Greetings, my fellow port-swillers!  As I had mentioned a week or two ago, last evening the middle gel and I attended a production of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte down the Kennedy Center.  I wish I could report that a good time was had by all, but, well, read on.

First off, ol’ Robbo would like to side-step in order to rant about a pet sore spot of his that frequently becomes inflamed when contemporary reviewers discuss this particular opera.  Surfing about the intertoobs, I came across one such recent review of the instant production by Mike Paarlberg of the Washington City Paper.   While I generally agree with Paarlberg’s panning (see more below), the following paragraph set my forehead vein a’thumping:

Much like Taming of the Shrew, Così fan tutte presents a challenge to directors trying to balance its unenlightened mean-spiritedness with 21st century values. It was probably a different Shakespeare play, Much Ado About Nothing, that inspired librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, but to contemporary audiences the story sounds more like something dreamed up by Neil LaBute than the Bard of Avon. Miller’s solution to the rampant chauvinism is to make all of the characters equally repulsive. Whether misanthropy makes for better laffs than misogyny is up to the viewer; either way, for a spoof, it’s pretty bleak.


I see a lot of this comparison of backward, knuckle-dragging 18th Century misogyny and sexual hypocrisy with the supposedly enlightened values of us Moderns, and I have only one question:  Are you kidding me? 

Thanks to the so-called “sexual revolution” (which I continue to believe was a plot thought up by dudes and sold to gullible feminists as a “good” thing in one of the greatest scams in human history, but that’s a different rant),  we live in an age in which sex has been so commoditized, so pornogrified and so distanced from anything approaching an expression of human love that the Marquis de Sade himself would blush with shame.   We live in an age in which sex has become so casual a matter and so devoid of any sense of significance or specialness that Don Juan would get bored stiff after a week and probably take up trout fishing.  Even as I type, the headlines are currently dominated by the kerfluffle over some 30 year old perpetual college student who seems to believe that the boys fell at Lexington and Concord in order to guarantee her inalienable right  that Uncle Sam (i.e., youse and mes) bankrolls her personal noogie habits. 

I say again, given all this, are you fookin’ nuts?


It seems to me that people simply don’t “get” Cosi these days.   It isn’t a farce, although it has some farsickal elements to it.  It isn’t a spoof, although, again, it has spoofy parts.   Instead, it starts off as a beautifully balanced comedy of manners that gradually morphs (he wrote reaching for his “Get out of cliché jail free” card) into a nightmare complexity of multi-layered seduction and betrayal.  With the possible exception of Dorabella, who is a shallow ditz, each of the other lovers finds his or herself caught ever tighter in this mesh.  And however preposterous or farcical we, the audience, might find their predicament, to them it’s all dead serious.  What makes the thing a masterpiece is that Mozart’s musick both drives and expresses this complexity, together with the anger, desire, confusion and frustration that each character experiences (and does so, I might add, in a way that makes their unique personalities come out.)  

While this stuff, when done right, is very, very powerful, it’s also delicate and must be approached in a refined and subtle way.  Which is why when a director decides to go for cheap camp laughs, it’s the operatic equivalent of taking a sledgehammer to a souffle.

And so it was here.  Go read Paarlberg’s review or the one I quoted at length earlier to learn more about the biker dude disguises.  Yep, the story is set in modern Washington D.C., and the best idea the director could come up with for making the boys into rich, exotic foreign wooers designed to test the girls’ devotion to them in their true personae  was to trick them out as random redneck bikers from Baltimore.   Subtle.  Suuuuuuuuubtle!

And the touches get worse from there.  Despina, instead of being a servant, is now a latte-serving Personal Assistant to the two sisters.  Everybody carries Blackberries, which they’re constantly checking (Gugliamo takes a pic of himself and Dorabella with his in order to prove his conquest to Ferrando).   The “marriage contract” is drawn up on a laptop and the doctor’s “magnetic stone” has been transmogrified into a large Rube Goldberg defibrillator gadget pushed around by a couple of nurses.  (For her doctor disguise, the director couldn’t think of anything more original than to put Despina in scrubs and a moustache.)   As biker dudes, the boys are constantly fist pumping, chest bumping and pulling what I take to be WWF poses.  The girls spend much of their time shimmying about in a way that reminds me of a Cindi Lauper video. 

In his explanatory notes, the director, Jonathan Miller, says, that unlike Mozart’s other operas, “Cosi doesn’t have a relationship to the social structures of any specific period.  Cosi has much more to do with the life that Mozart recognized [Ed. – why wouldn’t that qualify as ‘the social structure of any specific period’ – say, Vienna in the 1780’s?], therefore it could take place anywhere, even Washington, D.C.  And it could take place at any time, more or less, so I have decided to set it simply during ‘yesterday afternoon.'”

