Last night at the opera

Last night with D to Opera Australia’s production of Così fan tutte.

This is the last of the set of the Mozart/da Ponte operas directed for OA by David McVicar.  It’s a handsome, indeed opulent production.  Some money was saved off the costumes budget by keeping the (usually rather small) chorus off-stage but I’m sure it was more than spent elsewhere.  In an earlier performance in the run the performance had to be stopped when the rather elaborate set failed to move as required.  As with Don G and Marriage of F, space on the Opera Theatre’s stage is maximised by a set which basically goes right out to the edge and in particular as deep as possible to the back of the stage.

The premiss of Così is famously problematic: two men are led by a “philosopher” friend into testing the fidelity of their betrothed (who are sisters) by pretending to go off to war and instead wooing each other’s beloved in disguise.  The sisters start off adamant, are persuaded that there can’t be any harm in a little flirtation and ultimately yield to the point of marrying each other’s disguised lover.

It’s a difficult premiss to accept.  McVicar has the younger sister, Dorabella, puffing on a post-coital-by-implication cigarette.  If anything like this happened today in the Australian Capital Territory, the sex would probably count as “rape.” How dare we be entertained?

That was the gist of the nineteenth-century objection to this opera.

In this production, Don Alfonso, the “philosopher” seems perpetually enraged against women, and Despina, the ladies’ maid who assists him to contrive things (without being entirely in on the plot) almost similarly set against men.  What bitter experience has got them to that point?  Or is it just pathological?

McVicar’s interpretation, though arguable (especially the ending: partners are swapped) doesn’t to me tally on the way through with the men’s Act I predictions/protestations of mirth.  Yes, I know this could be taken as an expectation which is not fulfilled, but at the time they are saying everything is very funny or will be it just didn’t seem particularly funny at all.

My feeling is that the plot is better approached as a comedy which was always a bad joke which goes wrong/ gets serious – that’s a very common turn in romantic comedy after all. So though it’s good to shake things up, that leaves me siding with a more conventional approach, if sides need to be taken.

I actually found myself caring more about the characters (especially when the mood changed) in OA’s previous, not-so-popular-with-the-punters production directed by Jim Sharman, which had a lighter touch: Alfonso and Despina were cynics and realists rather than enraged persons. There’s an argument somewhere there about opera in English too.

Taken as seriously as McVicar takes it reduces the charm. This has musical consequences as well because it reduces the scope for vocal characterisation, especially for the sisters.  A friend who is far from an inexperienced opera-goer thought that a lot of the singing was rather boring.

For me the more pressing musical difficulty, especially at the start, was that I was still too full of Simon Boccanegra.   In addition to the 4 performances I’ve posted about here, I listened to most of the live broadcast that afternoon.

Fortunately I managed to adjust my [mind]set.  The music carries much before it and it was well sung and played.

[Afterthought: I’ve listened to the 30 July  broadcast a couple of times on ABC Classic FM: and I increasingly wonder if it wasn’t the quality of the singing my friend was reacting to when he said it was “boring”, but the seriousness of the approach.  The more I listen to it all, with Boccanegra receding, the more beautiful it is and I wouldn’t myself say it was “boring.”]

The production has received glowing reviews and was pretty well sold out.  I expect we will be seeing the McVicar trilogy for quite a few years to come.

This was the last night of opera for Opera Australia in Sydney until the now entrenched Bohème season begins just after Christmas.  I’m leaving My Fair Lady for others to enjoy.


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