I gave up and decided not to resist temptation – especially since everyone else seems to have heard it and I don’t want to feel left out! I coughed up the dough for that recent Cosi fan tutte conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin. His Don Giovanni was . . . interesting; we’ll see how this one goes. Also, I admit that I take a perverse pleasure in making snide remarks about Rolando Villazon’s stylistic
lapses choices vis-a-vis Mozart, and from what I hear this new recording (he is Ferrando) will provide ample opportunity to do so.
(Previous section here.)
So, the boys go off to war. (Well, to be specific, they go off to the men’s room, which, like the women’s room, has an eighteenth-century style bust stenciled onto the door to indicate the sex of the potential occupants; Sellars gets some milage out of framing various people in shots with one or the other stenciled bust when matters of gender are under discussion – but as far as the men’s room is concerned: having no personal knowledge of that strange and alien terrain, I will say no more about it. I’ve seen pictures of urinals on the internet, though.) Anyway, the boys go off to war.
(Previous section here.)
So, Alfonso and Despina are running this diner together. Or something like that. The production implies that there is some sort of fraught personal history between the two of them. The staging and the translation of the dialogue suggest that Despina ended it because it became “torture” for them both – or at least for her. Alfonso is still entangled and entranced and every so often just stands there looking stunned. One gets the distinct impression that the reason he comes up with the wager idea with the guys is to prove some point to himself about his own issues as far as Despina is concerned.
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.
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Röschmann is not the only one emoting in this performance. Werner Güra sings an “un aura amorosa” that is very easy on the ears, and in general gives the impression that Ferrando gets sucked into the game more than his friend does – by Act II Ferrando appears to mean what he’s doing. “Fra gli amplessi” is wonderfully intense (and we get bonus reprise of the gardening shears!). I enjoyed Röschmann here too – Fiordiligi’s “giusto ciel . . .crudel!” (the held high A) was great.
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In some productions of Così the two women are costumed to look very similar, almost interchangeable. Here they definitely are not. Physically the women are difficult to mix up – Katharina Kammerloher (Dorabella) is at least six inches taller than Dorothea Röschmann (Fiordiligi), and they’re distinguished by wigs as well. Dorabella’s is blonde, and Fiordiligi’s is black (the wigs belong to the characters – they come off by Act II).
I guess I should get the obvious point out of the way first: if you have ever wanted to watch Hanno Müller-Brachmann caper around in nothing but a Legolas wig and a pair of tighty-whiteys, this Così is for you. If you have never wanted to watch Mr. Müller-Brachmann caper about so attired – if the thought had never even really occurred to you – if the idea leaves you bored, indifferent, or even vaguely uneasy, rest assured that this production also contains Werner Güra shirtless, a very agitated Dorothea Röschmann armed with gardening shears, and a lot of pot. Are you sold yet?
(Previous section here.)
So, the emotions the characters are feeling are real. These people have not turned into automatons. Ferrando (Topi Lehtipuu) really means it about that dirt. And when Ferrando is about to seduce Fiordiligi in “fra gli amplessi” there is a moment where he seems furiously angry and rather threatening – this is revenge and there’s a hint it could get unpleasant.
(Previous section here.)
So, we’ve got Alfonso as sometimes frustrated manipulator of others. This is standard for this opera, in some ways – but it doesn’t feel so in this version. Perhaps this is because Alfonso is not teaching these silly young things a lesson. Rather, he appears to be manipulating them out of a kind of compulsion. I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that part of the vulnerability that is being showcased here is Alfonso’s.
I watched this dvd for the first time nearly a year ago now, and my initial response was a sustained feeling of irritation. I watched it again this past weekend, and while I was still feeling irritated through a large chunk of Act I, I was coming around by Act II, and by the end, although I wasn’t leaping up and down and shrieking with excitement, I did not feel as if my time had been misspent.
