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Così è la vita

Sydney Opera House
01/03/2005 -  and 3, 5, 8, 11, 13, 15, 17, 19, 22*, 27 January 2005
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Così fan tutte
Leanne Kenneally (Fiordiligi), Wendy Dawn Thompson (Dorabella), Jaewoo Kim (Ferrando), Joshua Bloom (Guglielmo), John Pringle (Alfonso), Antoinette Halloran (Despina).
Alexander Briger (conductor), Brian FitzGerald (director), Göran Järvefelt (original production).
Opera Australia Chorus, Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra.

The end of 2004 saw the sudden departure of Australian-born conductor, Simone Young, as director of Opera Australia. Her replacement, Richard Hickox, inherited a 2005 season which comprises 13 operas, two of them by Mozart. The first of these, Così fan tutte, opened the season.

Swedish-born Göran Järvefelt was contracted to produce four Mozart operas in Sydney in 1989. He had produced the first of these, The Magic Flute, to great critical acclaim and rehearsals for the second, Così fan tutte, were about to start when he was diagnosed with the brain tumor that lead to his untimely death later that year. One of his former assistants took over the production at short notice, faithfully recreating Järvefelt’s original conception.
This tradition has continued in Sydney, and Järvefelt productions of the later Mozart operas have become a regular feature of Sydney opera seasons since 1989. On this occasion, the production was directed by Brian FitzGerald who had assisted the replacement director at the first Järvefelt Così.

Although well received when premiered at the Burgtheater in 1790, the product of the last Mozart-da Ponte collaboration was treated with almost universal disapprobation for the following 200 years. Mozart’s music was not the reason - it was widely praised. It was da Ponte’s libretto, or to be more specific, the attitudes it reflected, that offended moral sensibilities.

Mozart’s first biographer, Niemetschek, wrote that the libretto was ‘a trashy text’, Beethoven considered it ‘immoral’, and Wagner dismissed it as ‘unworthy’. These objections did not arise because these gentlemen took issue with the misogynistic title and story-line - neither Beethoven nor Wagner was a noted feminist! Rather, they were outraged that the librettist had accepted with equanimity the notion of gentlemen (soldiers at that!) playing dastardly tricks on their womenfolk, and gentlewomen treating their lovers as replaceable commodities.

In today’s more cynical and permissive society we no longer hold romantic expectations of chivalrous behaviour in men, or of the immutable constancy of human (both male and female) attachments. So Così is widely enjoyed by contemporary audiences as a not-so-far-fetched farce - a humorous test of human resolve of the kind we often see on ‘reality’ TV.

Yet Così is more than this. It is, as the opera critic, Alan Blyth, has written, “the most balanced and probing of Mozart’s operas, formally faultless, musically inspired from start to finish, emotionally a matter of endless fascination and, in the second act, profoundly moving.”

Järvefelt’s set for both acts consisted of a sloping stage bounded on each side by a rococo interior wall. Two Louis XV chairs on the one side, and a small harpsichord on the other, remained in place throughout the production. The few other props were unobtrusively changed as required. This sparse stage gave the action a timeless quality, while still having enough period ambience to make the 18th century costumes congruent. In addition, it left the stage uncluttered for the extended, helter-skelter finales of each act.

Järvefelt neatly solved many of the play’s problems. For example, to make it credible that Don Alfonso managed to find so many accomplished accomplices and props for his subterfuge, Järvefelt placed the first scene in a back-stage room of a theater where the actors, Alfonso’s friends, congregate after a play. It is these actors, complete with their acting expertise and props, whom Don Alfonso co-opts to help him.

The orchestral score of this opera is a special delight, the woodwinds frequently providing a running commentary, somewhat like a Greek chorus. For example, in the second scene of the first act, when the sisters sing lyrically of their love for the departing soldiers, the bassoon climbs a staccato scale that ends on a sustained note, as if laughing in derision at their sentiments. It was therefore unfortunate that the cramped orchestral pit that is partly obscured under the stage rendered the woodwinds less audible. Alexander Briger’s tempos were natural and unobtrusive. The horns had some awkward moments, but generally the orchestra provided competent, if often characterless, support.

It is disappointing that opera productions, such as this one, still cut numbers such as the men’s duet, “Al fato dan legge”, and Ferrando’s aria, “Ah! Lo veggio”. Mozart’s score deserves to be heard in its entirety.

The cast (with the appropriate exception of Don Alfonso) were young and attractive as befits their roles. Among them, it was Joshua Bloom’s rich bass-baritone and natural acting that stole the honors. San Francisco opera is lucky to have this fine Australian export! The young Korean, Jaewoo Kim (Ferrando), possesses a vibrant tenor, but his acting was wooden and his singing lacked ardor and tonal and dynamic variety.

Leanne Kenneally’s Fiordiligi was sung with beauty of tone at the top, and accuracy of intonation in all but the most florid passages. Her voice has yet to develop the lower register power for “Come scoglio”, but her lyrical singing of “Per pietà” and the lovely “Fra gli amplessi” section more than compensated for this. The New Zealand-born mezzo, Wendy Dawn Thompson sang and acted the role of the impulsive sister, Dorabella, with vigor and beauty.

As the maid, Despina, Antoinette Halloran was too refined. A more provocative and saucy portrayal is required for this pivotal role. The veteran, John Pringle, has graduated from the part of Guglielmo to that of Don Alfonso. He acted well, but his voice has lost its bloom and sounded uncomfortably dry throughout.

All in all, this performance was a proverbial curate’s egg – enjoyable, but by no means faultless. But then - così è la vita - human endeavors generally are not perfect. As the final sextet of this opera teaches us, ‘Fortunato l’uom che prende ogni cosa pel buon verso e tra i casi!’ (Happy is the man who looks on the bright side of everything in all circumstances!).

Mark Selikowitz



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