Like the shock waves streaming from Dr. Mesmer’s magnets that figure in its
dizzy plotline, Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” seems to have had a revitalizing
effect on the Music Center Opera. The production, cheered to the rafters at its
first performance on Monday night, represented enlightened opera at fairly
close to its best: stimulating, controversial and, for the most part,
beguiling. Four more performances of the opera are scheduled; any or all of
them are very much worth your while.
Sir Peter Hall created the production for the company in 1988, with his then
wife, Maria Ewing, as an alluring but grossly overdirected Dorabella. The Halls
have since divorced, and neither were on hand for this revival; Stephen Lawless
is credited with the updated staging, vastly different in tone, superior in
many respects, and definitely challenging. There is an unseen hand involved
here, as well: the hand of Peter Sellars, whose revisionist “Cosi,” seen on
television earlier this year, has made it virtually impossible to return to the
standard regard of the work as artificial, mannered comedy.
Perhaps Stephen Lawless has actually arrived at his view of “Cosi” free of
outside influences; that doesn’t matter. What does matter is the powerful,
truly dramatic tone he has achieved, in which the comedy of artifice and the
tragedy of deception and betrayal play equal roles. Conductor Randall Behr
must, of course, also be reckoned in these credits, since his altogether
original pacing of the score contributes much to the intensity of the
The result, to be sure, won’t be everybody’s “Cosi.” For one thing, every
scrap of music that Mozart wrote for the first or subsequent performances,
minus one short aria which he later replaced with a better long one, has been
restored: arias, ensembles and long stretches of recitative as well, music
usually cut in live performances and even on records. Behr’s pacing allows for
frequent long pauses (a Sellars trick as well) to give dramatic points plenty
of time for fermentation. The result, between the pauses and the restorations,
stretches the evening out to almost Wagnerian length; Monday’s performance came
in mere moments short of four hours.
Yet it was time well spent. The best news is that the six-member cast formed an
acting unit beautifully in tune with the staging concept: Christine Weidinger’s
violent, stupendously sung, sacred monster of a Fiordiligi, Jeanne Piland’s
dear, dithering Dorabella, Anne Howells’ deliciously frumpy Despina. (The
supertitles quite properly step around the “girl of 15 years” line of Howells’
big aria.) The male side of the cast was almost as fine: Rodney Gilfry’s first-
ever Guglielmo was another step up by this splendid young baritone, and veteran
Richard Stillwell’s Alfonso was, as expected, rock-solid. Only the Ferrando,
Jonathan Mack, whose long and valuable career has now brought him to the point
of strain, seemed in over his head.
The music is there, and it is honorably treated. John Bury’s handsome,
breakaway set leaves plenty of room for stagefuls of extraneous characters
without any sense of clutter. And there are arias sung in the moonlight of the
uncredited stage lighting that look almost as beautiful as they sound.
Considering that the sound is by Mozart, that’s saying a lot.
What: The Music Center Opera’s production of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte.
When: 7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 15 and 17; 1 p.m. April 20.
Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Avenue, downtown L.A.
Behind the scenes: Staged by Stephen Lawless, designed by John Bury, conducted
by Randall Behr, with Christine Weidinger, Jeanne Piland, Anne Howells and
Rodney Gilfry.
Tickets: $15 to $80. Phone 213 480-3232 or 213 972-7211.
Our rating: * * *