Cher Public

Guilt and pleasure

cosi-loftAmbivalent is how I feel about Così fan tutte. And in light of LoftOpera’s recent production of Mozart’s perennial comedy in Brooklyn, I believe I will remain ambivalent. 

The story of two young men testing the fidelity of their fiancées is, when considered on its most basic level, creepy and unsettling. The anxiety of masculinity, the desire to regulate female sexuality, and the threats of domestic violence lurking beneath such comedic accusations as “Briccona! Assassina…furfante… ladra… cagna…” make this opera slightly difficult to stomach—at least, on an ethical level.

I am certain that some will bristle at my identity politics. But let me clear: I’m not necessarily arguing that we throw the baby out with the bathwater. My question regarding Cosí fan tutte is an old question (and, as some may argue, a tedious and exhausting question), and I certainly don’t intend to answer it here.

However, I will argue that any production of an opera that holds female sexuality in such low regard ought to at least wrestle with the unworkability and distaste of these notions. Otherwise, the results seem preposterous, the implications of the narrative excruciatingly naïve, if not downright stupid. In other words, rather than whitewash a text of its original misogyny, why not at least engage those ideas if only to subvert, complicate, and transform them?

In regard to LoftOpera’s production, I expected Louisa Proske’s staging to pose some kind of feminist intervention on Mozart and Da Ponte’s text, not simply because she is a woman, but because she is an intelligent director with a hip sensibility. But her polished production glibly moved toward the opera’s misogynistic conclusions without much ambivalence. Teetering on the edge of recklessness, there was a dash of spontaneity in her staging, including scattered rose petals, hallucinatory drugs, and tossed empty beer cans.

This was all well choreographed and pleasant, but the discomfort of Don Alfonso’s sexism, and the darker, creepier aspects of Guglielmo and Ferrando’s sexual surveillance went unchecked and unexplored. Instead, the audience was given two good old boys who just wanted to make sure they’re girlfriends loved them; and Fiordiligi and Dorabella remained passive within their lovers’ web of deceit.

Moreover, Proske’s Cosìoccurs within a period of female empowerment (somewhere post-sixties? It’s not quite clear), a time in which Guglielmo and Ferrando’s test would be understood in a different context than the one intended by Da Ponte and Mozart, one laden with feminist politics, complicated by liberation narratives. Proske does not make room for these perspectives within the universe she has created, and so this Cosífeels a bit anachronistic to me, detached from the compelling concerns swirling at the opera’s core.

However, and I know how hypocritical this may sound, I would be lying if I were to say that I didn’t enjoy myself. I had a good time. And indeed, LoftOpera has a canny way of making opera fun. Produced in a cavernous warehouse in Bushwick, serving beer, with a laid-back, casual approach to opera going, LoftOpera is a wonderful alternative to the stuffier, bourgeois proceedings at Lincoln Center.

Regarding the actual production, I believe that the evening’s success truly hinged on the charisma and talent of the four young lovers. As Fiordiligi and Dorabella, Megan Pachecano and Sarah Nelson Craft were excellent, believable within their roles, while remaining vocally reliable. Despite the cognitive dissonance I felt about their setting and situation, both singers were able to build fully realized characters.

As their male counterparts, Ferrando and Guglielmo, Spencer Viator and Alex DeSocio were equally magnetic, with easy, unfussy swagger, and admirable singing. Their athletic and raucous commitment to the zaniness of their situations added to the evening considerably.

Unfortunately, the performance’s few weak links resided with the adults—Don Alfonso and Despina. As Despina, the overworked maid, Michelle Trovato provided a delightful, subversive element; she was an expert comic actress. However, her voice, while splendid on top, sounded coarse and threadbare in the middle. At times, she used this deficiency to her advantage, specifically while in disguise as the doctor and the notary; but ultimately it was a distraction, especially in contrast with Pachecano and Craft’s fluid, robust singing.

Similarly, Gary Ramsey, as Don Alfonso, lacked vocal elegance. This was most disappointing during the trio, “Soave sia il vento,” in which his baritone was poorly matched with the pliant and luminous Craft and Pachecano. Also, Ramsey’s Don Alfonso was dramatically a mismatch for the effervescence surrounding him. Menacing, and philosophically unmovable, his Don Alfonso indoctrinated Ferrando and Guglielmo into the patriarchal stances of distrust and control that construct the opera’s ethos. However, Ramsey did this without providing the necessary charisma to make his case rhetorically effective.

The orchestra, conducted by Dean Buck, sounded well rehearsed and vital, moving the evening along vigorously. I was especially impressed when a piece of clothing, thrown from the stage, landed on a French horn player. He was not distracted a bit, keeping his attention fixed on the maestro’s conducting.

Ultimately, I would describe LoftOpera’s performance of Cosí fan tutte as a mixed bag: a lack of rigor with a dollop of youthful talent. Yes, I enjoyed myself. But this was something of a guilty pleasure, and not the more scrupulous reading of the opera I had hoped for. In any event, LoftOpera continues to do what they do best, which is to offer audiences fun operatic performances in a context that feels fresh and alive. And, honestly, if that is all there is to recommend this performance, I’ll definitely take it.

