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Been there, did it

The word traditional, when used to describe opera productions can imply a certain setting, costuming, stage action, or even overall dramatic conception (or lack thereof).  Tradition at its best can provide a straightforward backdrop for the genius of a work to unfold, and at its worst weigh an opera down with outdated and vapid conventions.

Unfortunately, this production of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte from the 1983 Salzburg Festival, directed by Michael Hampe, is traditional in the worst way.  It is a safe production which offers cheesy staging that conveniently skates over the conflict and ambiguity inherent in Mozart’s work. 

To take just one glaring example, the ending is staged like a concert, with all the singers lined up in a row singing straight to the audience, letting us know the “moral” of the story.  It is as if the director didn’t want to have to deal with the difficulty of staging this intentionally vague ending, and so opted for the easiest cop-out he could think of.  That being said, even taking this Cosi as a relic of a different operatic era, there is not much that is terribly spectacular.

Musically, things are only a bit happier, with Riccardo Muti providing a vivacious, well-articulated account of the score, thankfully eschewing the dirge-like tempos of his predecessors.  Unfortunately, the two sisters have serious faults of either singing, acting, or both, and neither are really a complete package.

The schemers fare better, with Sesto Bruscantini giving a warmer portrayal of Don Alfonso than is usually seen today.  His is a wily, harmless Don Alfonso, less cynical and calculating than improvisational in his schemes.  Kathleen Battle sparkles vocally, but her two-dimensional acting mainly comprised of cutesy mugging makes her Despina into a caricature—not ideal but acceptable in this role.

Caricature is also the word that best describes Ann Murray‘s vocally robust Dorabella, sung well enough but acted very much like the renowned Marcellina she would later become.  Margaret Marshall as Fiordiligi is similarly challenged, seemingly only able to scowl or smile politely, and often at very inopportune moments.  Who knew “Per pieta…” was some kind of reverie? Her wooden voice with its rapid vibrato is rather stressful-sounding, and is not pliable enough to express the difficult range of Fiordiligi’s emotions.

As the soldiers, James Morris and Francisco Araiza make a solid duo, even if Morris’s gravelly bass-baritone is completely wrong for the part of Guglielmo.  Araiza’s acting is generally stiff and inexpressive, but his beautiful voice thankfully is not, and he is posed very few problems by the role of Ferrando, dispatching rapid runs and long lyrical lines with equal facility.  The recorded sound is a bit raw though, and does his bright voice the least favors.

Ultimately with an opera like Cosi, if there’s nothing at stake and no emotional journey, it ends up feeling tedious even with every standard cut taken, as in this production.  Luckily for those who prefer a Cosi with emotional depth and dramatically specific direction, there are many recommendable performances on DVD which boast overall musical values at least as good or better than this one:  Nicholas Hytner’s “traditional” production from Glyndebourne and both Doris Dörrie and Claus Guth’s regie takes from Berlin and Salzburg respectively.

31 comments

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    With a few rare exceptions -- Hampe was a hack.

  • MontyNostry says:

    I think I saw that production at Salzburg in 1988/89 or so, with Marshall and **possibly** Baltsa, though I think someone less starry. I remember nothing about it.

  • luvtennis says:

    Wow!

    I don’t really agree with anything in this review except that Araiza is a wonderful Ferrando, and that James Morris is slightly miscast as Guglielmo. Margaret Marshall seems to me to among the handful of great Fiordiligi’s of the past 50 years, and Murray is perfectly acceptable as Dorabella. Baltsa was more exiting in her one performance -- the one that was recorded for audio-only release -- but Murray is quite good. Battle is in “early-days-super-sweet-daddy’s-little-angel-voice.” Me likey. I miss Van Dam, the greatest Alfonso EVER, despite his relative lack of Buffo-osity.

    Other than that -- the staging is simple but delightful and I laughed frequently. Why the heck is it necessary that a staging convey the “conflict and the ambiguity” in the work. The music and libretto do that quite nicely.

