CosÏ fan tutte Deconstructed

Last heard at Santa Fe in 2003, in a
then-innovative and refreshing presentation by James Robinson of the Colorado
Opera, the same visual production was back, with an entirely new cast, but
given considerable new ëmethodí by Robinson the on-going stage director.
It did not wear well.

Politely put, Robinsonís CosÏ was a gag-filled, vulgar romp.
Such is not Mozartís CosÏ, an elegant, ironic comedy ñ not an
ambiguous study of human nature requiring Regietheatre treatment, as is the
present day style with this piece. To make CosÏ into slapstick
comedy combined with faux psychological exploration of the characters is to
miss the point.

Essentially a bittersweet comedy of character types, set to some of
Mozartís most exhilarating and beautiful music, CosÏ indeed has
dark edges that serve to heighten amusement over the foibles of human nature.
I am bored by producers treating CosÏ as a post-Wagnerian or
neo-Freudian exercise of great profundity. Yes, the tormented bad conscience
of Fiordiligi, as she wavers between passion for her new lover and duty to
her old one, can touch the heart (through the music) ñ but right away
Mozart tells us, ëdonít take it so seriously ñ look how the boys are
acting!í Mozart has Don Alfonso (the agent provocateur of the show),
mocking the insensitive lovers who have foolishly set out to trap their
ladies into unfaithfulness, and got what they deserved. Of course, ìwomen
are like that,î as the title tells us, but so are men. Thatís the show! What really counts in an evening of CosÏ are the music and the
singing, done in tongue-in-cheek 18th Century style. Director
Robinsonís endless sight-gags and slapstick, as well as the over-wrought
posturing of his characters, just got in the way. How many times can you
throw a wedding bouquet around the stage or bang a baritone over the head
with a huge Valentine box of chocolates?

Ironically, the Santa Fe Program book, always an interesting document,
reserves a page to recall how a Metropolitan Opera production of
CosÏ, introduced December 1951 (your writer was privileged to
attend the piano dress and five subsequent performances of that production in
early 1952 ), was such a vital musical and theatrical success it inspired a
young John O. Crosby, founder of the Santa Fe Opera, to establish his
festival company in the mountains of Northern New Mexico some fifty years

American actor Alfred Lunt was credited with the production, though Met
manager Rudolf Bing and conductor Fritz Stiedry had major input. The Metís
old CosÏ endured for many seasons and had no ëconceptí beyond
Mozartís. Luntís chief contribution was to appear as a servant in full
livery to prance about the stage during the overture lighting the footlights,
which he did with nimble elegance and humor. From that point on, the Metís
celebrated CosÏ was a straightforward rendering of the
Mozart-DaPonte show, as written, based on the tasteful style of the famous
Glyndebourne productions first heard in the seminal Mozart revivals of the
1930s. Soprano Eleanor Steber, Fiordiligi in the Met production, imparted to
this writer, ìLunt never gave us any individual direction; Blanche (Thebom)
had sung it at Glyndebourne so she showed us what to do.î That was a long
time ago, but the germinal Glyndebourne influence long endured. The Met got
it right in the 1950s, and on up through the 1990s was playing CosÏ
from the Mozart-DaPonte book. Nowadays, in sharp contract to Mr Luntís
elegance, SFO had a dozen young men dressed in underwear lined up across the
stage during the overture, waiting for their physical exams to enter ìthe
school for love,î Mozartís sub-title for CosÏ. No comment
needed. There is always hope Santa Fe Opera will return to the fold and
present real Mozart. A new production of The Marriage of Figaro is
scheduled for Season 2008, and there is talk of Don Giovanni soon

A part of my problem with this summerís CosÏ comes from the
prissy, unimaginative conducting of British maestro William Lacey. At times
he had the excellent Santa Fe orchestra sounding like perfect chamber music;
at other times it was thick in texture and sticky in tempo; only rarely was
it theatre music with shape and point. One had to chuckle at one of the
moments Lacey was dragging tempos, to see the well experienced Suzanne
Mentzer (Despina) literally beat time from the stage with her arm, attempting
to move things along.

Susanna Phillips, a gifted young soprano from Alabama, displayed a strong,
superlative voice as Fiordiligi, but her great second act scene and aria,
ìPer pieta,î came near bogging down in Laceyís slogging accompaniment.
The musical style of the evening had all the principals ornamenting
Mozartís vocal lines with lavish decoration ñ runs, roulades, inserted
high notes, none from the score and often counter to mood. It is not outside
performance tradition of Mozartís day to ornament, but the extent of it at
SFO was excessive and tasteless.

The singing cast, aside from the interesting if unripe Phillips and the
able Mentzer, was mainly unremarkable. A handsome tenor, Norman Reinhardt,
was not unskilled as Ferrando, but his lovely Act I aria, ìUn aura
amoroso,î turned tentative and tight, the voice sounding wan in its upper
register with little tonal appeal. The senior American bass, Dale Travis, was
a faint Don Alfonso, playing well enough, but sketchy of voice. Katharine
Goeldner brought a pungent reliable mezzo to Dorabella, combined with good
stage skills. A baritone, Mark Stone, came from England to sing Guglielmo and
one wondered why, as the product was not of export quality.

James Robinson, who managed to mangle Bizetís Carmen almost beyond
recognition at Seattle a few seasons ago, needs tutoring in hubris
management. He is a well-educated gentleman, but his concept productions (or
ëmethodí direction, in the lingo of the deconstructionist world, a
corrupt domain ready for abandonment), have long since reached the point of
diminishing return. The 1970s nouvelle vague of deconstructing masterworks of
art to suit the ìvisionî of the director has waned in most artistic
disciplines, yet operatic direction remains one of the last backwaters of
that perverse fad. It got to Santa Fe late; letís hope it leaves soon. Let
me end with a question: Who would you like to trust with your expensive
evening at the opera? A genius named Wolfie, or a would-be auteur, uncertain
of his next stage move?

J.A.VanSant © 2007

image_description=Susanna Phillips, Katharine Goeldner and Susanne Mentzer [Ken Howard © 2007]
product_title=Above: Susanna Phillips, Katharine Goeldner and Susanne Mentzer
W. A. Mozart, CosÏ fan tutte
Santa Fe Opera, 2007
product_by=All photos taken by Ken Howard © 2007 courtesy of Santa Fe Opera