Monday, November 26, 2007

A Woman's Right

The confusion caused by one's nervous indecision can often be difficult to communicate to an audience. At times, hard answers are sought when only gray areas can be found. When the strength of one's decision is severely undermined by the tug of one's heart strings, the resolution to a ticklish amorous situation rarely involves a happy ending in which the winner takes all.

Whenever an author is up against a wall and no logical loophole can be found with which to escape from the reality of his predicament, he can almost always fall back on the fickle female flip-flop act as a last minute form of "deus ex machina." Why? Because, sexist though it may be, one of the oldest literary ploys involves a woman's right to change her mind.

Changing one's mind, however, also requires a person to deal with the moral consequences of such an action for, once one has opted to tiptoe down a path filled with dangerous discoveries, one must be willing to take responsibility for one's choices. That's the stern message given to us in musical works ranging from Idomeneo to Into The Woods; from La Calisto to Cosi Fan Tutte.


Cavalli's La Calisto features one of the more twisted librettos in the repertoire. In this opera, the eternally horny Giove descends from Mount Olympus, is taken with the beauty of Calisto (a nymph of Diana) and, at the suggestion of Mercury, transforms himself into the virgin goddess so that he can handily woo the confused Calisto. Needless to say, when Diana returns to the scene chaos ensues. Shortly thereafter, Giove's wife, Guinone, catches her husband in the act of wooing Calisto and, as a means of revenge, transforms the innocent young nymph into a little bear. Always one to get his way, Giove transforms the bear into the constellation Ursa Minor and is reunited with Calisto in the heavens surrounding Mount Olympus.

While much of this mythological claptrap is confusing, the Santa Fe Opera's recent production of La Calisto raised serious obstacles to anyone who is not an absolute fiend for baroque opera. I must confess that, despite director John Cox's attempts to transform La Calisto into a viable entertainment, I found myself supremely bored with the proceedings. Supertitles (which are made impossible by the dimensions of the Santa Fe Opera House) might have helped matters but, when push comes to shove, I could find no solid dramatic momentum behind this production. Set and costume designer Robert Perdziola (who set La Calisto atop a dangerously curved and raked platform) didn't seem the slightest bit concerned with the safety of his singers and his mix of traditional costumes with space-age punk outfits was highly uncalled for. When theatrical conceit is based only on conceit, it's a sure sign that dramatic coherence is at a premium.

Credit nevertheless goes to Kevin Langan's resonant Giove, Mikael Melbye's athletic Mercurio, Janice Hall's feminine Calisto, James Bowman's sympathetic Endimione and Kathryn Gamberoni's horny Satyr. While mezzo-soprano Tatiana Troyanos was all puffed-up pomp and circumstance as Diana, the strongest musical contributions of the evening came from Joanne Kolomyjec's outraged Giunone and the hilarious drag characterization of the aging nymph, Linfea, by tenor John Fryatt (whose diction and stagecraft could be a model for any and all aspiring singers). Justin Brown conducted.


While John Cox's production of La Calisto seemed to lack a great deal of purpose, Peter Sellars' staging of Cosi Fan Tutte at PepsiCo Summerfare was filled with tremendous doses of humor, anger and dramatic insight. Set in a seaside diner owned by Despina and Don Alfonso (depicted here as a disillusioned Vietnam veteran), this interpretation of Mozart's "School For Lovers", has so much going for it that one only wishes Sellars had had the courage to let his singers perform Cosi Fan Tutte in English.

Whereas most stagings of Cosi treat Mozart's opera with a certain amount of lightheartedness, Sellars has taken great pains to explore the darker side of what happens when suspicion, doubt, and a desire for revenge are mixed with what one once thought was true love. Thus, Don Alfonso has a tendency to drink too much and, in spite of his love for her, abuse his Despina. Don Alfonso's distinct need to be humiliated offers a sharp foil to the confusion and rage shared by Fiordiligi, Dorabella and Despina once they realize the shattering consequences of using casual sex as a means of getting what they want (if, indeed, any of these women actually knows what she wants).

When one considers the onslaught of visual images from American pop culture which Sellars uses to decorate all three of his Mozart/Da Ponte productions, the director's unwillingness to lift the language barrier between his singers and audience seems curiously self-defeating. All language barriers aside, the shining strength of Sellars' production is the cohesiveness of its ensemble. While singers like Frank Kelley (Ferrando) and Susan Larson (Fiordiligi) may not possess the solid vocal instruments with which international artists like Gosta Winbergh and Carol Vaness have been endowed, what these people do with their voices, bodies and characterizations is much more relevant to what Cosi Fan Tutte is really all about.

James Maddalena, Sanford Sylvan and Janice Felty delivered exceptionally fine performances as Guglielmo, Don Alfonso and Dorabella while, in her own way, Sue Ellen Kuzma's diner waitress Despina had a remarkably poignant appeal. As usual, Craig Smith conducted the orchestra with an immaculate sense of ensemble.

As most people know, images of pop culture abound in any Peter Sellars production. In Cosi Fan Tutte, these ranged from a line-up of three men holding cans of Bud Lite in their hands to the slumped restlessness of Fiordiligi and Dorabella as they idly thumbed through men's fashion magazines; from Despina's disguise as a Shirley MacLaine style faith healer (Sellars arranged to have the actress's meditation videotape playing in the theater lobby during intermission) to her reappearance in Act II as a Yuppie lawyerette with personal computer in tow. In a moment of rage, one of the sisters smeared mustard all over the walls of Despina's diner. Instead of being transformed into "Albanians," Ferrando and Guglielmo become two swinging "dudes."

Again, there is so much of dramatic value in this staging that one can only regret the director's decision not to have Mozart's opera sung in English. The good news, however, is that all three of Sellars' Mozart/Da Ponte productions (Cosi Fan Tutte, Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni) will be videotaped in Vienna this fall so that a wealth of operalovers can see what all the critical fuss and bother is about.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on September 7, 1989.

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