    Come on, folks. Just because some directors feel the need to UNDERLINE with a sledgehammer themes that they find interesting in a particular work, that doesn’t mean that every staging has to be a freaking treatise on subtext.

    Sorry, Scifisci! The review is very well-written, and I love corresponding with you, but . . . .

  • Gualtier M says:

    I will dip my oar in. First of all, I actually Michael Hampe’s productions to a point. He directed some of those Rossini one-acters in Schwetzingen and they are very stylishly done. Also, he has some Handel operas like “Agrippina” with Barbara Daniels, David Kuebler and Janice Hall that is wild fun. Done with elegance but lots of sex and wit subtly slipped in. (I bet he could have done a great “Comte Ory”).

    The Salzburg Mozart is kind of boring -- he also has a couple of “Don Giovanni” taped -- the one with Thomas Allen and the Karajan with Ramey are basically his production. Handsome but uninteresting.

    My ideas on regie vs. traditional. There is boring hack traditional and boring hack regie. There is thought-provoking revelatory traditional that gets behind the words and music. Boring hack traditional just puts up pretty sets and music and gives you clichés, second-hand recycled business.

    The Lesley Koenig production that premiered at the Met over a dozen years ago was an imaginative production of “Cosi” that was traditional but thought-provoking. Don Alfonso was misanthropic and evil. The last scene showed each lover in their own private hell except for Dorabella who didn’t change. I doesn’t have to be reset in a diner or Middle-Eastern brothel to makes points. Some of the Ponnelle productions were set in “period” but not the cliché idea of 18th century but a grittier one with more complicated people capable of cruel or morally ambiguous behavior.

    Also, for me certain operas fare better under the “regie” format -- “Salome” is one of them which is why the current Salzburg production looked interesting. I see old pictures of opera singers in horrible tatty robes in a “Salome” set that looks like a reject from a Hollywood silent biblical epic and think “that is not it”.

    • scifisci says:

      I agree with you completely about “period” productions that are grittier and more complicated. That is exactly what the Hytner one is and why I put “traditional” in quotation marks. As you say, tarditional but thought-provoking as opposed to the Hampe production.

      • Gualtier M says:

        I wonder if this wasn’t what the older administration wanted at Salzburg -- a pretty, musically top-notch, expensive looking but not thought provoking production. Look at a lot of those Karajan conducted videos from Salzburg in the eighties. The stagings are dull for the most part -- the dullest are directed by Karajan himself. Pretty much stand and deliver in stiff brocaded costumes in front of picture book sets. Not much interpretation and acting level is come as you are. Of course, because it was Karajan and Salzburg it was the best of all possible worlds -- it couldn’t be better.

        When Mortier came in, he really felt the need to shake things up. Perhaps he want too far but it really was a petrified museum at that point. I bet if Hampe was directing “Cosi” in Schwetzingen with a different cast, he might have had a less petrified, museum-like approach.

        • Gualtier M says:

          The typos today, I am tired -- I meant “went too far”. But I think the idea behind Mortier’s actions were right. Salzburg was a brain dead museum of culture for the very rich.

      • marcello52 says:

        I have this dvd at home for sometime. I did find the production rather dull but the singing was pretty good. So not only do I mostly agree with you but enjoyed the review. I would say that I usually don’t expect great dramatic acting from Mozart operas though because I don’t think Mozart conceived his operas with great theatrical insight as say middle period Verdi. I am not saying that Mozart isn’t a great composer, just that his style leaves me a bit dramatically wanting. I just think his operas are all about the music and the drama is the music. This production I chalked up as standard fare but the singers held up their end of the bargain with good singing.

        You have to also admit that Cosi libretto is the more problematic of the Deponte operas.

        PS. Thanks for the advice Scific and Gualtier (I think you also offered me advice) for Wozzeck. I got in and had great seats. Enjoyed it immensely as did the three others who went with me and were all opera first timers.

