Los Angeles Opera’s 2011/2012 season perks up with Mozart’s “Così fan tutte”

Roxana Constantinescu (Despina), Ildebrando D'Arcangelo (Guglielmo), Saimir Pirgu (Ferrando), Lorenzo Regazzo (Don Alfonso). Photo by Robert Millard.

Los Angeles
Wednesday, September 21
Review by David Gregson.

The Los Angeles Opera’s 2011/2012 season opened Saturday evening (September 17) with a somewhat disappointing production of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” and if they chose, partying insomniacs could have stayed up all night and followed this up with a bracing Mozart chaser Sunday afternoon.

Mozart’s “Così fan Tutte” may be long (this one clocked in short of four hours with one intermission), but an opera done well is always shorter than one done badly.

I often feel I have spent a lifetime defending “Così,” and if this website had a decent search function, I am certain a dozen of those  impassioned defenses of the score and its libretto would pop up. And that would be merely the reviews I’ve written for Opera West as opposed to those published elsewhere. “Così” has always been one of my favorite operas — and yet Lorenzo da Ponte’s seemingly misogynist libretto has consistently posed problems for those of us with a liberal bent and a belief in the equality of the sexes.

I have no doubt that Mozart held attitudes towards the female sex that were common among men of his time and place, but “So Do All Women” (the opera title’s “tutte” being feminine) spreads the moral guilt around fairly evenly: the two heroines, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, may seriously waver in their fidelity to their affianced, but the joke being played upon them by their lovers is unconscionable. Goaded on by the cynical Don Alfonso, Guiglielmo and Ferrando pretty much make fools of themselves — and lest we forget, the witty prankster maid, Despina, has plenty to sing about the failings of men. Unfortunately she joins the men in perpetrating a potentially dangerous charade of deceptions, masquerades and switched identities.

But this “opera buffa” — and I do wonder if it is really as “buffa” as Mozart says it is — keeps revealing astonishing depths of feeling that put it in the same class as “Don Giovanni” and “Le Nozze di Figaro”. Parody, as in Fiordiligi’s absurdly difficult aria “Come scoglio,” is offset by innumerable arias and ensembles of penetrating emotional depth. In other words, the music elevates the text over and over again. But, quite apart from that musical fact — the text itself works quite well when approached not literally but as a metaphor for certain quasi-Freudian realities. The men are loving one another through their women; and/or the women really do want to switch lovers; and/or it’s all a huge half-conscious ménage a quatre (or cinq) — or whatever interesting psychological rigamarole you’d like to come up with.

Everything that happens in this opera flirts with pain and unhappiness, so I think the original director, Nicholas Hytner (in this production handed over from Glyndebourne) is quite right to end the piece in an unresolved state of confusion.

The lovely production, wonderfully designed by Vicki Mortimer, seems timeless in its single set — a bright marble space that could be an elegant meeting room at a Ritz Carlton. There is no directorial concept other than to get good performances out of the singers, and that is achieved brilliantly by hands-on director Ashley Dean. It helps that the cast is spirited and young, and the singing is, on the whole, quite good.

On Sunday, the distinct standouts were the two leading men, bass-baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Guglielmo and tenor Saimir Pirgu as Ferrando. What amazed me was their ability when disguised as comic Albanians to turn themselves from two rather conventional lovers into two randy studs that truly did look and act differently than they had before. And at the end they were able to reverse the transformation. There was a genuine sexual energy here that one rarely sees in this opera. As the Albanians, it was almost as if their repressed ids had been released. (Amusingly, singer Saimir Pirgu truly IS an Albanian in real life.)

When he first began singing, Pirgu seemed to have a unstable quaver in his voice, but as the evening progressed, he grew more sure of himself, and some of his singing was deliciously nuanced and tender. D’Arcangelo, of course, is one of the most important new Mozart singers around, and his magnificent voice did not disappoint. He also genuinely projected the sexual charisma his record label (DGG) is trying to promote.

All the women looked their roles — and it occurred to me I have often seen “Così” when the Fiordiligi was a middle-aged prima donna of considerable stature. This Fiordiligi was new-to-me Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak, a young artist who has an album out on Decca — and there she seems to sing everything nicely: Rossini, Donizetti, Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini. On Sunday she impressed me as being in the “promising” category because, while she was very good, she did not nail absolutely everything, and she struggled a bit with “Come scoglio” — but, on the other hand, who wouldn’t? Generally she made the role a pleasure and paired well with her Dorabella, Romanian mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose. Also Romanian, was mezzo Roxana Constantinescu who cut a sprightly figure as the maid, Despina.

Complemented by the excellent Don Alfonso of Lorenzo Regazzo, the whole ensemble played together superbly.
I must confess, although I love this opera, I spent my graduate student years playing superstar recordings of the piece, so I always am hard to please when I hear new people in the roles. For reasons I have often wondered about, visitors to my San Francisco apartment in the ’60s were transported by LPs I owned of this work. I guess the set was playing very often, the lyrical Mozartian strains flooding the room. I have talked about this before here at Opera West.

As usual, he who should go first comes last: James Conlon, our fine LAO conductor who seems to excel at everything he does. I regret not hearing his pre-performance lectures which have become very popular and are alleged to be superb.

And I must also not forget to give a nod to the excellent lighting designers, Paule Constable and Andrew May, who gave the opera an extra kick of cheerful luminosity. And Grant Gershon’s choral direction, as usual, was masterful.

CAST
Fiordiligi: Aleksandra Kurzak*
Dorabella: Ruxandra Donose
Ferrando: Saimir Pirgu
Guglielmo: Ildebrando D’Arcangelo*
Don Alfonso: Lorenzo Regazzo*
Despina: Roxana Constantinescu*

CREATIVE TEAM
Conductor: James Conlon
Production: Nicholas Hytner*
Director: Ashley Dean*
Scenic & Costume Designer: Vicki Mortimer*
Original Lighting Designer: Paule Constable*
Lighting Designer: Andrew May*
Assoc. Conductor: Grant Gershon
Chorus Master: Grant Gershon

* LA Opera debut artist + Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program member ++ Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program alumnus

Los Angeles Opera: Tickets and Information
Last Updated ( Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Saimir Pirgu (Ferrando), Ruxandra Donose (Dorabella), Aleksandra Kurzak (Fiordiligi), Ildebrando D'Arcangelo (Guglielmo). Photo by Robert Millard.

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