Review: High Notes and Low Notes of Yale Opera’s Così Fan Tutte
Yale Opera’s Friday night performance of Così Fan Tutte was enjoyable overall, but the quality of this production and the opera itself is inconsistent. The high points of the evening combined Lorenzo Da Ponte’s cheeky libretto with hilarious stage direction and playful singing. The low points of the evening were painfully boring, usually due to endless melismas and repetitions in the score that should be scrapped. All too often I would just be getting into the opera when everything would come to a screeching halt. I mostly blame Mozart for this; he could have looked back only slightly earlier to Gluck’s opera reforms for a primer in dramatic pacing. The bottom line is this: in opera (and in any work of art with a story), audiences need a well-paced dramatic arc to maintain interest. Most people at the opera aren’t going for a voice recital; the plot and other elements of the opera provide emotional context for the singing. When a composer writes an aria, especially with such simple (even bland) harmonies as Mozart’s, it should advance some part of the story (the plot, a deeper psychological understanding of the character, etc.). When too much emphasis is placed on the beauty of singing one vowel in a word and repeating an uninteresting line of text, the pacing goes slack and people start thinking about dinner. This is one reason that a large segment of the population, including classically trained musicians, is uninterested in opera. It’s a shame, too, because even with these faults, there is a lot to love. (Also, if anyone knows why Mozart insists on his annoying habit of repeating the same text and music in the closing/coda sections of so many arias, please send me a message; the only reason I can fathom is that the audience needed time to pass the popcorn without missing anything.)
These pacing issues are obviously faults in the composition itself and not in the production, although some pain could have been ameliorated with quicker tempi and more stage direction during the dullest moments. Specifically, some of the slow duets and arias (the ones waxing on ironically about purity and fidelity, endlessly praising their lovers - Ah guarda sorella - or piously lamenting impure thoughts) were the most painful. They simply weren’t engaging musically or textually (and not only because of differences in modern culture). There was lots of great pantomiming to keep the opera funny, including ample use of operatic eavesdropping behind trees; at one point it got so ridiculous that practically everyone’s default movement was to duck behind a tree as they entered the stage. There were many great moments in the stage direction. I particularly remember the silence and stillness of the women as the rousing march plays for the men head off to battle (supposedly). The scene in which the Albanian lover crawls seductively across the table was also hilarious.
The set design was too sparse for my taste, almost veering into distractingly minimalist territory. The environment for each scene was too isolated, which cast the opera in some abstract, aimless place rather than a more relatable environment. The first scene, for example, takes place in an empty museum or drawing room with paintings rather than the opera’s traditional coffeehouse or bar setting. A bar with extras would be more interesting, but a wall of paintings with a mostly deserted stage feels lazy. This doesn’t make any sense and the result is that the events of the opera felt like they took place out of context.
The acting and singing from Natalia Rubis, playing the maid Despina, was really the most interesting: coquettish, amused at her own devious and amoral games, and always enthusiastic to throw on another disguise and keep the ruse going. Her voice was the clearest to my ears, with less wide vibrato than the other two sopranos and the brightest diction. When she dipped into lower registers, however, her voice was all but gone; this was the most noticeable when the orchestra didn’t tread carefully enough to compensate for her. When Andres Moreno Garcia, as Ferrando, sang Un'aura amorosa, it was beautifully sung with clear soaring phrases, but there were pacing issues because of the tempo. It dragged on too long, it became boring, the opera once again grounded to a halt. It would have been so easy to fix with a lighter tempo. Zachary Johnson as Guglielmo projected the best of all the singers in the cast; he was the only one who really held his own in all registers with the full orchestra. He also played some of the funniest gags in the opera as one of the ardent Albanian lovers. Bravo! Stephen Clark was perfect in his role as the clever, charming Don Alfonso, who almost came across as a silver fox. His delivery was refined and his flamboyant rolled R’s were delivered perfectly. Lastly, Fiordiligi’s aria Per pietà, ben mio, perdona went on forever. Mozart and D
a Ponte are at fault here as the vapid text repeats over and over to equally insipid music. Moments like these dragged the whole opera down, even when the singers sang well, as Anush Avetisyan did in the part of Fiordiligi.
As for the orchestra, it did well most of the evening. The strings weren’t exactly together in the overture and the winds sometimes didn’t listen to each other for tuning. When the overture started, I was underwhelmed by the volume of the sound, but by the time the singers entered, the balance sounded better. I struggled to hear Ferrando in parts of the first scene, especially when it was so easy to hear Guglielmo by comparison. Special attention must have been given in rehearsals to Soave sia il vento ("May the wind be gentle"), which soared as beautifully as ever and had the best balance between orchestra and singers of the whole night.
The opera as a work is bloated and could benefit from a ruthless editor. The story and plot twists deserve about 45 or 75 minutes on the stage. Scenes that drag on would benefit from additional layers of acting and pantomiming to add more depth and interest to the production. Overall, though, Yale Opera put on an enjoyable evening. Averaging the highest of its highs and the lowest of its lows, we are given an artistic experience that is solidly in the middle.