    • poisonivy says:

      I’m with GM in that every opera demands its own approach. Salome I agree is an opera where the Cecil B. DeMille “Biblical” approach really does not work. On the other hand I really can’t find any justification for a regie Tosca. I’ve played it over and over in my mind, and it really does work best with Puccini’s original settings. The stage business for that opera is so ossified but as they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

      One thing which is my personal peeve is: if the opera’s storyline hinges heavily on the notion of female purity and chastity, I think it’s better to put the opera in a time period when purity and chastity were extremely valued. For instance, Tannhauser. He is almost killed for writing racy lyrics? That only works in the grimly medieval setting. Even Le Comte Ory, a little frothy bedroom comedy, only kind of works in a setting where female chastity is very important. Otherwise, Countess Adele looks very priggish. Don Giovanni too — Donna Anna and Ottavio are nearly insufferable if put into a modern setting. Now, there have been other time periods when “chastity” was valued — the Victorian era for instance. But to put operas where the entire plot hinges on punishing people for daring to have a sex drive, in my opinion, doesn’t work in a more modern, sexually free time period.

      “Cosi fan tutte” has been well-served on video though. I’m surprised no one has mentioned the wonderful Gardiner video. That’s a very “traditional” production but there’s not a false, starchy moment in the whole thing. It treats the story as a coming-of-age story for the sisters, who at first are barely distinguishable, and only during the course of the second act do they find their own voice and personality.

      • messa di voce says:

        “But to put operas where the entire plot hinges on punishing people for daring to have a sex drive, in my opinion, doesn’t work in a more modern, sexually free time period.”

        Have you ever met any Republicans?

    • OpinionatedNeophyte says:

      And of course Gualtier, life in those periods of time was full with flesh and blood, emotionally complex figures, not stock characters. Traditional productions have done a number on people’s impressions of the past, suggesting that traditional mores of behavior actually led to traditional behavior. Indeed a play/opera like Cosi shows the way in which artists commented on how not simplistic life actually was.

  • luvtennis says:

    Okay, Gualtier, I will bite. And I write this knowing that you and I share some similarity of outlook here -- Why is it imaginative to show Alfonso as evil and misanthropic? Understand, I am not suggesting that it’s a valid take on the role dramatically, but evil and misanthropic. Soave trio anyone. Hello. While Mozart was capable of dramatic irony in a way that Puccini was NOT, I think there is nothing to suggest in the music that Alfonso is EVIL. Just older and cynical. Because to show Alfonso as evil is one step away from showing him pimping out the sisters as crack whores and tricking Ferrando and Guglielmo into raping and murdering those treacherous biatches. ANd then marrying and then killing each other. And then Despina comes back from the grave. . . .

    Well, you get my point.

    • luvtennis says:

      I should have written “I am not suggesting that it’s NOT a valid take on the role dramatically”.

    • Gualtier M says:

      Well it was quite valid in that production back in 1996 or so (later revivals totally threw out Koenig’s characterizations and ending). The thing about Mozart is that his music is quite ambiguous and will change tone constantly and even contradict what the characters are saying. One of my favorite examples is Donna Anna’s “Don Ottavio, Son Morta!” recitative before “Or Sai Chi L’Onore”. When Donna Anna is describing her attempted rape by Don Giovanni when he breaks into her bedroom, there is this weird pause with this odd chord progression. It is right before “Allora rinforzo i stridi miei, chiamo soccorso; fugge il fellon; arditamente il seguo fin nella strada per fermarlo, e sono assalitrice da assalita!” It is like a bunch of notes or a section was left out. You get the idea that Donna Anna has left out a section of her narrative. Something else happened in that bedroom and she ain’t telling us or Don Ottavio. Maybe she gave in to his seduction and loved it and then had to deal with the fact that her seducer was her father’s killer. She is full of guilt. Or else she was raped and didn’t enjoy it but doesn’t want Don Ottavio to know she is damaged goods so she can get married. He will not divorce her after the wedding night revelation of her lack of virginity and to the world she will be a perfect married lady. The putting off of the wedding is either that she is delaying the revelation or still in love with Giovanni. Many other examples in Mozart where the words and music play off of each other in a surprising way creating ambiguity.

