Cosi at the Salzburger Festspiele

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In a time when opera is trying to reinvent itself and competing with all number of entertainment that has to do much less work to seem relevant, Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte at this year’s Salzburger Festspiele is a remarkably original balance of the old looking forward to the new.

This balance begins with supernumeraries who are already on stage as audience members find their seats. Enlightenment-era scientists, wearing long white masks and velvet robes, mull over two sketches of human anatomy—one female, one male. Pulling on long beards, frowning at the ovaries, these perplexed philosophers show that the scenes to come are already but a mise-en-abyme. Their antiquated science is quickly framed and replaced by our own rationalization of the romantic comedy before us. After all, who can make sense of love?

Conductor Ottavio Dantone makes his Salzburg Fest debut with this opera and controls the work with precise tempos both fast and slow. As he began the overture, a curious Dorabella and Fiordiligi scurry to stage left where the scientists have retired at individual laboratory tables, laughing and pointing at the diagrams. But the scientists follow the unsuspecting women back to center stage, seize them, and cover their mouths with a handkerchief of chloroform. The men position the unconscious women on a settee, who later awake as if in a dream, and Mozart’s comedy becomes a scientific experiment of Enlightenment proportions.

The program notes that director Sven-Eric Bechtolf wanted to capture this opera in the year 1790, when it originally debuted, as a moment of (violent) transition from scientific logic to the romantic chaos that the French Revolution engendered. What he’s done here with the stagecraft—from blocking to set to costumes—is a clever symmetry throughout. The two pairs-—Fernando and Guglielmo, Dorabella and Fiordiligi dressed in period costumes—organize so neatly across the stage, crossing paths and then re-organizing, that the identity confusion inherent to the plot is heightened to a satiric degree. Even while the plot tests the essence of opposite genders, it also makes this stark difference paradoxically homogenous.

The talent across the board makes it possible to raise this special peculiarity of time and space where historic attention meets innovation. German soprano Julia Kleiter, as Fiordiligi, floats and soars with transporting grace (she was undoubtedly the audience favorite at the curtain call). As Dorabella, Angela Brower fulfills the more changeable sister’s character with a sweet and accurate clarity while still performing as an amusing flirt. Alessio Arduini (Guglielmo), the experienced Martina Jankova (Despina), and the puppet master Michael Volle (Don Alfonso) all perform with the ease of true professionals. The standout is Mauro Peter in the role of Ferrando, who delivered a quintessential “Un ‘aura amorosa” with a thrillingly round timbre for a tenor. It’s singers like these that make you forget you are watching an opera and allow you to be simply consumed by it.

Naturally, the setting of the Festspielhaus in Salzburg, half cliff-half theatre, reminds one of the ancient, not to the mention the fact that Mozart’s birth house is a street away. How difficult it must be, then, to maintain ties to the opera’s roots while delivering something that feels as new and exciting as Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versaille.

The trick is in the details. When the opera proper begins, for example, the scientists unroll and set up idyllic watercolor backdrops around the six characters and then appear a level or two up between the cloisters built into the cliff. As they look down on the singers playing out their gendered experiment, emotion takes the lead. When Ferrando realizes he is betrayed, he stabs a watermelon brought out for refreshment and breaks into it with his hands, pulling finger-fulls up into the air and squeezing juice onto the rug below. Next he moves over to a pillow, which he also stabs and hurls the stuffing across stage left. The metaphor is not subtle, and while it is at one moment making light of the changeability of women, the next it borders on a darker aggression that many iterations of Cosi don’t even come close to.

If you paid your 10 Euros for the program, you’ll also get a list of the Cosi’s the festival has performed. Since 1922, the festival has produced the opera 44 times. The statistics makes this production even more impressive, if that were possible. This is Mozart opera at its absolute best, delightful and timelessly provoking, because it finds us racing to logic even as it presses on those human conundrums that find no refuge in rationality.

“You’re special, baby”: 1960s Don Giovanni at Opera in the Heights

Photo by Amitava Sarkar

 

What does Mozart’s 1787 Don Giovanni look like in 1960? Sure, a lot of opera productions don’t stick to the period in which an opera was actually written. But Opera in the Heights’ Don Giovanni embraces 1960 from the set and costumes to even the English subtitles projected above the stage. Lines like “You’re special, baby” drew mixed reactions, I noticed looking around. Sometimes Mozart’s score felt mis-matched against Don Giovanni bragging “I’ll rock your world.” But as I overheard in a debate at intermission, “Yeah, but a player is always a player.”

Peter Sellars’ famous re-setting of Don Giovanni in the Spanish Harlem ghetto of New York City has always been a favorite of mine. Last night, with Donna Anna dancing lasciviously and chugging Jack Daniels followed by Masetto’s crew sporting tight jeans and leather jackets, it was like a mash-up of provocative Sellars and West Side Story.

I find Donna Elvira less deranged and more admirable, although opinions vary. Making both an OH debut and a role debut as Donna Elvira, Soprano Julia Cramer (Ruby Cast) struck just the right character balance. While Donna Elvira is a bitter, spurned lover, she also inspires some sympathy. I’ve always been impressed, rather than disappointed, that she recognizes Don Giovanni for the cad he is and still loves him to the end, vowing to spend her days in a convent after he is pulled down to hell.

The updated libretto took a few liberties with Elvira, stating Don Giovanni had left her pregnant instead of ambiguously “shamed.” But even without this added touch, Cramer’s voice would have pulled anyone over to her side. She’s a sharp singer with a warm timbre and versatile ability to change emotional tone—she conveyed the whole spectrum of Elvira’s multi-dimensional character expertly.

The singing at OH just keeps getting better. I was excited to see Michelle Johnson return as Donna Anna. I first heard Johnson singing the part of Leonora in Il Trovatore a few seasons ago. Her voice was memorable then, but has since blossomed into a force. As a soprano, Johnson proved last night she’s about to rock the opera world with a new kind of powerful presence. As her unfortunate fiancé Don Ottavio, Zach Averyt’s tenor voice was out-matched by Johnson. While his vibrato was a bit too wide, he got the cowardly sentiment of Ottavio just right. Also making an OH debut and a role debut as Don Giovanni, baritone Brian K. Major ruled as equally sexy and despicable. Major sings without reserve—full-bodied and broad—but also proved to be a captivating actor.

Bass-baritone Justin Hopkins, in the part of Leporello, stole this show. Although I’m morally opposed to shameless conquest counting, “Madamina, il catalogo è questo” is always a Don Giovanni high-point for me. Ripping off names in a rolodex and tossing them across the stage, Hopkins didn’t disappoint. His voice is unlike any other bass-baritone I’ve heard: a thick, rich timbre that is surprisingly light and flexible. Whether it was dancing over fast libretto or a sinking into a slow passage, Hopkins made it look easy.

Artistic director and conductor Enrique Carreón-Robledo is catching Houston’s attention for a reason. Generally, I don’t like to compare OH to Houston Grand Opera. I’ve written before about the intimacy that sets OH apart and their commitment to fostering up-and-coming artists. The companies are altogether different. That said, thinking of the Rigoletto I saw last week at HGO, there were moments last night when the singing was so spot-on, the passion so heightened, that OH could give HGO a run for its money.

 

Don Giovanni at Opera in the Heights runs January 31 – February 9. For ticket info, check out their website, and be on the alert for their season-closer Lucia di Lammermoor which opens March 28.