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Seen and Heard International Opera Review



Mozart: Così fan tutte  Seattle Opera, soloists, cond. Andreas Mitisek, dir. Jonathan Miller, Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, Seattle, 4.3.2006 (BJ)


After the classical and human equilibrium of Figaro and the elemental yet subtly modulated romantic power of Giovanni, Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte created in Così fan tutte an opera not so much innocent of romanticism as beyond it. It is an essentially modern, even a post-modern, creation. The reason it has been so often misunderstood is to be sought in the too rarely observed distinction between realistic characters and realistic emotions.


“What more tasteless imposition on the blind faith of the audience can there be,” the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick asked in 1863, “than the continuing blindness of the two heroines, who do not recognize their fiancés only a quarter of an hour after they had been caressing one another, and who stupidly take their own chambermaid to be first a doctor and then a notary just because she puts a wig on?” The simple answer to this, as to the myriad other accusations of “improbability” that have been leveled at the plot, is that no such blind faith is expected, no suspension of belief required. Hanslick was a commentator of stature and broad experience. Still, it is surely the height of naïvety to suppose that men of Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s stamp expected anyone to believe that the events recounted in Così could really have taken place (though there have admittedly been rumors, never substantiated, that the libretto was based on an actual incident in the Vienna of the day). The new development that this opera daringly, brilliantly, and–if we look at it in the right light–triumphantly brings off is the representation of unrealistic characters, in an unrealistic story, expressing emotions of the most complete realism. It takes the almost Brechtian framing element of the Don Giovanni epilogue to a logical conclusion, in a plot whose purely mechanistic function is indicated by the obvious symmetry with which the sisters and their lovers are manipulated. This is another in the long series of stories about pairs of characters that has been entertaining theatregoers since the days of Plautus in the 2nd century B.C.


Mention of Plautus–the source for Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, with not just one but two pairs of estranged identical twins wreaking havoc with everyone else’s perceptions–nevertheless also shows us where Così differs from its predecessors and how it transcends them. The artificiality here is transfigured by art. Mechanistic the progress of the story from point to point may be, but it leaves room for subtle and illuminating nuances in the behavior of the main characters. Fiordiligi mouths the same platitudes of romantic love as her sister, but as the moment of potential dramatic reversals approaches, she mouths them in a much more “heroic” manner. Similarly, though the two men hunt as a pair, their reactions are amusingly differentiated, one showing himself quintessentially the vain and impulsive tenor, the other quintessentially the more practical and prosaic baritone. So what we are left with is a piece that is symmetrical in its outlines, yet enriched with a variety of individual detail and human observation that keeps aridity effortlessly at bay. It is not necessary for us to believe that any flesh-and-blood Fiordiligi, Dorabella, Ferrando, or Guglielmo would, over the course of events, have evolved in this way; but what they feel and what they express at each turn of the action is personal, and real, and always involving and convincing for the listener.


Thus far, my understanding of Così. In the latest version of his production mounted this season at the Seattle Opera, Jonathan Miller takes a somewhat different view. Miller is a director of dazzling intelligence and creativity, and he has fashioned here an evening in the theater that is not only intelligent and creative but also thought-provoking, entirely self-consistent, and–not least–tremendous fun. He has brought the work into the present time, and cites (as a justification I completely agree with) its lack of specific social reference as the crucial difference from both Figaro and Don Giovanni, two works he has never felt any temptation to modernize. (You can’t do a coherent Figaro displaced to a period in which the idea of the droit de seigneur makes no sense, or a valid Don Giovanni that dispenses with the hierarchical society of earlier centuries.) Miller’s is a modern, or rather a post-modern, Così, for which he has designed a truly post-modern and refreshingly uncluttered set, and dressed his characters in a variety of broadly contemporary costumes, ranging from trouser ensembles for the ladies and business suits for the gentlemen, to what I am told may best be described as a blend of hippie style and motorcycle chic when Ferrando and Guglielmo return in disguise.


All of this, its fragile modernity pointed up by the principals’ constant recourse to cell phones, and supported by supertitles (by Jonathan Dean) that for once worked as a genuine enhancement of the dramatic message, was brilliantly realized by an outstanding cast of singing actors, and by an orchestra playing with rare zest and finesse under the sympathetic and fluent leadership of the Viennese-born conductor Andreas Mitisek. Where I was not quite at one with what was being presented on stage was in what seemed to me a certain dehumanization of at least the two women central in the plot. Their portrayal less as individuals than as types, indeed as air-heads–Fiordiligi obsessed by superficialities of fashion, the more pliant Dorabella by, not to put too fine a point on it, sex–detracted from the realism I have ascribed to the emotions they were called on to register. Were too such well-turned-out “babes” likely to succumb to the distinctly rougher charms of their exotic yet close-to-home suitors, “two guys from Federal Way” (just down the road from Seattle)? Well, the girls’ readiness, at the slightest provocation, to indulge in bodily gyrations of the sort associated with most pop music and dance of recent decades lent a certain verisimilitude to the attraction. The sort of thing that might be called “going native,” it reminded me of the sight, wearisomely repeated at any ball you are likely to attend these days, of a bevy of well-heeled, well-dressed, seemingly cultivated persons trying to act, move, and look like savages. In this and other regards, Miller’s view did indeed work coherently. On the other hand, as my wife pointed out, his conception was weakened precisely because, in the milieu he was representing, while it might be credible for two such superficial women to fall for what the men offered them, the idea that they would immediately consent to marry them was wildly out of place–so that one element of social context, unnoticed in more traditional productions, did in a curious and detrimental way emerge in this version’s up-to-the-minute context. The director’s conception of the end of the story was, however, entirely convincing in its bleak confrontation of the alienation that must separate all four “lovers” after what they have done to and endured from each other.


Whatever my reservations, the whole thing was utterly diverting and entertaining to watch, and ravishing to listen to. The Fiordiligi of Alexandra Deshorties and the Dorabella of Christine Rice, both sumptuously and often thrillingly sung, seemed to inhabit their roles with total commitment. Equally convincing were the Ferrando and Guglielmo of Matthew Polenzani and Christopher Maltman; Polenzani’s pianissimo delivery of the second half of Un aura amorosa was magical (and astonishing, given that he had to sing it lying back on a pile of cushions), Maltman was honeyed of voice and rivetingly pointed in articulation and phrasing, and both acted their parts, by turns absurdist and profoundly serious, with virtuoso relish. The veteran baritone Richard Stilwell, immaculately dressed (even if a bit too much so for a purported philosopher), gave us a stylish and often piquantly witty Don Alfonso, and Kimberly Barber’s Despina, mordantly acted, grew in vocal stature as the evening progressed. All in all, I have rarely enjoyed (and never laughed at) a Così so much, and if in the end I have to demur over certain of the production’s elements, that is simply the consequence of thought-provocation, and infinitely preferable to any weary recycling of received ideas.


Bernard Jacobson



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