      Anyway, “Cosi” is full of those difficult moments where the tone goes from silly to complex and painful -- particularly in the second act. The duet between Ferrando and Guglielmo where Ferrando learns that Dorabella has betrayed him or the later scene with Fiordiligi and Ferrando where the emotional is very real and tense are examples. To gloss it over actually diminishes what Mozart wrote. I think Mozart is a great dramatist with a feeling for dramatic ambiguity. Da Ponte’s libretto is a sex farce based on some contemporary gossip but Mozart’s music layers it. Same with “Die Zauberflaute”. Mozart was fully capable of giving beautiful melodies to an immoral or cynical characters -- Alfonso admits that is “a good actor” -- “non son male comico” or whatever he says. He is playing a part and in the Koenig production he was manipulating the younger, idealistic characters into a loss of innocence and self-delusion . He later sneered self-satisfied at their disillusion and confusion in the final scene.

      • luvtennis says:

        All of those things are absolutely true. And every single one of them can be brought out by a good stage director and a singer with even the most modest of acting chops.

        But saying that Anna is conflicted and might have sinned in thought or deed (or been sinned against, which is more likely the case), is a far cry from staging Don Giovanni in a fashion so that Donna Anna is the equivalent of Kathleen Turner in the immortal “Crimes of Passion.” Or having Don Ottavio costumed in a fashion so as to contrast his modest “endowment” with the Donny’s 12 inches. Right?

        Placing greater emphasis on aspects of the libretto or music that are often obscured is NOT regie by definition. It’s called good acting, staging, conducting and SINGING.

        Staging the drama so as to try to explain WHY the composer left out some things or emphasized others and then grafting that explication onto the production -- that’s regie.

      • phoenix says:

        Walter n’ luv above, I was always taught (even before I ever saw or heard Mozart’s Don Giovanni) according to George Bernard Shaw’s interpretation… it was strictly adhered to in the crowd I ran with, so I never questioned Donna Anna’s sincerity in seducing Don Giovanni. The only mistake she made was to get caught.

        • Gualtier M says:

          OT @Phoenix: in the “Phyllis Stein” contretemps you mentioned David Stein. He is one of my oldest friends and I learned much of my opera lore at his feet. Stein is retired from teaching but is still very much around and still going to the opera. He doesn’t post here but is a member of Opera-l. If you want to contact or reconnect with him, you can reach him there.

          • Lucky Pierre says:

            fenice adorata, how’s our old friend phyllis doing????

          • phoenix says:

            I think he’d remember me. Last time I saw him was at that Linda di Chaminoux at Caramoor a few years back. He was bubbly & effervescent just like he always was, until we went through the old duc d’Orleans, duc d’Ayen, duc de whatever routine commiserating about who was no longer with us.
            -- What is David doing over there on opera-l? I guess there acutally is a lot more historical information over there since I often have to look up facts & figures recorded in their sentimental reminiscences on file, but so much of it is dull, serious & boring, even more than this site (which is bad enough for me in those departments)! David was always l’alta sacerdotessa of high camp! He deserves more fun than that!

          • Gualtier M says:

            David Stein posts very infrequently on Opera-l usually to correct the pompous fools with harshly irrefutable facts. Kind of like how Poison Ivy posts there to get out her aggressions on her pet peeve posters like Gerald Waldman. BTW: PoisonIvy -- I am still laughing at your collection of Waldman’s obituary posts where he recycles the same verbiage for Gerard Souzay, Hans Hotter and Regine Crespin ad nauseum. Crying as he types so that he can’t see the keys, etc. Like a form letter he has on file and just punches in the different names.

            Anyway, just search on his name and you will find him there. Harder to do if you are not a member there though as much information is masked unless you are logged in, to deter spammers and their e-mail collection schemes.

          • phoenix says:

            Thanks Walter! I might do so, but really David is so wonderful that I would rather hope to meet him again in person in this life or in spirit in the next.
            -- I don’t think that opera-l site would put up with my lewd coarseness, anyways.

