The City Opera’s Mozartean rumspringa

City Opera is hanging on by a thread, and their current Così fan tutte reminds us why New York needs them. Christopher Alden’s bold and exceptionally thoughtful production pits a bunch of repressed kids against the terrors of young adulthood, and the cast is excellent. Those in search of ruffles, cheeriness, or, unfortunately, an orchestra that can play in tune or support the production at all will be disappointed. But in this small theater, it’s the most inspired Mozart production I’ve seen in New York in a while.

Mozart, Così fan tutte. New York City Opera at Lynch Theater, 3/20/12. New production by Christopher Alden, conducted by Christian Curnyn with Sara Jakubiak (Fiordiligi), Jennifer Holloway (Dorabella), Marie Lenormand (Despina), Allan Clayton (Ferrando), Philip Cutlip (Guglielmo), Rod Gilfry (Don Alfonso).

I’m not sure why C. Alden decided to set this production in a Seurat-ish 1920’s Paris straight out of Sunday in the Park with George. The entire thing seems to take in a park dominated by a very long bench, with umbrellas (used in a very Rossinian storm in the Act 1 finale) and occasional interloping picnickers. It doesn’t get in the way or add much either way, and Alden’s focus on the psychological development of the characters renders it more or less irrelevant.

This production is a slow burn. The first act is played out in very static, stylized fashion. Our four young people are exceptionally tight-laced and inexpressive sorts, moving slowly and never looking at each other. The original couples don’t seem to have that much in the way of genuine feelings. It all unfolds in a kind of slow-motion, zombie-like stupor (I was reminded of acting exercises in which the director yells “be a sloth! you’re a sloth!”). Don Alfonso is a mysterious magician figure who seems to want to shake these poor kids’ world up a bit. The boys’ disguises are nothing more than a series of mildly crazy outfits–a ruff, those silly hats with giant ears, and other things that the straight-laced Ferrando and Guglielmo would never touch. Despina is a helpful crazy bag lady and handywoman (not apparently in the sisters’ employ, but that works).

I noticed that partway into Act 2, Kelley Rourke’s convenient surtitles (which had previously glossed Despina tasting the chocolate to work with the staging) stopped translating “donna” as “girl” and began saying “woman.” It’s not in Da Ponte, but that’s surely what Alden was doing. All hell breaks lose. Don Alfonso shows up in a bear suit (more bait for a review from The Awl than Stefan Herheim), and the couples go through tense and ultimately traumatic coming of age–apparently the original couples were virginal, but the new couples are not. The emotion they had been holding back through Act 1 finally finds an outlet, and it’s pretty scary for everyone–Dorabella’s “È amore un ladroncello” is a nervous wreck, and Fiordiligi’s impulse to just get out of there for once makes real sense. At the end, we don’t end up with couples at all but the sisters in one group and the men in the other. This is going to take some time to get over.

It’s a very serious production, and takes the mock-opera seria elements of the score in total earnest. (I was reminded at times of David Alden’s more elaborate but equally grim Finta Giardiniera, but I think C. Alden is much more successful here than his brother was in that case.) But it’s a convincing one, and best of all a human and woman-friendly take on an opera that is often breathtakingly cruel. Both the men and women doubt what they are doing at every step (the men first go to their original partners before Don Alfonso rearranges them, and Fiordiligi sings “Per pietà” directly to Guglielmo) and feel enormous amounts of hesitation and guilt, and yet are driven somehow to escape the sloth-world of the opening anyway. It’s a voyage of discovery for everyone, men and women alike, and despite the title there’s no statement about fidelity on behalf of either gender. There are some random bits, but it keeps moving and sometimes you need some rabbit ears to spice up your unit set and six-character opera, I guess.

It’s awful that City Opera moved out of the formerly-known-as-State Theater at Lincoln Center and has been reduced to such a pathetic little season, but the Lynch Theater at John Jay College is just the right size for Mozart opera, with a lovely intimate atmosphere. The acoustic is dry and unforgiving, and showed the problems of the orchestra mercilessly. This was not professional-level playing, with terrible ensemble and intonation and just crass playing from every side. I can’t judge the contribution of conductor Christian Curnyn, the tempos were OK but musically was just a mess. With decent orchestral support, this production could have been so much better. And no stage music, City Opera? To this we’ve come?

The cast was excellent, and most importantly were visibly all in the same production. Sara Jakubiak has a spicy, strong soprano; Fiordiligi is a killer role and she struggled with the low notes and some of the coloratura. But it was a committed and musical performance, as was Jennifer Holloway’s richer-voiced Dorabella. Allan Clayton as Ferrando was the vocal standout of the cast with an evenly produced and very clear Mozart tenor sung with style and no apparent difficulty with the tessitura, and acted with sympathetic bashfulness. Philip Cutlip was the resident barihunk Gugliemo of any self-respecting Così but vocally OK at best. Marie Lenormand as Despina provided most of the production’s goofier moments with cute humor, and her mezzo is light enough to pass as a soubrette. Rod Gilfrey sounded loud and blustery as Don Alfonso, and was more an enigmatic Wizard of Oz than a teacher at this School for Lovers.

I could see this production being a big hit at somewhere like the Theater an der Wien. (My last Così was actually at the Theater an der Wien–in the Chéreau production, featuring Elina Garanca as Dorabella, so you can guess that it wasn’t super-recent.) In New York, it’s a refreshingly smart and interesting take on a repertory served badly in the oversized and conservative Met, but the serious musical compromises are unfortunate.

Two performances remain: March 22, and 24.

Photos copyright Carol Rosegg. Sorry for the bad quality, but I had to scavenge, as City Opera’s “Photo Room” wasn’t very helpful.

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