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Scholars and musicologists quibble endlessly over Cosi--about
its musical form (or lack of the form of the earlier operas), about inconsistencies in the
musical style from one aria or ensemble piece to another, about insufficient psychological
grounding for the characters. Let them quibble. This is opera buffa--it is light,
comedic, meant to be widely accessible. Indeed, the plot was thought to be based on an
actual incident that scandalized Vienna--what better material to intrigue Mozart's fickle
audience? Or the voyeuristic audiences of today, for that matter?
As always with the best comedy, there is a darker side to it and a meaningful look at human foibles. And da Ponte's libretto has some ambiguities, leaving room for thoughtful reflection on the points to hand. Most of all, there is the exquisite music of that composer who seemed to have Divine inspiration--irresistible melodies and counterpoints written with a profound understanding of the emotive and esthetic power of the human voice, if often pressing it to its limits.
The story is straightforward. Two young army officers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, engaged to a pair of sisters, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, make a bet with Don Alfonso. The young men believe that their fiancees will remain faithful to them, but the worldly Don Alfonso believes otherwise. Don Alfonso arranges a ruse of having the men sent off to war. The officers, disguised as Albanians, woo each others' fiancees, assisted by the scheming of Don Alfonso and the chambermaid, Despina. Don Alfonso proves to be correct; both women yield, albeit with different levels of resistance. Everything ends up forgiven and the two couples marry, though da Ponte and Mozart leave unspecified whether Dorabella and Fiordiligi marry their original lovers or the switched lovers of the Albanian masquerade.
San Francisco Opera and Opera Monte Carlo have created a co-production of Cosi which moves the time and place from 18th century Naples to 1914 in a "Mediterranean resort town." The opera can easily withstand such a shift, since its themes and situation do not seem particularly time-specific. The unit set consists of a pair of spaces defined by columns and rotated on the revolving stages to suggest changes of location. When draperies at the rear are opened, scenes of beach umbrellas and striped awnings (in the first act) and boats twinkling with lights (in the second) also provide some visual variety. The design is surely meant to be charming and festive, but on SFO's stage, it has a pronounced feeling of being stretched to fit a larger space than that for which it was intended. As a result the design seems "off" and whatever sparkle it may have generated in Monte Carlo has been lost. Costuming, particularly the women's gowns, are generally elegant and appropriate to the period. The visual references to World War I are clearly intended to create a parallel to current war and peace concerns. That's an acceptable added comment, except toward the end when troops are marched onto the stage and supertitles italicize the word "peace." Surely the point had been made without the need for such unsubtle emphasis.
The two couples were played by attractive young singers who, for the most part, handled their assignments well. Alexandra Deshorties (Fiordiligi) struggled early on with the lower chest tones, but she delivered her challenging coloratura second act aria (Per pietà, ben mio, perdona) with conviction and accuracy. Claudia Mahnke (Dorabella) offered buttery tones throughout and bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann projects his appealing instrument well. Only tenor Paul Groves (Ferrando) seemed overtaxed; his voice has moments of sweetness, but it is a small instrument and seemed more and more strained as the evening wore on, pointing up the difficulty of singing what is essentially chamber opera in a theater the size of the Veteran's War Memorial Opera House.
Veterans Frederica von Stade and Richard Stillwell (Dorabella and Don Alfonso) both compensate substantially for voices that no longer project well with their seasoned acting and assured musicality. Indeed, the contrast between their skilled stage presences and the stiffness of bearing and stage movement of the two young couples was pronounced, the responsibility of stage director John Cox who seems to have simply left them to their own (inexperienced) devices. Conductor Michael Gielen made an inauspicious SFO debut, with tempi often dragging so painfully slowly that the evening was further drained of energy.
It's hard to completely defeat such transcendently glistening music, and there were satisfying moments scattered through the evening. But sets, direction and conducting conspired to render the overall production sadly lacking the bubbly fizz that Cosi requires.
San Francisco, September 11, 2004 - Arthur Lazere