          • poisonivy says:

            My post about Waldman is here I’ll copy/paste here:

            On Tue, 21 Dec 2010 19:53:59 -0500, Gerald Waldman
            wrote:

            >First, I want to thank Idia for her apology, and I only wish that Ivy could
            >apolgize once. Or is apology not in her vocabulary. I am sorry, but it is very
            >well known that Ivy Lin has a vituperative nature and has bashed people on
            >list and in private for the most ridiculous reasons, for many years, and she
            has
            >again misrepresented facts which show that she knows nothing about me.

            Yeah, probably not going to get that apology.
            >
            >First of all, many friends who know me, know that I don’t have a pretentious
            >cell in my body and never name drop. I have never used all those adjectives
            >in one sentence. I have in the past five years reduced my tributes to once
            >every five years or memorial tributes. Also, many friends, even on this list
            >know that I am have a superb wit, and sense of humor, and have made so
            >many friends laugh so hard they either start crying or have to run to the
            >bathroom.

            Oh well isn’t that wonderful. You’re such a wonderful man.
            The difference between you and me is that you couch your narrow-minded,
            mistake-prone, teenage-fandom mentality in a wreath of sanctimonious,
            sentimental drivel. I don’t write paragraphs describing my superb wit, sense of
            humor, and ability to make friends laugh so hard they wet themselves.
            >
            >Also, the only time I have mentioned it is hard to type is when I am
            >remembering a great artist who has profoundly moved me who has just died.
            I
            >never have cried at work or in public. If Miss Ivy Lin thinks there is something
            >wrong with crying in your own domicile when you are remembering someone
            >who has just died, then it just shows what a real piece of work she is with a
            >heart of stone. Also, if she thinks my 2 paragraph remembrance of Shirley
            >Verrett, when she died on 11/5, is too long or pretentious, then she needs to
            >reread it, because this smacks of hypocrisy. It is short and to the point.
            >Shirley Verrett is one of the very few if only operatic artist whom I have ever
            >mentioned as friend on opera-l. There are many daily posters who list
            several
            >singers as friends on a regular basis. In regards to Renee Fleming not singing
            >Handel, I heard many opera lovers express surprise that during the 250th
            >death anniversary she was not singing any Handel in her recital tour. I really
            >think that Ivy Lin has to just roll that huge chip off of her shoulder, and stop
            >smashing people down at every chance she gets, if they don’t agree with
            her.
            >
            Yes I cry for people who have left my life, but they were actually close to me.
            My friends, my relatives, people I knew and loved. Not freakin’ opera stars
            who wouldn’t know you from Adam in the street. If you shed the same amount
            of copious tears for a departed opera star as for people you actually knew in
            your life, then you’re the piece of work, not me.

            But back to the original point: what rubbed me the wrong way was your
            dictation that no one COULD or SHOULD have liked the Don Carlos
            performance, because apparently your tastes are so rarefied and your
            knowledge is so profound that we all should just listen to you, and then
            Claudia Siegel’s assertion that yes indeed, your tastes are so rarefied and your
            knowledge so profound that indeed, we should all listen to you and forget little
            Idia Legray.

            Really, I have no problems with anyone disliking a performance, but to
            DICTATE to other people that they need to dislike it as much as you did, when
            you said: ” If the audience and many thought this was a wonderful broadcast,
            then it just shows how much the standards have declined” annoys me. I for
            the record didn’t say it was a wonderful broadcast, and also neither did most
            listers. They pointed out relative strengths and weaknesses because unlike
            you, they’re apparently able to see singers in shades of gray.

            But really, just for some holiday fun, take a hard look at what you’ve written
            and tell me that maybe you need some perspective on opera:

            On December 11, 2003:

            “I have just read Donald Arthur’s eloquent letter about Hans Hotter. I am
            devastated by his death and cannot stop crying …. Presently, it is impossible
            for me to think of him in the past tense and I can no longer see what I am
            typing for I cannot stop the tears. ”

            On August 17, 2004:

            “I am devastated by the news today of Gerard Souzay’s death and
            cannot stop crying …. Presently, it is impossible for me to think of him in the
            past tense and I can no longer see what I am typing for I cannot stop the
            tears.”

