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Review: Alden's bleak, fascinating staging of Mozart's 'Cosi fan tutte' at New York City Opera
NEW YORK (AP) ' Christopher Alden has a bleak view of Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte."
The final message of his fascinating, quirky and sometimes downright weird production at New York City Opera seems to be that any of us could wind up disheveled on a park bench, drinking wine out of a bottle and passing it along.
So much for the hopeful ending created by the composer and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte for the opera buffa's premiere in 1790.
Rather than 16th-century Naples, Andrew Lieberman's largely monochromatic set puts the action in a surreal 20th-century park, with a flat black-and-white backdrop of trees and shrubbery. The nearly bare stage contains at various times a long, dark green bench, a cannon, a drinking fountain, a rowboat and a bunch of silver balloons. Four large lamps hang overhead. Alden and costume designer Terese Wadden fill the space with people in bowler hats and dandy suits. Aaron Black lights everyone strikingly.
The plot of "Cosi fan tutte," which roughly translates to "all women are like that," involves young officers Ferrando and Guglielmo, and their girlfriends, sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi. The old bachelor Don Alfonso bets the men within a day he will prove the sisters are unfaithful, like all women.
At Alfonso's behest, Ferrando and Guglielmo disguise themselves as "Albanians," and the women each are seduced by the other's boyfriend. They are married by a notary who is actually the women's maid, Despina, also in disguise. And when identities are revealed, the women beg forgiveness and everyone sings of enlightenment.
Viewed at Thursday's performance, the third in a run of four, Alden re-imagines Don Alfonso as a creepy guy in the park and Despina as a beggar/prostitute bumming a cigarette. People walk across the park in slow motion, as if they were subjects of Magritte paintings trapped in a Robert Wilson opera staging. Arias are delivered as if in a zonked-out trance, with sarcastic intent. Fiordiligi sings her showpiece, "Come scoglio (Like a rock)," sitting, leaning forward and with her face down and hair blocking her face, looking a bit like Cousin Itt.
Alden, who directed Mozart's "Don Giovanni" in City Opera's next-to-last season at Lincoln Center, has a stimulating series of ideas that leave the viewer speculating. The men don bunny-ears caps and prance about like Monty Python's Minister of Silly Walks. Don Alfonso makes one of the stranger uses of a bear suit since Jodie Foster in "The Hotel New Hampshire." Despina plays with a sock puppet. The young men wear old fashioned two-piece swimsuits for their wooing row. The "poison" is sipped from the public fountain.
By the final moments, the lovers look like vagrants, Alfonso is in white-tie-and-tails and Despina in an evening gown. The couples have become alienated and avoid each other onstage, with the sisters in the back and the men in the front. Alden is telling us status in society can quickly turn. Jarringly, the gloomy staging fights the uplifting music.
Baritone Rod Gilfry was a sinister, dashing and vocally menacing Don Alfonso and Marie Lenormand was a sassy, captivating Despina, controlling the evening and injecting cynical inflections into her mezzo-soprano. Mezzo Jennifer Holloway was lustrous as Dorabella, soprano Sara Jakubiak was a flashy and fierce Fiordiligi of soaring voice, Allan Clayton showed an unusually sweet tenor as Ferrando, and Philip Cutlip an earnest, conflicted Guglielmo.
Christian Curnyn conducted an exciting, well-paced performance, although the roughly 30-person orchestra sounded underpowered in the dry acoustics of the 605-person capacity Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
The third of four productions by City Opera in yet another season reduced by financial distress, the run concludes Saturday. The final staging will be four performances of Telemann's "Orpheus" at El Museo del Barrio from May 12-20.