Sunday, July 22, 2012

"Cosi fan Tutte" in Jerusalem

Baritone Sir Thomas Allen

Israeli opera lovers had the pleasure of viewing W.A.Mozart’s “Così fan tutte” (translated as “So do they all” or “Women are like that”) filmed September 10th 2010 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. This writer attended the performance shown July 19th 2012 at the Jerusalem Theatre.

Originally premiered in 1790 in Vienna under the composer’s direction the day before the composer’s 34th birthday (and only two years before his death), “Così fan Tutte” was well received and given ten performances that year. The opera buffa in two acts, to a libretto in Italian by Lorenzo da Ponte, is set in 18th century Naples; it was the third of three operas to libretti by da Ponte, the first two being “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni”.

The Covent Garden production we viewed was directed by theatre- and opera director Sir Jonathan Miller (b.1934); Miller also happens to be a neurologist, author, television presenter, humorist and sculptor. Assisted by revival director Harry Fehr, Miller took leave from the setting of 18th century Naples to go for a contemporary stage presentation both in dress and in other touches, such as the existence of mobile ‘phones, laptops and takeaway cups of Starbuck’s coffee on stage, not to speak of the sudden appearance of a CNN news cameraman. The minimal, contemporary and unchanging stage setting meant total focus on the music, action, the characters, body language, facial expression and on the smallest of pertinent gestures. Mozart’s wit and da Ponte’s sharp observation of human nature combine well with Miller’s own humorous- and more philosophical take on the opera and his all-encompassing work (he also had a say in set designs and lighting). On the musical front, German violinist, conductor and musicologist Thomas Hengelbrock (b.1958), especially known for his fine directing of Baroque operas, here conducting without a baton, gave Mozart’s brilliant score freshness, transparency and zing; from the very overture, energetic and bristling with hints and warnings – musical and otherwise - of what was to come, the Royal Opera House Orchestra shone; each orchestral section excelled in quality and color, inviting the listener to enjoy Hengelbrock’s precision and elegance of detail. The fortepiano (Christopher Willis) accompanying recitatives was effective in its intimacy and authenticity. Singers’ costumes ranged from suave, contemporary daywear worn by soloists and chorus to the black leather gear, rings and tattoos of Hell’s Angels bikers, to servant girl Despina’s (Rebecca Evans) hilarious disguises as the doctor and, later, the notary.

Whether one likes the idea, atmosphere and props of “Così fan tutte” set in the 21st century or not, there was no doubt that the international cast of soloists was well chosen. British baritone Sir Thomas Allen, celebrating forty years of singing for the Royal Opera House, was a cunning and commanding Don Alfonso, his performance streamlined, his elegant, well-timed gestures, verve and magnetic stage presence delighting throughout. With a glint in his eye, he had the audience eating out of his hand. Then there was the Welsh soprano Rebecca Evans who is known to have said “Mozart is my favourite composer. I can’t live a day without him”. As the coquettish servant girl Despina, she is the flirtatious Don Alfonso’s accomplice; the two singers work very well together. Endowed with a lustrous, creamy, focused voice and much charming personality, she is a fine comic actress, portraying Despina as out for what she can get, but as more lovable than the scheming Don Alfonso.

The other four soloists were opera singers of a caliber suited to gracing the ROH stage. Swedish soprano Maria Bengtsson and Lithuanian-born mezzo-soprano Jurgita Adamonyté were convincing as sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella and collaborated well. Bengtsson, in particular, was resplendent with emotional intensity and her depth of understanding of the real issues at hand. Manipulated by Don Alfonso, the male suitors – French baritone Stéphane Degout as Guglielmo and Pavol Breslik as Ferrando - were definitely in character. Taking on their guise as “Albanians”, they relinquished both formal lounge suits and the code of suitors for the loutish mannerisms and apparel of Hell’s Angels. Breslik’s (born Slovakia, 1979) honeyed tenor voice and intensity made for some impressive moments.

Singers and orchestra guided the audience through the twists and turns of this opera buffa in a performance that did not lag for a moment. Via the absurd, the ludicrous and weaknesses of human nature, the performance, nevertheless, expressed da Ponte’s sound observations as to how we function. Jonathan Miller added some interesting touches of his own on the subject. Characters, for example, walking past the full length mirror placed on stage, would pause to “take a look at themselves”. When beset by the dilemma of whether to be unfaithful to their lovers in favor of the “Albanians”, Fiordiligi and Dorabella imitate tightrope walkers, as they walk the tenuous fine line of human relationships. However, if audiences do not want to concern themselves as to whether the reunited couples will live happily ever after or not, there is always Mozart’s delicious music, its sequence of sections strategically structured and cohesive, its course wonderfully seamless. With each soloist provided with one aria in each act, there also abound a rich variety of vocal duets, trios and quintets. Mozart’s orchestration is supreme in its use of color, economy and clarity as he celebrates da Ponti’s text with musical joie-de-vivre and a wink of the eye.

The film was preceded by a short explanation of the opera by Israeli journalist, lecturer, music critic and editor of music programs Yossi Schiffmann. Subtitles in Hebrew and English were provided. Royal Opera House Cinema offers opera lovers the opportunity to savor some of the world’s finest opera moments from the Royal Opera House in central London.

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