            On June 16, 2005:

            “I am devastated by just reading that the magnificent conductor, Carlo
            Maria Giulini has died just over a month after his 91st birthday, and
            am streaming tears, hardly able to type …. Presently, it is impossible for me
            to think of him in the past tense and I can no longer see what I am
            typing, for I cannot stop the tears.”

            On July 4, 2006:

            “I am devastated to learn this afternoon from a friend in administrative
            musical circles that the magnificent, transcendent operatic artist,
            Lorraine Hunt Lieberson died from cancer yesterday just four months
            after her 52nd birthday, and am streaming tears, hardly able to type ….
            Presently, it is impossible for me to think of her in the past tense and I can
            no longer see what I am typing for I cannot stop the tears.”

            On November 6, 2010:

            “I have very sad news. I just learned this evening that we lost a truly great
            operatic artist, Shirley Verrett, who just turned 79 earlier this year. I was
            especially privileged to not only have my life enriched by her great and
            profound artistry, but also blessed to have my life graced by her beautiful
            presence and special friendship and her profound artistry since I was a child.
            I cannot write anything else at this time, because I cannot see through my
            tears, but I thought that I should let the list know.”

            “Warm Regards to Opera Lovers,”

            Ivy Lin

  • semira mide says:

    Well, with Riccardo Muti,Sesto Bruscantini,Kathleen Battle, and Francisco Araiza participating, I could see owning this. Then one could play it on a laptop ( with great speakers) and let the screen saver take over if the production gets too stinky. Useful review and easy solution.

  • phoenix says:

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    Hampe would think this is high art:

  • Orlando Furioso says:

    I don’t know what’s so “glaring” about having the principals deliver the final sextet lined up out of character, as the moral of the story. The words are indeed addressed to the audience, not to each other, and they do indeed sum up the story. I would call such a staging responsible to the libretto and the music. And a majority of the stagings I know have done it that way, including two of the best I know (Gardiner, and the unfortunately never-released Peter Hall).

    • poisonivy says:

      I don’t see anything wrong with it either except for the way it’s done. In the Gardiner video the couples keep switching positions as they take their final bows, suggesting ambiguity about their relationships that will extend far beyond the final curtain.

      “Cosi” is a problem opera no matter what — a bedroom farce that becomes profoundly uncomfortable and ambiguous. There are many many ways to convey the moral ambiguity that lies at the heart of Cosi, but IMO it cannot really be played “straight” as a “alls well that ends well” comedy because it doesn’t really end well.

      And not to threadjack but — does anyone have a recommendation for a good, modern video of Don Giovanni? Of the Mozart/da Ponte operas it’s my least favorite, and I don’t have many videos of this opera at all. I have a fondness for the 1954 Salzburg film but would like something more following modern performing styles in Mozart.

      • scifisci says:

        Exactly, and this production basically refuses to acknowledge that there’s any ambiguity at all. It ends with them all joining hands and taking a bow as the lights go down.

        I like the Guth Don G b/c it basically turns every situation on its head and has some great individual performances, esp. schrott. Musically it’s kind of a mess…

    • scifisci says:

      I think an opera such as Cosi is served most responsibly by productions which don’t just pretend that “everything is fine”, when clearly they aren’t.

      For example, the potentially uncomfortable scene where Guglielmo sees Fiordiligi run off with Ferrando is played with comic exaggeration by all three men in the Hampe version, undercutting the tension of the following ensemble which precedes the wedding ceremony. Contrast this with Doris Dorrie’s production, where that same scene starts out overtly humorous but ends up in a much more sober place by the time Alfonso sings “Tutti accusan le donne”, or with Nicholas Hytner’s, which plays that entire scene dead serious and with palpable tension.