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Sunday, November 18, 2012

Opera Review: A Snake in the (fake) Grass

Juilliard and the Met collaborate on Cosí fan tutte.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Fiordiligi (Emalie Savoy) attempts to elude Ferrando (Matthew Lewis) in Juilliard's Così fan tutte.
Photo by Nan Melville © 2012 The Juilliard School/The Metropolitan Opera.
Stephen Wadsworth's handsome new production of Così fan tutte, the latest collaboration between Juilliard and the Metropolitan Opera is set in a claustrophobic garden. Looming, convent-like walls trap the participants in Mozart's "school for lovers." Significantly, the doors are locked. Occasionally, Don Alfonso (Evan Hughes) the perpetrator of this experiment in spit and partner swapping peers over the walls, to check how his subjects are getting along.

This production (seen at the Nov. 17 matinee at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater) is a sequel (of sorts) to Mr. Wadsworth's Juilliard Don Giovanni, seen at the conservatory last Sprig. Charlie Corcoran has again mounted the comic action in a series of handsome, receding picture frames that provide entrances and exits. Nature-images abound, from the (working) water pump, the grassy (AstroTurf) carpet, and the large orange tree that dominates the scene.

Given the plot of Così, the last collaboration between Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, one expects a serpent to slither out and bite the dunder-headed protagonists, two young soldiers who swap their partners, (a pair of sisters) to prove their fidelity and win a bar bet. The cynicism of the libretto and question-mark ending can sometimes leave an audience feeling downright queasy, despite the glittering music.

Happily, Mr. Wadsworth's show is graced with a strong cast of young singers who seemed to relish the romantic gamesmanship of the libretto. Tenor Alexander Lewis and baritone Luthando Quave complemented each other as Ferrando and Gugliemo. Mr. Lewis combined a talent for physical comedy with authentic tenor prowess, riding the melodic line above the stave with sure ease. Mr. Quave is a fine physical comic actor with a voice to match, serving as the vocal anchor in ensembles and convincing in his jealous anger at the opera's end.

This opera contains some of Mozart's most ambitious writing for the female voice, in the personae of the sibling heroines Fiordiligi (Emalie Savoy) and Dorabella (Wallis Giunta.) Faced with the challenge of the opera seria parody "Come scoglio" (written with extreme intervals of high and low notes for a singer Mozart apparently detested) Ms. Savoy delivered a searing performance. She improved as Fiordiligi's heart melted, bringing down the house in Act II with "Per pietà, ben mio, perdona." This famous aria was at once dulcet and filled with conflict.

Dorabella is the lesser role, but Ms. Giunta (a frequent stage partner with Ms. Savoy) sang with agility and a sensual edge in her flirtations with Gugliemo, and a sense of decided satisfaction in her aria "È amore un ladroncello." Even more impressive was Naomi O'Connell, who made Despina into more than just a one-dimensional trickster. Aided by Mr. Wadsworth's choice to give the saucy maid a possible relationship with Don Alfonso (Evan Hughes), she grew to regret her actions as the bitter results of the experiment became apparent.

As Don Alfonso, the lanky baritone Evan Hughes sets the events of the opera in motion with a compelling physical comic performance despite having no aria of his own. In the second act, he begins to visibly fall for Despina, an amusing twist as the cynic's own heart melts for the maid--and is not necessarily reciprocated. Alan Gilbert conducted the Juilliard Orchestra in an efficient performance, confirming that the New York Philharmonic's music director is still underrated when it comes to conducting opera.

The costumes (by Camille Assaf) are conventional, with extravagant "Turkish" outfits for the disguised soldiers and a plethora of pillows and curtains to convert the garden into a setting to exotic romance. At the climax, all this bric-a-brac is thrown around helter-skelter, an apocalyptic, chaotic moments that served as a stern visual reminder of the lovers' emotional turmoil and guilt.

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