Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Jonathan Miller's comeback contemporary hammed-up Così fan tutte revs up at Seattle Opera

Mozart and da Ponte’s La scuola degli amanti or The School for Lovers, the subtitle of the two-act opera buffa, Così fan tutte (1790), never fails to add a little playful but oft-unpalatable sting to the subject of love and courtship. Its story of fidelity put to the test is easily unchained from any locked-in historical setting but, guided by its blissful music that builds circumstance with emotive beauty and vitality, the key to its success lies in its ability to balance the comic with the poignant.

Tuomas Katajala, Ginger and Marina Costa-Jackson and Craig Verm

There’s much to chew over in Seattle Opera’s vibrantly portrayed revival of director and designer Jonathan Miller’s production - premiered in 1995 at Covent Garden and previously seen in Seattle in 2006 - this time by director Harry Fehr in his company debut. It’s funny, and it should be, it’s daring, contemporary, sung with appealing character and hammed-up to the hilt. Fehr keeps the plot buzzing forward with bags of antics that his agile opening night cast did a strong show of, though precariously so, as it wasn't consistently transferred in attentiveness to ensemble singing.

Having been re-staged in many European and American opera houses, it even has the look of re-mountable ease. Once it gets underway, it gives neither high sophistication to nor a specific placing that the few props - a pile of cushions no end of free-falling takes place on, a mirror and a few period chairs and settee - couldn’t have achieved in front of an expansive off-white curtain as the first scene begins with. It’s in associate designer Cynthia Savage’s clever use of costumes that the contemporary, seamed with lashings of irky stereotypical flavour, is projected.

Marina Costa-Jackson and Ginger Costa-Jackson 
Adding to that, Johnathan Dean’s English captions are given a modern breath and tweaked with city-specific references to rev up the local audience. Born in Seattle, Starbucks gets a high recommendation as Despina steals a taste and mention of the hip neighbourhood of Ballard inspires the disguises to come.

As pupils in this school for lovers, the high-heeled glamour that sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella present is less than skin deep. They’re not particularly tasteful as they pursue life with their self-conscious, self-confident picture of celebrity fashioning. That makes a reasonable premise for not recognising their lovers in disguise, portrayed by two rather bumbling simps, Ferrando and Guglielmo, who come across rather more like skanky cashed-up bogans than hip.

Two pairs of lovers alternate through the season run. On opening night, sisters in real life, Marina Costa-Jackson and Ginger Costa-Jackson provide the panache and cheek that characterise Fiordiligi and Dorabella’s non-stop deployment of highly honed feminine ammunition. Both sopranos sing with richness and depth, Marina in luscious creamy tones, Ginger in darker tinted threads - and the two blend deliciously. Marina reels in one of the most vocally satisfying highlights with Act 1’s "Come scoglio" but an even more melting moment comes with deep canyons of heart in Act 2’s "Per pietà, ben mio, perdona".

As their lovers, Craig Verm is a muscular-voiced Ferrando who displays an easy soldierly brawniness in charismatic baritone form and tenor Tuomas Katajala gives warm lyricism and heated vibrato to Ferrando. In ensemble singing, however, the gents fared less agreeably with Katajala often roughing up the voice at the top and Verm sometimes lost in the distant soundscape.

Tuomas Katajala, Kevin Burdette and Craig Verm
Adroit and nimble bass Kevin Burdette’s precious Don Alfonso is somewhat the detention master, dressed like an undertaker and smugly orchestrating the plot that forces the wager with his two friends that their lovers won’t remain faithful. Despina the housemaid - PA in this case to the two vain sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella - is the well-experienced teacher. That role, often portrayed with insistence and tomboyishness is in good comic hands with pliant soprano Laura Tatulescu.

The Seattle Opera Orchestra played with taut expertise, beginning with the effervescent overture with particularly fine and filigreed detail emanating from the woodwind players. Conductor Paul Daniel - in his debut at a Seattle Opera - put the score elegantly on show for the ear but greater room for more pounce and adrenaline could have served to compliment the vitality on stage.

After the damage is done, with Don Alfonso winning his bet, the forgiveness that Mozart’s Così fan tutte bestows doesn’t clearly translate into a joyful reunion of the lovers in this contemporary adaptation. It seems to work well despite the foursome garnering little sympathy in their lesson - in this school, the penalty for self-obsession and shallowness is a little more harsh. The solos were superb enough. I only wish a little more attention was given to the brilliance of Mozart’s divine ensembles.

Così fan tutte
Seattle Opera
McCaw Hall
Until 27th February, 2018.

Production Photos: Tuffer and Philip Newton

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