Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Review: New York Opera Exchange occupies "Cosi fan Tutte"

Cosi fan Tutte is a show with which I have spent a considerable amount of time.

Early in my days as a singer, I was assigned to cover the role of Don Alfonso with a small company in the Northwest. This particular production was set at a seaside resort and it stands out in my mind for a couple reasons. One of which was that our Fiordiligi was six months pregnant - which ended up to be somewhat hide-able with the period "Empire Waist" gowns that were chosen by the producer. The other thing that stands out to me during this production - and by 'stand out' I mean that it causes me to both laugh and wince at the same time - was that during the Fiordiligi, Dorabella and Don Alfonso trio "Soave sia il vento", the characters were placed at a golf driving-range. Can you imagine? Well, it's worse than you think ... Yep, while singing this gorgeous trio, the singers used golf clubs to whack ping pong balls over the heads of the orchestra and into the audience.

Now, let me know pause for a moment so you can fully grasp that visual.

A few years later, there was my tenure as a young artist in a program that had, among various educational shows available, Cosi fan Tutte - in English. Not just one version, either. Oh, no... there were two versions. There was a 45-minute "Mini Cosi" and a 90-minute version - both with spoken dialogue in place of the accompanied recitative. But that's not all folks. In these Cosi you could have your choice of either English dialogue, or because it was in San Diego, there was also the spoken dialogue in Spanish. This production was set in Italy with set pieces which were cleverly painted different colors on each side and could rotate or move into various formations ... not unlike a Rubik's Cube ... all at the hand of Despina and Don Alfonso.

I think we calculated that we sang 220-ish performances of Cosi that season.

And the last time I was with Cosi fan Tutte was in South Florida singing it for Francesco Pace, founder of LA Opera. From Pace, I learned that you can put a new production on it's legs in less than two weeks, sing two performances and go home. Certainly fun but, I wouldn't recommend that compressed of a time frame.

Yes, many companies trot out Mozart's operatic setting of Da Ponte's gem either because it's relatively easy to transform and update, or because of its small cast list, it can seem easily castable. Please note: it can *seem* easily castable.

This last Thursday night, I had the opportunity to head to New York Opera Exchange's updated version of Cosi fan Tutte. Being politically minded, I was intrigued with the idea that the production took place on Wall Street as a play on the 1% vs. #Occupy Movement. Additionally, in their first full season, the young New York Opera Exchange is on a mission to create performance opportunities with orchestra for young emerging artists who they surmise to be on the cusp of professional breakthrough.

Why wouldn't I want to see this Cosi, right? It's a politically minded Cosi supporting young artists.

Now, let's break it down: Mozart's music in Cosi is notorious for being deceptively difficult for the singers. Not to be taken lightly, it's a show that can either soar to gorgeous musical heights or fall flat. Many times, productions compensate for the lack of musicality by employing "smoke and mirrors" tactics or by pumping up the staging with copious amounts of frenetic action.

From the first few out-of-tune chords provided by the orchestra ... well, let's just say I was bracing for impact ... my seat-back and tray table were in their upright and locked position and I was looking for the oxygen mask to fall from the bin above my head. I thought the plane was going down shortly after takeoff.

Once the brief overture was complete, I settled into my metal folding chair and watched as the action began.

Two successful Wall Street types appear in their company gym and being feigning their work out. Let's be honest, this is really quite realistic given the physical-shape of many Wall Street types. Anyway, confidently asserting that their lovers with be eternally faithful are the naive Ferrando - played by the company's Artistic Director Justin Werner, and Guglielmo -sung by baritone Joseph Beckwith. Beckwith's robust voice took a little time to warm up - which is not uncommon for larger voices. Throughout the show Beckwith sang the difficult music with a measured finesse - but, about three quarters of the way through, he gave up fighting with the overpowering orchestra and sang with the throttle down until the end.

Of course, the gents are challenged by their cynical boss-slash-friend, Don Alfonso, and all agree to Alfonso's bet of substantial proportion that the women will not remain faithful. Sung by bass baritone, Brad Baron, Don Alfonso was a definite highlight in this production. Baron drew from his Gilbert and Sullivan experience to deliver dialogue with a consistent and committed intent. On the whole, Baron sang with a balanced richness and youthful vitality that worked quite well given the concept.

