Saturday, January 23, 2016

Winter Opera St. Louis – Cosi fan tutte – January 22, 2016

Probably the most important requirement for any group desiring to mount a production of Mozart’s wonderful Cosi fan tutte would be to have 6 outstanding singers who not only have the vocal and musical excellence required to sing Mozart, but also have the acting ability to bring the characters to life.  And on this Winter Opera scores a triumph.  Six top notch singer/actors have come together for this mid-winter production, and to that add the brilliant (and I mean really incredibly brilliant) set design, clever staging by Corrine Hays and good musical leadership of Nicolas Giusti and you have a winner of a show.  Bravo to Winter Opera.  This was an excellent Cosi and I enjoyed it very, very much.

Winter Opera’s artistic director Gina Galati led this cast as Fiordiligi and did a wonderful job.  I especially loved her performance of “Per pieta” in act 2.  Act 2 begins a slow transition for this character and by this aria Fiordiligi has lost her “As a Rock” shielding and becomes very vulnerable.  Gina did a great job of this transition.  The Dorabella of this production was the outstanding Sarah Norton who is simply one of the finest performances of this role I have seen.  Vocally ravishing she nevertheless energized this spirited character by deftly balancing the cathartic anger and fear which motivate her – this was all contained in her scena “Ah, scostati… smanie.”   The Ferrando of Daniel Gerdes was outstanding.  What a beautiful voice and what great stage presence.  And Christopher Holmes did a fine job balancing Guglielmo’s playfulness in the first act with his increasing anger and betrayal in act 2.  One of the real treats of this production was the inclusion of Guglielmo’s hardly ever performed aria “Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo.”  I am not sure that I have ever experienced this aria live before.  It was composed by Mozart for the Vienna premier of the opera but then replaced before the performance.  It is a curious aria.  It is long and reminded me a little of the aria “Non piu di fiori” from “  Clemenza di Tito.” Nevertheless it was a real treat to hear it performed, especially by this excellent Guglielmo.

Rounding out the cast we had Kevin Wetzel as Don Alfonso and Lily Guerrero as Despina.  Both were excellent actors and fine singers.  It was nice to experience a Don Alfonso who was not so serious all the time and who seemed to be enjoying the joke he is playing.  And Lily Guerrero had enough feistiness to ensure that you were never quite sure what she was going to do next.  Her characterizations of Dr. Mesmer and the Notary were highlights of the performance.  And hats off to the chorus, who have not a lot to do in this opera, but did their few parts very well.

I have to say that the one thing that always amazes me with Winter Opera is the excellence of their sets.  They have a treasure in Scott Loebl.  His sets – not just this one – are always models of simple beauty and practicality.  He was able to turn the excellent interior into a beautiful garden in no time at all and without long set change waits.  And also I should add that this set was beautifully lit by Sean Savoie.

As much as I enjoyed the performance and loved the artists I do have a couple quibbles.  Conductor Nicolas Giusti did an excellent job with the harpsichord for the recits, but I had a hard time understanding why there was cello continuo a few times and none at others.  There were also pacing and tempo problems that caused the cast and the pit to separate on more than one occasion.  Mostly I would say it seemed that Maestro Giusti wanted slower tempi than did the singers.

There were, of course, cuts.  This is inevitable, I suppose.  And for the most part, I thought that the cuts were very smooth and appropriate.  There were only two times I felt that the cuts were a problem.  1st, was the unfortunate cut near the end of the first act finale.  As it only cut about 30 seconds or so, I’m not sure why that was necessary.  But the cut that disappointed me the most was a cut to the recitative in scene #10 of act 2.  This exchange:
What are you saying?
Don't you spare a thought for the unfortunates
Who left us this morning?
For their grief?
Have you forgotten their faithfulness?
Where, where did you learn
Such barbarous feelings?
How have you so changed your nature?

Listen: are you sure
That our former lovers won't be killed
In the war? What then?
We'll both be left high and dry.
There's always a big difference
Between one in the hand and one in the bush.

And then if they come back?

If they come back, too bad for them!
We'll be married by then
And far away from here.

Now I am certain I didn’t miss it, because I was looking for it and I also suppose it is possible that the translation they used in the titles obscured it.  But I don’t think so. I think this recit was cut on purpose which is really too bad.  Dorabella’s response (in bold face) is essential for understanding the motivations of the women.  They are not being capricious, in the context of their time and culture they are motivated at least in part by fear – the fear of ending up alone, which within their context would have been a disaster for them.  This cut I’m afraid is very unfortunate, especially for an audience, the majority of which probably do not know the opera at all.  For more on the interpretation of this opera see my article: In Defense of Cosi.

My other major concern has to do with the reduced orchestration.  Now I certainly understand that a regional company such as Winter Opera needs to be frugal and responsible with their money, which comes mostly through donations.  I get that and I applaud them for the seemingly excellent job they do with this too.  So, I know that the decision to reduce the orchestra is done in order to be financially responsible.  However having said that I feel compelled to point out that Mozart is not like other opera composers.  Cutting winds from Mozart’s orchestration has a major impact on the sound of the orchestra.  And in Cosi one instrument in particular made a huge different: the choice to use only 1 bassoon instead of two.  This opera in particular uses paired clarinets and bassoons, along with paired horns throughout for a particular effect and this is constant throughout the entire opera.  I’m sorry, but re-writing the lines and including an oboe here, and a clarinet filling in for the missing bassoon simply did not cut it.  I was constantly bothered by the missing bassoon during the performance and no where in the score was it more obvious that in the incredible ensemble “Secondate.”  I also missed the trumpets.  I know they are tacet a lot but when they play they are essential.  I really do not understand why at least the 2nd bassoon and 1 trumpet could have been added to the orchestra.  This would have made a huge difference.  Yes I also missed the 2nd flute and the 2nd oboe, but not as much – the beginning of the 1st act finale in particular for the 2nd flute, partly because the clarinet which filled in for the missing flute did not balance with the flute very well.  And the 2nd oboe was missed here and there.  But the orchestration for Cosi puts a lot of weight on the pairs of clarinets, bassoons and horns, so simply adding one bassoon and one trumpet would really have made a big difference.  For more on the orchestration and to hear clips read my article: More on Cosi.

Finally, I want to end this with a question to ponder.  Is Despina complicit with Don Alfonso throughout, or is she also somewhat of a victim herself and is she being used against the girls without her understanding what she is doing?  It seems to me there are three possible answers: 1. Yes, she is complicit from the beginning or at least from some time during act 1.  I have seen productions that have Despina make it clear she recognizes the boys right away.  2. She is a victim and is also tricked.  This is the interpretation embodied by the performance of Danielle de Niese during the Met HD performance of the opera a couple years ago.  In it she makes it quite clear at the end that she has been had too.  3.  The answer is a non-answer and is totally ambiguous.  I would say that is the tact taken by this Winter Opera production and their fine Despina, and to be fair this is the way it is mostly performed I think.  It is a valid way to go.  My personal view is that #2 is completely wrong and is not supported by the libretto.  Indeed it is hard to justify Despina’s behavior, especially as the Notary, if she in fact has no inkling of what Alfonso is up to. Exactly what did she think she was doing when she pretended to be the Notary?  For me #1 makes the most sense, but I am ok with #3.  I do not think it is overtly clear in the libretto though.  So it is something to ponder.

This was a really fine and outstanding performance of one of the great masterpieces of the operatic repertoire.  Bravi tutti to Winter Opera!

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