The Mozart-ologue

Allan Clayton, Rod Gilfry, Philip Cutlip, photo by Carol Rosegg

(A review of New York City Opera’s Cosí fan tutte, and a dialogue with Olivia Giovetti)

Dear Olivia:

Now that I’ve seen New York City Opera’s new production of Cosí fan tutte, I’m caught up with you, and I’ve also quickly found myself in a similar position. I have a one-word takeaway: excellent.

We have a similar viewpoint about this and the other Da Ponte operas, and I come at mine as an opera composer (or at least that’s how I like to think of myself). In a musical tradition that has produced many true, enduring masterpieces, Mozart is the composer I always turn to for lessons in how to create music drama, he’s that essential. Not just to me, but to all of opera, which started off as a mature form under Monteverdi and then, weirdly, almost immediately entered a decadent phase as shallow entertainment produced by and for the wealthy fools of the Pre-Enlightenment .01%. Mozart not only revived the form but returned it to the integration of music and drama, and added an inherent humanity. The connection between what he put on stage and the philosophy of the Enlightenment is real and worth exploring, but what I personally love about his operas is that he put people on stage, not archetypes, and treats them with so much sympathetic imagination. <iframe class="alignright" [amazon_enhanced asin="0393313956" /]

I think more highly of Le Nozze di Figaro than you, in fact I think it’s perfect. The characters are real, what they think and feel speaks directly to all ages, and of course, the music is incredible, both in the moment and on the larger scale that integrates the arias, recitatives and ensembles into a structure that is always pushing at the tensions of the relationships and the plot, allowing the characters to speak for themselves and ultimately moving everything towards ultimate reconciliation and resolution. The problematic ones, for me, are Don Giovanni and Cosí fan tutte, and Joseph Kerman expresses my reservations best in his essential book, “Opera as Drama.” The problems comes from Da Ponte’s libretti, which leaves the Don-Leporello axis underdone in the former and hones everything to mechanical, inhumane perfection in the latter.

<iframe class="alignleft" [amazon_enhanced asin="0520246926" /]Cosí, Kerman thinks, is too perfect, leaving no space for the messy complexity of how we all actually think, feel and behave that would make the proceedings sympathetic. I have no problems with the music, which is fantastic, and I love the opera on record (it’s had some fabulous recordings, like Bohm’s and Jacobs‘). It’s on stage where it ends up being shiny and cold, and I’ve never seen a production that makes it live and breath. Until this one. Here is where I want to emphasize what I’ve said before, which is that the budget issues that City Opera has been struggling with are a blessing in disguise. When spectacle is economically impossible, all that’s left is drama, and when a 2,000 seat venue is unaffordable, then all that’s left is halls that are the perfect size to present that drama. Mozart is not grand and blustering, he’s intimate. Christopher Alden gets that and, with incredibly modest means, does so much. Through costume and setting, he sets the opera in bourgeois culture, with all it’s post-Marx, post-Freud psycho-sexual/eco-social hangups. Cosí is a very modern sex farce with a clear-eyed view of its characters. Mozart is not condemning them, he understand their sentimentality about themselves but doesn’t treat them sentimentally. If anything, he is saying that an artificial emphasis on chastity and sexual loyalty is not honest, loving intimacy. Philip Larkin wrote that “sexual intercourse began/in nineteen sixty-three,” and contemporary audiences suffer from the viewpoint that their passions and paraphilia are all new, that no one could have thought about this stuff before, much less done something about it. But Mozart and Da Ponte (himself something of a libertine) lived in an age when Casanova and de Sade were real presences.

What I’ve seen onstage in that past has been dizzy, ditzy and patronizing, a view of the opera as the frivolous production of an age that didn’t know any better. The couples are fools, Don Alfonso is a buffoon and Despina is effervescent. Our culture likes to think it is a legacy of the Enlightenment, but Romanticism has pulled us back into fervid and solipsistic sentimentality. Lay on structures of political and intellectual ideology, and we seemingly know more but see a hell of a lot less than Mozart and Da Ponte did. In City Opera’s Cosí, Alden takes advantage of our era’s smug viewpoint to show exactly where we came from and where we are. The key is his Despina, who here, instead of a flute of champagne, is a shot of bourbon.

Marie Lenormand as Despina, photo by Carol Rosegg
She appears as a slightly addled, homeless woman and will gladly, amorally, do anything for money. Through her lens, everything else is believable. A standout performance too by Marie Lenormand, in a consistently fine cast. This is always the fundamental strength of City Opera, performers who both sing the music and play the parts. That combination obviates the usual fussy comparisons of things like Allan Clayton’s Ferrando to Leopardo, and Sara Jakubiak and Jennifer Holloway to Ludwig and Schwartzkopf. Who cares? They, and Philip Cutlip as Guglielmo and the Rod Gilfry as a great, funny, sinister, altogether real Don Alfonso, made the drama onstage work, and made it sound great, and that’s the bottom line.

Alden really has the courage of his convictions too, which is rare and admirable. At the resolution, which is musical but not social, the couples look like they’ve been through a car wash in a convertible with the top down. They are exhausted by what they’ve discovered within themselves, which is that they’re not as pretty as they imagined. Instead, they are people like you and I, doing their best, imperfect, causing pain to those they care about but able to accept and forgive and still live and love. That’s real drama.