New York City Opera serves up an intimate and compelling “Così”
When New York City Opera general manager and artistic director George Steel announced that the financially ravaged company was leaving the “travertine fastness” of Lincoln Center to “meet the people” in neighborhoods and venues around the city, many observers characterized his pronouncement as lemons-into-lemonade spin doctoring born of desperation.
The medium- and even short-term prospects for the company’s survival remain dicey. But in one of its transient quarters—the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College—City Opera found an ideally cozy space for its gripping new staging of Così fan tutte, the 1790 dramma giocoso by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte.
Dramma giocoso was the librettist’s designation for Così; the composer, instead, catalogued it as an opera buffa. While the generic distinction is subtle, it is telling that even its co-creators could not pin down Così. This may help explain the opera’s troubled history (it did not become a repertory staple until about eighty years ago) and why Così is a work of central importance for us postmoderns, with our mistrust of hard binaries and easy certainties.
Also revealing is the fact that Da Ponte consistently referred to the libretto by its subtitle, “The School for Lovers”—grammatically, lovers of both sexes—and not by the blithely misogynistic title Così fan tutte (“So Do All Women”). His words and, above all, Mozart’s music tell of the unruliness of desire and self-knowledge won through pain, themes foregrounded in Christopher Alden’s production.
Alden shifts the opera’s setting from the seaside in Naples to a park at the edge of a forest. Andrew Lieberman’s spare set, deftly lit by Aaron Black, juxtaposes nature prettified with nature untamed, the tangled backdrop of foliage bringing to mind the dark woods in which Dante, Ariosto, Shakespeare, and others spun labyrinths of eros and perdition. Shades of grey abound in Terese Wadden’s beautiful costumes, and the production is set in the early decades of the twentieth century—a dyspeptic age that gave rise to mass slaughter, genocides, and the enigmas explored by Freud and Magritte (whose later studies of men in bowler hats seem to have inspired Don Alfonso’s attire).
Alden occasionally serves up sophomoric sight gags—you can guess what pom-poms and a cannon barrel stand in for. He sometimes seems a bit of a sadist, too: why on earth make Fiordiligi perform Come scoglio, a treacherous sing, seated and with her torso thrust forward and down?
But he also offered a bleak, uncompromising, and riveting look at the self-deception and pain that fester not so far beneath the surface of this elusive opera. His Fiordiligi and Dorabella seem to recognize the men to whom they had sworn fidelity even as they betray them; and the opera ends in desolation, with Despina spitting, the sisters huddled in a clutch of anguish, and the shell-shocked soldiers staring into space.
Christian Curnyn led an admirably brisk, tangy reading of the score, with only fleeting problems of balance and ensemble. One could quibble about aspects of the singing—all of the gentleman tended to aspirate in passagework, and the ladies sometimes sounded strained in the highest reaches of their roles—but these are very small reservations indeed given the theatrical brilliance and fierce, probing musicianship shown by all six principals.
Vocal honors go to the Dorabella, Jennifer Holloway, who sang every word with zest and clarity and has a voice that is liquid, lambent, and lit from within. The Despina of Marie Lenormand brought to mind a darker, more hardened version of Fellini’s Cabiria: she was a bag lady who turned tricks, conversed with a sock puppet, and dominated the stage with her every utterance and glance of those soulful, saucer-shaped eyes.
Sara Jakubiak deserved not only the ovation she earned but also a medal for singing Come scoglio so splendidly in such a preposterous position. Her Italian is not impeccable, and she needs more heft in her middle and lower registers to portray Fiordiligi in larger houses, but her fearlessness and generosity carried the day.
Allan Clayton as Ferrando sometimes sang too loudly—Così is by Mozart, not Mascagni—but he won a huge ovation for his heartfelt, elegant Un’aura amorosa. Philip Cutlip sang Guglielmo’s music with suavity and emotional punch. Rod Gilfry was a malignant, tortured Svengali of a Don Alfonso, engrossing in pantomime and in his grim, cruel outbursts.
For all the excellence of its individual artists, this Così triumphs because it is a compelling, keenly wrought whole played in an intimate space. Here’s hoping that City Opera manages to stay afloat and go on presenting vibrant, intelligent shows like this one—whatever the place it calls home.
Così fan tutte plays March 20, 22, and 24 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College (524 West 59th Street between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues). 212-870-5600; www.nycopera.com.