Peter Sellars likes to set operas in modern America or in ways that reference the role of the US in the world. Sometimes, as with, say, Don Giovanni or Giulio Cesare I get what he’s aiming at and I think it works. With this, I do not get what he’s aiming at. Or at least, I don’t yet.
This production of Così is set in a diner in a northeastern beach town. As is usually the case with visuals in Peter Sellars videos, what you see during the overture – roadsigns and, eventually, a busy street, as seen from a vehicle – tracks in all kinds of fun little ways with the music. Every speed limit or curve or stop sign gets its own little phrase. It’s fun. And it has the effect of bringing out a lot of the uneasiness and ambiguity in the music. In general, I like the way that Sellars hears Mozart.
About the diner. The restaurant is called Despina’s, but the place does not appear to belong to Despina. She describes herself as merely a waitress; when Don Alfonso decides to bribe her, he notes that as a waitress she could use the money. He himself appears to own the place. At the end of the overture, he comes in, newspaper tucked under his arm (the headline on one side says “FIGHTIN'” and on the other “ALL SMILEY”) and takes a seat, wearily, behind the cash register. At one point in Act II he enters wearing a red baseball cap with “Despina’s” stitched on it. The diner may feature Despina, but Alfonso is the man behind the operation. Or so it seems.
The two sisters look roughly similar – and man, looking at those clothes, do I ever not miss 1990. Non matching earrings, pastels, baggy floral-patterned pants (and in Despina’s case, those elaborately layered and hairsprayed bangs that age anyone at least ten years) and epic amounts of hairgel – the costume designer, Dunya Ramicova, was clearly going for “more than slightly annoying” and with this she achieved a roaring success. (Despina, despite her hair, at least gets cool shoes.)
Fiordiligi and Dorabella are not particularly thrilled with their situation. The stage/musical direction uses the long held notes that each has in turn during “ah guarda, sorella” (bars 103-127) to express dismay and alarm. Previous to this, they leaf through magazines looking bored – the pictures they ask one another to “guarda” and “osserva” are ads in GQ and Vanity Fair.
The men also match, in preppy plaid shirts, dockers and topsiders. (Frank Kelley as Ferrando gets a fairly terrifying feathered hairstyle.) When they return disguised, they are wearing neon sunglasses, a great deal of face paint and baggy clothes in bright colors. They look like someone’s idea of what ravers might have worn in 1990. Maybe. Don Alfonso looks deliberately a bit sleazy in a Hawaiian shirt, tank top and a lot of exposed chest hair. He and Despina are both year-round locals, wherever this diner is; the four lovers are not.