The unsuspecting lovers, co-workers and former sorority sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, are enjoying a morning coffee on the outdoor patio of Starbucks when Alfonso approaches. The ladies are quickly duped when Alfonso reveals, in true histrionic fashion, that their men have been transferred to their firm's Chinese branch. And so, it begins...

Back in the office, Dorabella flies into an inconsolable fit. In this case, the quirky and fickle Dorabella was sung by lyric mezzo-soprano Abigail Levis. I know it's cliche to say - especially for someone reviewing a show - but, there are no other words to use: Levis stole the show. Her singing was consistently sumptuous and brilliant - reminiscent of a young Jennifer Larmore - while her portrayal of the character displayed comedic timing that was spot-on, giving us a Dorabella that was comically lovable.  I can't wait to see more from her.

Don Alfonso's Administrative Assistant - Despina - can't help but get into everybody's business. Making fun of the ladies utter misery, Despina, prudently and purposefully sung by soprano Amanda Chmela, suggests that they suck it up and have fun while their guys are away.

Enter two Occupy Wall Street protesters - which are Ferrando and Guglielmo in disguise, of course. Soprano Rachel Anne Hippert's gracefully sung Fiordiligi rebukes the men with a quiet, yet passionate resoluteness rather than with the fire and gusto we traditionally see in a Fiordiligi.

Despina encourages the ladies to throw caution to the wind and hook up with the sweaty and smelly protestors. Dorabella's fickleness is proven as she quickly succumbs to Guglielmo. The immovable Fiordiligi finally swoons for an oddly poetic Ferrando, causing devastation to her former lover Guglielmo. The ladies plan to make their romances with the Occupy-guys official by updating their Facebook stats - which I sort of gleaned from a very blurry projection of their computer screens.

A gleeful Don Alfonso stands vindicated and proclaims "Cosi fan Tutte!" or "All [women] are like that!". Just then, Alfonso proclaims that the fiances are "returning" as their transfers to China were cancelled. The protestors disappear - of course - and bit by bit the plot quickly unfurls. Don Alfonso encourages the couples to accept each others apologies and turn to joy ... accepting life's ups and downs.

NY Opera Exchange's updated version of Cosi, which seemed to follow more of a musical theater formula of dialogue / musical number / applause break, was given its life by director and "book writer" Cameron Marcotte. While the dialogue that replaced the accompanied recitative was handily shortened and adapted to the new ideas, the translation of the sung Italian libretto was so loosely liberal that it was no longer even a poetic translation. But still, the over all ideas of this new version were clever and made Da Ponte's convoluted story believable.

A final word: Opera is about the singing of a story. Thursday night's conductor, Alden Gatt, made the singers story-telling job incredibly difficult as he conducted along with the orchestra rather than leading them. The result was an orchestra that played far too loudly and heavily for Mozart and for the space. The lack of leadership from the podium allowed the orchestra to steamroll over the singers in moments that are traditionally flexible - and at times, left the singers completely exposed when they needed the support from the pit. The singers on Thursday took on the forceful and turbulent orchestra, though ... and like a group of bullfighters in an arena with an angry bull, some of them emerged victorious and some of them left a little wounded.

If you'd like to see NY Opera Exchange's cleverly updated version of Cosi for yourself, you still have time to head to The Church of the Covenant at 310 E 42nd St. between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave. Tonight at 7:00 PM, you can see Rachel Anne Hippert, Abigail Levis, Amanda Chmela, Justin Werner, Joseph Beckwith and Brad Baron. Or Sunday at 6:00 PM, you can see the other cast - Rebecca Shorstein as Fiordiligi, Kate Wiswell as Dorabella, Becca Conviser as Despina, Jeffrey Taveras as Ferrando, Joseph Beckwith as Guglielmo and Jason Cox as Don Alfonso conducted by Nicholas Armstrong. Tickets are $25 each ($15 student rush) and are available at the door or in advance at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Justin Werner's idea to help young artists is brilliant! I saw the show on Saturday night and I can say for myself the opera was amazing. Taking a modern spin on an amazing opera was a fascinating idea--and the singers were most definitely engaged and passionate, all of them taking on their roles with great finesse.

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