In a way, I agree with Miller, at least insofar as the story could take place in some generic time or place that held comparable beliefs about the nature and standards of sexual relationships.  (As I note above, I’m not so sure that present day Dee Cee would qualify for inclusion in that club.)  But here’s the thing:  When you trick a show out in this kind of nonsense, you’re not going for some statement about the universality of the conflict between the ideals of love and the reality of human weakness, you’re going for cheap laffs.  Don’t pretend otherwise.

And this is what happened time and again – some beautiful aria or duet on anguish or conflicts between longing and duty drowned out in laughter because somebody else was mugging up stage.   Indeed, there were several points where I couldn’t tell what the audience was chucking about, and I had the curious sensation that it wasn’t so sure itself.

As to the singers, this was what the playbill deemed an “Emerging Artist Performance,” which I think is code for rookie talent.   Meb it was jitters, meb it was inexperience, but apart from the finale of Act 1, I never got the sense that they meshed very well, and I would certainly not call any of them seasoned actors.  Alfonso was sung by Kenneth Kellog, a tall, lanky black guy who I actually enjoyed, although he sometimes got drowned out during trios and spent most of his time sneering through doorways.  The Fiordiligi, Maria Eugenia Antunez, had some promising outbursts of passion, but I thought I detected her cheating on some of her grace notes.  Aleksey Bogdanov’s  Guglielmo was okay, and came on strong in his disgust with the whole sordid biznay of the sham marriages (which, again, the audience seemed to think funny).  Gregory Warren and Sarah Mesko, as Ferrando and Dorabella respectively, were neither here nor there.  Jegyung Yang, as Despina, had, I’m afraid, very little stage presence and spent most of her time with her eyes fixed on the conductor, Phillippe Auguin.  Maestro Auguin, in turn, doesn’t seem to know all that much about Mozart.  His tempi were generally slow and mushy and he occasionally slowed down the ending of an aria in the reverential manner of an organist in a dissenting chapel concluding a hymn.  The orchestra seemed underpowered and underwhelming.   The setting was minimal to a degree, which in itself was fine, except that the space was way too big for only six characters and tended to make them look like children.

Then there was the libretto, supertitled above the stage.  I mentioned a day or two ago my opinion that there is nothing wrong with idiomatic translations so long as they adhere to the spirit of the original.  Here, again in quest of cheap laughs, that rule was rayther flagrantly and repeatedly broken, with references to Beatles songs, jive and other topical funnies thrown in which were all the more preposterous as they were indiscriminately mixed with more traditional translations.

Oh, and to cap it all off, I sat behind a fellah who must have been about 6’8″, so spent the entire evening craning to one side or the other, depending on where the main action was on stage.  My neck hurts something fierce today.

But, you say, never mind yourself:  How did the gel like it? 

Well, I’ll tell you.  From the time I picked her up to the time the overture started, she was in heaven.  We were early, so we got some coffee and strolled about the terrace for a while, watching the planes take off and land at National Airport and the crews practicing on the Potomac.  We also paid a visit to the gift shop (of course) and paused to admire the large bust of JFK in the main hall, known to me for many years as “Lava Man” because of its texture.   I saw a number of people glancing at her as we entered the theatre and she was as proud as Lucifer when she went up to the usher to be guided to her seat.  As the overture broke out, she was at the peak of excitement.

During the first act, however, I could sense the beginning of a certain stiffness in the child.  At intermission, although her main focus was on bagging herself a box of milk duds, she began to complain about the liberties being taken with costume and libretto (she dearly loves her magnetic stone) and to critique some of the singing.  By the time the opera was over, she was positively frothing about what “they” had done to it and lamenting that we had spent money to see the production. 

When I found myself actually defending the evening, saying how nice it was that the two of us could spend some time together, pointing out that live theater is a nice treat in and of itself and also that some of the singing was okay,  I realized: She may turn out to be an even bigger musickal crank than I am.

Good.  Goooooood……….

UPDATE:  I forgot to mention the ending, about which I know the Mothe will be interested.  Cosi is different from Mozart’s other great ones in that it has no clear resolution.  There is no Giovanni getting dragged off to hell, no Almaviva begging forgiveness from Rosina.  Here, once the boys reveal the trick they’ve played, the final chorus is to the effect that life has some nasty knocks, but that if we learn from them we’ll be happier in the future.   There are no stage directions, and directors have traditionally played on the rayther ambiguous nature of the message.  Where does all this leave our couples? Sometimes the original pairs will get back together, sometimes the “switched” couples will look longingly across at each other, sometimes everybody will simply glance about in confusion.  It’s far from a settled thing.

Here, after singing the chorus, each character looked about him or herself for a minute, shook his or her head in disgust, then turned and stalked off stage in a different direction.  I’m not sure what this is to tell us – that all human relationships are so hypocritical and untrustworthy that we should just call the whole thing off?  Or, on a shallower level, was everyone simply meant to be having a case of the sulks?  In any event, the effect was a rayther nasty cap on the evening.