So, the other day I came across (never mind how) a comment that was appended to a review of that Zurich production of Cosi fan tutte where Fiordiligi bites it in the last two minutes. The review was on this website that had to do with Cleveland, Ohio, because — as it turns out — the orchestra for that particular Zurich performance was the Cleveland Orchestra. I have never been to Ohio, but the evidence suggests that they are no slouches in Cleveland, as far as orchestras go.
The commenter was furious with the concept of the production. The ‘zinger’ at the end (at least, I suspect it was intended to be a ‘zinger’) was that this type of production was the equivalent of “painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa.”
Mozart’s opera is not so fragile that one dead Fiordiligi is going to spoil it for everyone, forever. And, given that a significant amount of the plot of that opera involves false moustaches — well, let us just say that the conceptual problems wrapped up in that comment operate on several levels at once.
It put me in mind of a comment someone made on a video I put up (because I liked it) of the “Eboli’s Dream” ballet from that one production of Don Carlos. An individual named Edward saw it and disliked it immensely – he called it “vulgarity.”
There seems to be a certain flavor of opera fan who really hates this kind of thing. I am not sure why. It reads to me as if killing poor Fiordiligi (what do you call someone named Fiordiligi for short? Fiori? Didi?) offends some people on a sort of . . .basic decorum level. They find it both annoying and a little bit embarrassing. It’s as though if certain boundaries are not set, no one is going to take music seriously.
It is probably unfair of me, however, to mock Edward and the author of the Cleveland Zinger. I imagine there are things that you could do to Mozart’s operas that I would have that very same reaction to, although I can’t right now think of what those things would be.
“Per pieta” is one of those arias that doesn’t have an immediately recognizable melody like, say, “Dove sono” or “Martern aller Arten”. There are large stretches of it where the effectiveness really depends on how it’s phrased (and on the singer having very good intonation). With the eternal caveat that I know jack shit about singing, I have the impression that a performer is a little more exposed singing this than she would be with some other things.
Here are two versions of it. This is Malin Hartelius and this is Miah Persson from that Salzburg/Guth Cosi. In terms of quality of sound, I prefer Persson’s voice to Hartelius’s. It’s slightly more rounded and golden. (These are terrible descriptors, but it’s the best I can do.)
So, I am going to talk a little bit more about Cosi fan tutte. I have a working theory about how I like this opera to go, and I think what I prefer is a production that allows for the sort of goofy sweetness that prevents the story from being utterly revolting but at the same time doesn’t verge into the saccharine. That is why I like the ending to the Zurich 2009 version, where Fiordiligi accidentally drinks poison and dies, or the ending to the Berlin 2002 version where they all sit there staring at one another in the girls’ now trashed apartment. There has to be a little tartness – a little bit of detachment.
That Zurich version nails this quality. Much of this is due to to Martina Jankova (Despina) who has a voice that I think I might not enjoy in another context, but who is very effective here. You understand perfectly why Despina does what she does, and you sympathize with her up to a point, but she is still a real pain in the ass. Here is “che vita maledetta” through “che silenzio!” Dorabella (Anna Bonitatbus) is the one in beige and Fiordiligi (Malin Hartelius) is in white. (These two are wonderful at stealing scenes from one another – see also Come scoglio. Also, recalling Isabel Leonard’s Dorabella the other night, I think this opera works better when both the sisters are sung by women who are at least, say, 35. Not only because opera singers tend not to truly hit their game until their thirties, but also because women that age do better at spoofing the mannerisms of younger women.)
But it’s also the way this production manages to ride that fine line between goofy and serious without veering into either silly or maudlin. I think I would also be up for a production of this that went for dry, stilted and clinical (which is sort of what Guth was up to, but I kept getting distracted by the trees) but I’m not sure I would enjoy that as much. In the Zurich version we are never pulled into too much sympathy with any particular aspect of the story, but we’re never shoved out of it, either. Here is “una donna a quindici anni” and “prendero qual brunettino” (watch how the music turns into stage directions once they leave the table), and “amore e un ladroncello”. Dorabella is seriously messing with Fiordiligi, as siblings will do, and it’s quite funny. (The fruit ‘sculpture’ on the table is the result of Guglielmo’s antics during “donne mie” a scene or two earlier).
