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Beyond The Fringe

New York
LaGuardia Concert Hall
08/12/2004 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Cosi fan tutte
Susan Gritton (Fiordiligi)
Krisztina Szabo (Dorabella)
Lillian Watson (Despina)
Gordon Gietz (Ferrando)
Nathan Gunn (Guglielmo)
Andrew Shore (Don Alfonso)
Voices of Ascension
Les Violons du Roy
Bernard Labadie (conductor)

Cosi fan tutte demands sensitive and beautiful performance…It is not the work for the producer who
knows nothing in between solemnity and horseplay…”

Lord Harewood

Contemporaneity was explored in depth last evening at the Mostly Mozart Festival’s fully (some might say overly) staged production of Cosi fan tutte. The piece is a subtle construction whose very intricacy is its genius and charm. The amusing moments come not so much from the belly as from the intellect, both librettist and composer working hard to produce what appears to be a diaphanous, but proves to be a rather soundly structured, web of interwoven ironic paradigms. It is a work that can survive modern dress; unlike Wagner in the subway, a contemporary version of a comedy written to evoke its own current world of 1790 does not suffer in 2004 from Hugo Boss costuming.

Bernard Labadie presented his own thoughts about the contemporary in his preparation of the orchestra. Not a period ensemble but a smallish one, Les Violons du Roy attempted to recreate Mozartean phrasing with modern instruments. It was apparent from the overture that this was to be a performance diminishing the composer’s (and therefore the audience’s) capacity to appreciate contrast, the repeated symmetrical snippets of comic melody in the woodwinds, indicating the upcoming games of the pairs, no more or less expansive than the background of strings. It is worth noting at this juncture that Mahler learned his own art of juxtaposing staccato and legato directly from Mozart, conducting this opera in the Vienna pit on numerous occasions. However, last evening’s reading was also valid, if much less engaging than a uncompromisingly modern approach, and was saved from this reviewer’s scorn by the excellent musicianship of the players throughout.

Less forgivable, however, was the stage direction by Dr. Jonathan Miller. The camera phones, laptops and Starbucks’ cups were clever enough, but after a while these touches of the contemporary seemed forced and juvenile. The almost constant stage “business” distracted mightily from the humor in the score itself. The biggest irony last evening was that Mozart’s jokes are so much funnier than those of this company. Now no one enjoyed a salacious jest more than Wolfgang, but Miller’s slapstick was little more than an interminable series of crotch grabs, gestures borrowed from the gorilla cage, shattering that delicate irony at every turn. The butterfly’s wing became the elephant’s foot.

To offer but one musical example of this dumbing down, the duet between Guglielmo and Dorabella in Act II is hilarious in the original precisely because it is sung with deep romantic passion, the joke being that the audience has been informed by the plot, the raisonneur, and the music itself that the motives of both parties are less than noble. In this production, the performance is insincere on its surface, the off-color pantomime merely an insult to us all. One more musical anomaly: the absence of the harpsichord may have been a nod to the contemporary, but the resultant bleeding chunks of recitative did not seem to belong to either the 18th or the 21st centuries.

The singing was adequate at best, ranging from a committed and accomplished Nathan Gunn, through the sisters who could produce some beautiful moments, including a surprisingly sensitive Soave sia il vento, but who often sounded shrill, particularly when intoning in tandem, down the ladder to a Fiordiligi and Ferrando whose melismatic wanderings steadily declined as the second act wore on, and descending with a harsh finality to a Despina who swallowed virtually all of her phrases in order to be fresh for the next lines. This character ought to steal the show, but in this version, no one wanted to let her. On the plus side, the house was full to capacity and virtually everyone laughed and applauded at every conceivable turn, unfortunately subsuming much of the original humorous material in the process. In fact, this reviewer seemed to be the only person in attendance who didn’t love this production. Perhaps I’m just not contemporary enough.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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