Friday, March 22, 2013

Making the most of Mozart at BLO

Facing the facts of love: Caroline Worra, Thomas Allen, and Sandra Piques Eddy.  Photos: Eric Antoniou.
Sometimes, particularly when I'm watching his operas, I think Mozart's face (below) should have really graced the sphinx.

Take Così fan tutte, the last of his works with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, and the one with the most checkered performance history - indeed, the Victorians considered it so risqué they rarely staged it, or produced it in bowdlerized versions; Così only returned to the repertory in something like its original form as the twentieth century progressed.

This seems strange given the glittering surface of the opera, which appears to be merely a witty roundelay of temptation, and is obviously based on an ancient trope: the jealous lover who tempts his beloved (in disguise) to test her fidelity.  The theme had been previously treated by Shakespeare, Boccaccio, and even Ovid - but Da Ponte and Mozart added what would proved an epochal twist: their heroines not only eventually succumb to temptation, but more shocking still, they are forgiven for their lapse.  Love accommodates itself to its own flaws, and in the opera's finale - a Shakespearean double wedding - each bride marries the man she has betrayed with the other groom (who is also his best friend).

Even the Bard never went this far, and Mozart's worldly acceptance of feminine humanity has troubled opera lovers - and the public at large - ever since.  And amusingly, it bothers modern feminists as much as it did Victorian chauvinists; both camps, it seems, would like to keep the ladies on their pedestals (if for different reasons).  Even the opera's title has fallen victim to sexist polarization; its literal translation is "So do all," which many have twisted into something like "So all women do" - as the men of the opera sing - when rather obviously "So do all" implies the guys do it, too; a subtler reading would even hint at Mozart's true message, that infidelity is a constant of the human heart, and so all must come to terms with it.

Of course, acceptance comes more easily when it is helped along by Mozart's ravishing melodies, with which Così is all but over-stuffed (and which conductor David Angus and his orchestra deliver nimbly from the pit).  And Boston Lyric Opera sweetens the amorous medicine still further with a production (through this weekend) that is consistently lovely, if somewhat unadventurous.  The silvery sheen of Così often glints with more rue and complexity than you'll find here - but perhaps after the rigors of Clemency, BLO felt like relaxing a bit with a sure-fire hit.

Phyllis Pancella's Despina just cannot deal right now, okay?

Not that I blame them; nor can I pretend it isn't wonderful to see and hear Così fan tutte again.  (It is always wonderful to see Così fan tutte.)  Still, in a way this is "gateway" Mozart.  If you've never seen a truly superb Così, it may stun you; if you have, however, be prepared to find the BLO version diverting, with gorgeous highlights, but perhaps not at the top of this company's achievement.

It is diverting, though, and craftily dodges the question of cynicism that sometimes dogs the opera, thanks to the knowing twinkle in the eye of Thomas Allen, the distinguished British baritone who not only directed, but also plays and sings Don Alfonso, the psychological Machiavel who stage-manages the deception driving the plot.  Don Alfonso wants to prove to the irritatingly naïve young soldiers Ferrando and Guglielmo that their fiancées are only human; and so he contrives (with the help of the ladies' lusty maid, Despina) to have them seemingly sent off to battle - only to reappear disguised as amorous "Albanians," who lay seige to their ladies' affections.

If you think you can guess the rest, be ready for a few surprises.  For of Mozart's two heroines, only one, the heartier Dorabella, succumbs to sensual temptation.  The more self-aware Fiordiligi surrenders to something subtler and more troubling - she actually falls in love with her new suitor, just as she once did with her betrothed.  This places Fiordiligi at the beginning of a new tradition of alienated psychological complexity, and lifts Così fan tutte out of its original era and into our own.

Perhaps that timelessness is what led designer John Conklin to turn this Così into a day at the beach, onto which he dropped - as is his wont - various portraits and props (the love seats with hearts built right into their backs were a nice touch).  Alas, Allen's Don Alfonso only occasionally took part in these scenic shifts, despite the fact that he was literally the director as well as a character - still, you could always feel him sizing up the audience just as he was his supposed comrades (and Allen's celebrated voice remains a burnished marvel).  The vocals from his young cohorts in crime perhaps weren't quite as strong - as Ferrando, tenor Paul Appleby boasts a warm lyric timbre, but at his high end seemed to still be fighting an earlier cold; still, his admission that his love has survived his fiancée's infidelity was (as always) immeasurably touching. Meanwhile, as Guglielmo, young barihunk Matthew Worth once again intrigued (we've seen him before) with vocal potential that hasn't quite come into its own.

Caroline Worra, Matthew Worth, Paul Appleby, and Sandra Piques Eddy before they all change partners.

The vocal news was better among the opera's women; local girl-made-good Sandra Piques Eddy stole the spotlight with a mezzo that's simultaneously pure, rich, and gloriously agile (it's no surprise she'll be making her debut at the Met shortly).  Her elegant, slightly distant persona suggested she might make an attractive Fiordiligi, but she also brought an appealingly sweet earthiness (and serious comic chops) to Dorabella's downfall.  Meanwhile, soprano Caroline Worra took the lead with her customary gusto and witty aplomb; I'm a big fan of Worra, but her natural heartiness sometimes worked against her here, and her golden soprano, though forceful, was never quite transfixing.  Still, she knew to pull out all the emotional stops for Fiordiligi's crisis of conscience; and while begging forgiveness for the sin she knew her love would compel her to commit, Worra was heart-breaking.

Rounding out the cast was the irrepressible Phyllis Pancella, whose Despina sang with a drop more malice than most, but whose witty timing was impeccable.  Pancella is clearly a comedienne who could make Così work in any language, but she got a little help from BLO's English adaptation, which was somewhat oddly accented in the arias, but was hilariously alliterative in the recitatives. Pancella and Allen together kept nudging this Così from the dark to the light; whether in the end it's a shade too light, you will simply have to judge for yourself. 

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