Photo: Robert Altman

  • MissShelved

    Have failed to warm to a number of Cosi productions for many of the reasons so well expressed in your review. Would recommend Cambreling/Haneke Teatro Real production of 2013 for taking a striking direction. William Schimell’s Don Alfonso has a bone to pick, clearly has a tense backstory involving Despina, and sets out to break up the couples quite deliberately — with a far from happy ending. Worth checking out the DVD. Particularly lovely Fiordiligi from Anett Frisch.

    • I liked Haneke’s production very much when I saw it in Brussels; its Madrid outing was issued on video. The Opera News reviewer (Fred Cohn) wrote “I did not enjoy this Così. There’s no pleasure to be found in Haneke’s Naples, no potential for sensuous delight. It is a place where sex can bring only pain. But the production vividly explores the work’s disturbing, and often ignored, element of cruelty. Alfonso is playing a wicked game indeed; remove it from the conventions of farce, and it makes a grisly spectacle.”

  • Martin

    “The anxiety of masculinity, the desire to regulate female sexuality, and the threats of domestic violence…” Probably some of the most laughable, shortsighted, foul, nauseating and repulsive things I’ve ever read about Cosi fan tutte.

    • La Cieca

      You’re saying these elements do not exist in the work, then?

      • Kohala

        Maybe there should have been an “emotional trigger” warning before the show for the delicate Millennials who are just discovering this opera for the first time.

        • DonCarloFanatic

          I’m neither delicate nor a millennial, and I despise the power politics of this opera. Spending a lifetime under the heel of an unfair system does not mean one condones it. I am quite sure that over the many thousands of years of civilization, more than one person has taken objection to “the way things are.”

          • When I was first coming to opera in the 1950s, Cosi fan Tutte was treated as an exquisite piece of rococo ornamentation, a harmless game. When I first saw it at the MET, it was in the Alfred Lunt production that was wholly decorative — singers waving handkerchiefs in time with the music, lots of “nudge, nudge wink, wink” whenever anything threatened to get serious, many emotions played so broadly as to be purposeful parodies of human behavior. Glorious singing (Price, Elias, Peters, Tucker, Uppman, Guarrera) but no core story.

            It was the Peter Sellars production that looked under the pretty to find the hurt — at the end, the four young people clearly have no idea with whom they should be now, and the entire cast ended the final ensemble by spinning aimlessly around the stage, totally unsure of what was to come next.

            Other directors went further. In 2012, NYCO did a production by one of the Alden brothers in which Ferrando and Dorabella went behind a bush to have sex in act 2 and Guglielmo then staged an obvious revenge seduction of Fiordiligi. All wound up sadder but perhaps a good deal wiser. As we gathered our things after the curtain calls, a woman next to me turned to her husband and asked, “What the HELL was that?!” He thought a second and replied, “That was Cosi fan Tutte for New York in the 21st century.”

            But what about Vienna in the 18th? Note that all three of the Mozart/da Ponte operas are about sex, seductions, male domination and efforts to subvert it, even in the face of strict social and class divisions. We place Mozart on a very high pedestal but it wasn’t always so. After Figaro’s premiere, the opera had only 19 more performances in Vienna in the five years up to the time of Mozart’s
            death; Don Giovanni had 15 and Cosi Fan Tutte 10, for a grand total of 45.

            During the same period, Giovanni Paesiello’s
            operas had 166 performances, Antonio Salieri’s 138, Domenico Cimarosa’s 124, and Vicente Martin y Soler’s 105. Despite
            Mozart’s superb music and da Ponte’s witty
            dialog and beautifully drawn characters, their operas were a little too hot to handle in Catholic Austria and they were bowdlerized later when they were performed at all (Cosi fan Tutte was not regularly played in the United States for a LONG time). Some people were aware of what was really going on in the opera and didn’t want to touch it.

            • MissShelved

              We are going to think about what the story is really telling us, so I’d rather see a production where the creators and performers have given it some thought as well. The wonderful and not so surprising result is to find that Mozart, much like Shakespeare, can take it and come up stronger and even more exciting than ever.

            • Krunoslav

              ” In 2012, NYCO did a production by one of the Alden brothers in which
              Ferrando and Dorabella went behind a bush to have sex in act 2 and
              Guglielmo then staged an obvious revenge seduction of Fiordiligi.”

              It was Christopher’s staging. Surely I recall that It was Guglielmo behind that bush ( as it were) and Ferrando doing the revenge seduction.

            • Armerjacquino

              Has to be, yes. F+D/ G+ Fi are the original couples.

            • Yes, of course, I got them confused in my mind.

  • Armerjacquino

    Does the opera ‘hold female sexuality… in low regard’? The libretto, arguably, does. But opera has music in it too, and Fiordiligi’s music in particular takes female sexuality very seriously indeed.

    • laddie

      I would agree; Mozart makes us hold both ladies in high regard, and certainly conveys admiration for the wily Despina. I also agree that the opera staging should reflect this in any modern production and I too would be disappointed if it didn’t.