino sound like a graceless, ugly piece, passes my comprehension. As for the singing, it would not be fair to name names in assessing this student cast; suffice it to say that much of it was excruciatingly out of tune, and all of it wearyingly loud. But it was Mr. Steingraber’s further shenanigans that appalled me most. Hardly an aria was allowed to pass without maddeningly distracting business involving the characters not singing – again, I suppose we were to be considered unable to concentrate for so long on just the song. Worst of all was to have the two supposed Albanians – who, if you remember, are pretending to regard Fiordiligi and Dorabella as goddesses – lie at full length on the floor and try to look up those ladies’ skirts. It was this final straw that, I confess, sent me, prig or not, fleeing from the theater at intermission.


The final performance of the AVA production came two days later as balm to my ears and to my theatrical preconceptions also. With only the smallest reservations, I found it to be a perfectly enchanting evening in the theater. With the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia providing quicksilver and elegant playing, Christofer Macatsoris shaped a finely paced and beautifully phrased account of the score, blemished only by excessive amplification of the continuo harpsichord in the recitatives, and by the extraordinary truncation of the "soldier’s life" chorus, which was presented as an offstage recording and cut to the merest few bars. The student singers in this instance deserve all the recognition I can give them. The evening’s cast featured Elaine Alvarez as Fiordiligi, Jennifer Hsiung as Dorabella, Ailyn Perez as Despina, Jeffrey Halili as Ferrando, Joseph Specter as Guglielmo, and Jesús Ibarra as Don Alfonso. Unlike their Curtis opposite numbers, they have all heard of mezza voce, they all sang in tune. More importantly still, they sang with a brilliance of articulation and often a richness of expression that did justice alike to the comedy, the pathos, and the frequent dramatic grandeur of Mozart’s music.


Aside from that regrettable invention about Don Alfonso and Despina, moreover, Chuck Hudson’s direction showed a delightfully light yet dramatically insightful touch, and the soloists’ stage presence backed his inspirations up splendidly. I venture to predict substantial careers for these impressive singers, and I congratulate the Academy and its teachers for having nurtured them.


Bernard Jacobson


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