[edit 5/15/12: I wrote this a long time ago. I think I may end up changing my mind about this production – it’s on my list to watch again.]
Today we are concerned with a DVD of a production of Cosi fan tutte from Salzburg in 2009. I watched the first act, and by the time I got to the end of that I pretty much had the trick of the thing, so I listened to the rest of it while I typed up my notes. So, there may have been any number of brilliant and wonderful things that happened after “una donna a quindici anni” that I missed. If so, I hope someone lets me know.
The Staatsoper Berlin 02 Cosi fan tutte that’s set in the 70s?
I could watch that any number of times. It’s so deliciously . . . goofy. Cosi definitely has a goofy streak to it and this production just takes that and runs with it. I mean, there are Che Guevara shirts. Two of them. (Or maybe just one. I’m unclear as to whether Fiordiligi is supposed to be wearing Ferrando’s for the wedding, or if it’s a different shirt. Anyway. Che Guevara! And you thought ‘t-shirts featuring dead revolutionaries’ and ‘Mozart opera’ were non overlapping categories.) [update: there are in fact two different Che Guevara shirts. Ferrando’s is green; Fiordiligi’s is red.]
Also. Werner Güra. Whenever I hear him, I always think, wait, that’s Werner Güra. He’s very easy on the ears, and anyone who can sing “un’ aura amorosa” while sprawled in a plastic lawn chair and do so convincingly is definitely in my good books.
(Unrelated language note: unfortunately for us English speakers this is one of those German “everyone gets an umlaut” operations, so if you want to mention anyone by name, there is cutting and pasting involved. Seriously, languages-that-are-not-English: diacritical marks are unnecessary. The relationship between spelling and pronunciation is best left obscure and confusing. Otherwise, how is it fun?)
I was listening to the Rene Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi 1999 I think) recording of Cosi fan tutte last night. There is a DVD of this that I rather like — it’s I think the Zurich opera from just a few years ago. This one. I read a professional review of this before I bought it, and the reviewer commented on the one (as he put it) “stunningly weird” directorial touch at the end, which is that Fiordiligi accidentally drinks poison and dies. The poison first makes its appearance at the beginning of Act I, and there’s a lot of stage business with the little bottle of it through the whole thing, so it’s not like it came from nowhere, but still, that reviewer has a point.
At the same time, I can see the impulse to pull weird shit with this opera. It’s sort of fragile, dramatically. What I mean is that none of the six main characters can be either completely sympathetic or completely repellent — the fact that these are not necessarily people we might root for is what gives the thing its punch: the music often takes their emotions seriously, while the drama doesn’t. (Also, if you listen carefully to the accompaniment to the recitatives, you get the distinct impression that that piano is fucking with them and/or you.) This is a story about rather silly people getting themselves into a situation where they are feeling fairly serious things. Talking about music is like summarizing literature — inanity risk: high — but much of the music in this opera has a double-edged quality: it acknowledges feeling and mocks it at the same time. Or, so is my impression, at least.
Which is why I can see the appeal of poisoning Fiordiligi. This opera is made for that kind of sucker punch: it’s possible to play it too straight, or too sweetly, and end up with a mess. This is why I’m a fan of versions that end with the four lovers staring at one another in increasing bewilderment, sort of like the ending to The Graduate.
Of course, there are sucker punches and there are sucker punches. Poisoning one character works — it functions as a sort of, ‘hey, you do realize how ambiguous and weird all that was, right?’ More than that and I suspect it would read as either Blackadder-esque or Wagnerian, and neither of those are places that you necessarily want to take a Mozart opera.