‘Cosí fan tutte’ review: psychedelic shtick

Portland Opera's new production adds 21st century multimedia and more to Mozart's comedy

by TERRY ROSS

Portland Opera has done itself proud with its production of Mozart’s silly, sexist, lighthearted, and hilarious opera Cosí fan tutte, written in 1790 and now playing in Portland5’s cozy little Newmark Theatre. The opening night show on Bastille Day showed all hands on deck and also all the shtick one could ask for, including some psychedelic business from the 21st century’s drug culture.

Aaron Short, Daniel Mobbs, Ryan Thorn in Portland Opera’s ‘Cosí fan tutte.’ Photo: Cory Weaver.

Although performed only five times in Mozart’s lifetime due to the untimely death of the Austrian Emperor Joseph II, considered at the time to have commissioned the opera, Cosí has been in almost continuous production somewhere in the world ever since. The reasons are simple. The music, although not serious in the vein of Don Giovanni or even Idomeneo, is vivacious and beautifully crafted. And the story, all about whether young lovers can be sexually faithful, is universal. If the focus is entirely on the faithfulness of the women in the two featured couples, and not on their menfolk, chalk it up to the patriarchal mores of 18th-century Europe’s dominant culture. And to the 18th-century seats of power, in the arts, in politics, and in all walks of life.

The plot is simplicity itself. Two young men, Guglielmo and Ferrando, boasting about the beauty and fidelity of their intended ladies, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, are challenged by the older and more worldly Don Alfonso to put the gals to the test by departing for the army and then reappearing in disguise as two Albanians and wooing each other’s femme. The three make a bet on the outcome. Meanwhile, Alfonso colludes with the ladies’ maid Despina to enhance his desired result, with predictable but very amusing results.

Because the theme of sexual fidelity is timeless, this opera can be imagined in almost any century and culture. Portland Opera’s show is set, more or less, in the 18th century — in the costumes, the makeup, and most of the scenery — but with interesting detours into the 21st, especially toward the end of the drama. As Mozart intended, the men, although finally successful in proving that their chosen females are unfaithful and perhaps incapable of faithfulness, are nevertheless buffoons in their own right. Only two characters out of the six emerge unscathed: Despina and Don Alfonso. The two couples are reunited but, they declare, chastened by their humiliations.

Antonia Tamer, Mary Dunleavy, Kate Farrar in Portland Opera’s ‘Cosí fan tutte.’ Photo: Cory Weaver.

All six singers, four of them members of Portland Opera’s Resident Artist Program, start strong and only get better as the opera progresses. Mezzo-soprano Kate Farrar plays a marvelously bewildered Dorabella until the moment when she decides to abandon chastity and fidelity and becomes a deliciously lusty girl on the make. As her sister Fiordiligi, soprano Antonia Tamer resists temptation longer but ultimately succumbs very prettily to her seducer.

Baritone Ryan Thorn is handsome and persuasive as Guglielmo, the first to succeed in seducing his pal’s girlfriend; when his preening self-regard is punctured by his beloved’s seduction, he is wonderful as the wounded lover. Tenor Aaron Short demonstrates a clear, light voice that becomes larger and heavier as the show progresses. By the end Ferrando is the most riveting singer on stage.

Aaron Short, Ryan Thorn, Mary Dunleavy in Portland Opera’s ‘Cosí fan tutte.’ Photo: Cory Weaver.

Enormous credit must be given to stage director Roy Rallo, scenery designer Daniel Meeker, lighting designer Connie Yun, and video designer Paul Clay for turning the Newmark’s bare, uncurtained and proscenium-less stage into an imaginative and witty backdrop. High accolades also go to bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs for his sarcastic and all-knowing Don Alfonso; Mobbs’s facial expressions alone are worth the price of admission. And Mary Dunleavy’s saucy, sexy, and insinuating Despina nearly steals the show. The audience gave her their loudest ovation.

Spoiler alert: if you go, make sure you’re looking your best. At one point, Ferrando and Guglielmo train a video camera on the balcony audience and the results are screened, very large, onstage, just one of a bunch of entertaining video hijinks whose impact would be spoiled if revealed here. Go see them in person.

 

Portland Opera‘s Cosí fan tutte continues at Portland’s Newmark Theatre through July 29. Tickets online.

Recommended recordings

Cosí fan tutte

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Hanny Steffek, Giuseppe Taddei, Alfredo Kraus, and Walter Berry, soloists; Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra; Karl Böhm conducting (Warner Classics, 5673822), 1962.

Miah Persson, Anke Vodung, Ainhoa Garmendia, Topi Lehtipuu, Luca Pisaronia, and Niclolas Rivenq, soloists; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and The Glyndebourne Chorus, Ivan Fischer conducting (Opus Arte OA097D), 2006.

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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5 Responses.

  1. Opera Fanatic says:

    I guess there was no orchestra, conductor, or chorus? No one needs to rehash the plot of the famous 250 year old opera– what we want is a review of the performance. I think you missed the extraordinary action in the pit… so disappointing.

    • Ellen Shaw says:

      I agree with you. This production was a total embarrassment.
      My friend and I were anticipating the show for a month to just be so embarrassed at the end. The beginning of the opera was Ok’. However, closer to the middle of the performance the whole story changed and moved to the 21st century in terms of costumes and acting. This was a tasteless production more suitable for a striptease show than the opera. Some scenes were so inappropriate for any stage that my friend and I were so embarrassed that could not wait to get out of the theater. I am not sure what the producer wanted to say with tents on the stage and dressing the main characters in camouflage uniforms and braided wigs on males and hot pink wigs on female singers. This totally killed the essence of Mozart’s era creating a dissonance between the music, story and actual acting. When actors started undressing on the stage, we could not believe our eyes. The most obscene scene was when singers were running on the stage in their underwear. You could tell that actors themselves were uncomfortable. This the second time that I go to listen opera in the Newmark theater and surprised by crazy idea of the producer to bring the old story into the new age. The producer needs to see the psychiatrist for treatment or the prostitute to get satisfied. The last time we had to leave the Eugene Onegin opera for the same reasons. Just would like to spread the message to the Portland Opera staff that they should stop experimenting or they will lose loyal audience like me forever. This is not what I expect when I go to the Opera House. We had very unpleasant experience both times and our mood was totally ruined at our own expense.

  2. ArtistActually says:

    Is this the kind of mediocre tripe that passes for arts reviews in this town?

    –recap Wikipedia entry and liner notes for the one recording you checked out from the library
    –describe the sets
    –choose one adjective which loosely describes a singer’s voice but says nothing of the artist’s actual musical performance
    –omit any mention of anything relating to the music and its performance.
    An amateurish hack of a piece.

  3. Linda Mantel says:

    I am a great fan of Mozart and opera, and to me Cosi fan Tutte has his most heartfelt and sophisticated music. The singing was marvelous–it has been a while since I have heard it sung by singers of the “appropriate” ages and I have the greatest admiration and applause for the musical aspects of the production. Bravo to all the fresh young voices, every note in the right place.
    But the production left me cold. What was the purpose of the apes?? Anything I could imagine having to do with their presence was at least insulting, either to women or to everyone. And I found the video backdrops to be distracting and useless. The second act setting was over the top…to me, it was meant for an audience that would be thought to be incapable of appreciating the music and the drama played “straight” (in any kind of dress) and needed to have their attention held by Portland-esque nonsense.The tent scene in the woods was an embarrassment. It was a locket that Fiordiligi gave Ferrando, not a hickey..
    Yes, I am well beyond hipster age…

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