Review: Stylish Production, Fine Cast for “Cosi fan Tutte” – Los Angeles Opera, September 18, 2011

Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte”, not performed by the Los Angeles Opera in a decade and a half, has been mounted in an elegant production, created for the 2006 Glyndebourne Festival by Nicholas Hytner (since knighted as Sir Nicholas),  to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth.

[Below: Sir Nicholas Hytner, who conceived the production of “Cosi fan Tutte”‘ resized image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Hytner’s classic production displays the scenic and costume designs of Vicki Mortimer. Andrew May’s lighting in the Los Angeles revival is based on the warm and sunny lighting designs of Paule Constable.

Prerequisites for a Great “Cosi”

A great performance of this opera requires six international class voices, a stage director with a flair for comedy, and, of course, a conductor and orchestra with sensitivity to the classical style of which Mozart is the greatest exemplar.

Conductor James Conlon, who regards the three Mozart operas with Da Ponte libretti as among the greatest assignments that an operatic conductor can assay, showed that he is both an avid student and a master of Mozart’s great operas about the “battles of the sexes”.

The cast, which hails from the European continent, is comprised of the Fiordiligi of Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak, the Dorabella of Rumanian mezzo Ruxandra Donose, the Ferrando of Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu, the Guglielmo of Italian baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, the Don Alfonso of Italian basso Lorenzo Regazzo, and the Despina of Rumanian soprano Roxana Constantinescu.

From the very first scene, the depth and quality of the cast was in evidence – the opening trio well sung with successive vocal entrances of Pirgu’s vibrant lyrical tenor, joined by D’Arcangelo’s large, muscular baritone, then Regazzo’s witty basso.

[Below: at a coffee house, Don Alfonso (Lorenzo Regazzo, center) bets the soldiers Guglielmo (Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, left) and Ferrando (Saimir Pirgu, right), that he can prove that their fiances would be unfaithful to them, if they agree to follow his instructions to the letter; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

The two sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, who began the opera engaged to (respectively) Guglielmo and Ferrando, were sung (respectively) by Aleksandra Kurzak and Ruxandra Donose. Their first scene was a perfect complement to the high vocal standards of the men, assuring the audience only a few bars into the opera’s second scene that it was in for an evening of glorious singing.

[Below: Fiordiligi (Aleksandra Kurzak, left) and Dorabella (Ruxandra Donose, right) compare the lockets given to them by their lovers; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Confident of a great musical performance, I could concentrate on the comedic and dramatic subtleties that one expects from a Team Hytner production.

Sight gags, of course, are are a part of the fun, but often a hilarious image will lead to some thinking about the potential deeper meanings of Hytner’s ideas.

Byronic Bad Boys

Perhaps the most startling images are the costumes of the “Albanians”, the “disguises” that Ferrando and Guglielmo are required by the terms of their bet with Don Alfonso to wear when wooing their best friend’s fiance. (I doubt that anyone has tried to create costumes for the fake Albanians Tizio and Sempronio that actually would fool real life sisters, but, of course, this plot device has a long theatrical history.)

In this production, out they come, dressed as if they were Romantic Era bandit chiefs like Verdi’s Ernani or Carlo from Verdi’s “I Masnadieri”. But since this a production from Hytner and Glyndebourne, we know the reference is not to Hugo’s “Hernani” or Schiller’s “The Robbers” but to their intellectual cousins, Lord Byron’s Brigands.

Soon, the full force of the production’s most obvious in-joke affects your thinking about what you are seeing and perhaps about “Cosi fan Tutte” itself. The sisters are wooed not by each other’s boyfriends polishing their seductive skills within the classical conventions of Mozart’s time, but are wooed instead by pistol-packing Byronic bad boy heroes from a couple of decades in the future.

Guglielmo and Ferrando, unleashed from all the conventions of the Mozart’s age in their approach to women, can pursue the object they desire to conquer with the abandon of a paid gigolo (their bet with Alfonso involving quite a big sum of cash).

[Below: Ferrando (Saimir Pirgu, right) and Guglielmo (Ildebrando D’Arcangelo) reappear, disguised as bad boy “Albanian” Byronic brigands; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Of course, Mozart’s genius as an operatic composer is evident throughout the four operas in which sexual relationships between men and women are explored (the three Da Ponte operas and the earlier “Abduction from the Seraglio”).

One can argue that Mozart and da Ponte created characters that tred paths that Byron’s heroes and heroines were later to travel. We know from Donna Elvira’s backstory, that she had her own proto-Byronic bad boy hero through her affair with Don Giovanni.

Had Mozart lived to old age (he would have been 88 when Verdi’s “Ernani” premiered) he might have taken us much further into the psychological world of women attracted to scoundrels (or to state it more elegantly, Byronic heroes). In fact, I would imagine that Goethe (whose works he knew), Byron, Schiller and maybe even Pushkin might have inspired Mozart’s creative muse. [See my commentary posted on Mozart’s 250th birthday, Happy Birthday, Wolfgang: We Miss Your “Falstaff”.]

And what happens at the end?

The production also provides some images that cause the mind to race. When these sisters succumb to their new lovers, it is not merely represented by their surrendering a locket and allowing a peck on their cheek. Instead, they disappear through a door at stage right that we can only assume (since we know Despina’s room is at stage left) leads to each sister’s bedroom.

If we are allowed to suspect each soldier’s conquest was complete, then the perennial question of which sister each soldier ends up with at opera’s end is answered. Having experienced  love’s joys in an Albanian’s arms and enjoying it sufficiently to sign a contract of marriage only a few hours after their fiances left for war, one cannot imagine the situation going back to the status quo ante.

The sisters, of course, have an ennabler in their exploration of their Romantic sides, Constantinescu’s enchantingly portrayed Despina. Infidelity is not betrayal, Despina explains, if it prevents one from dying of boredom before one’s lover returns.

The recipient of 20 scudi (which, we know from Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” is the amount of an enlistment bonus in the army), Despina becomes an active co-conspirator in the effort to break down each sister’s resistance to her suitor. That it ultimately makes fools of each of the soldier’s pretensions about the the fidelity of their fiances is something that only Don Alfonso (not Despina or the boys) expects.

[Below: from left to right, Guglielmo (Ildebrando D’Arcangelo), Ferrando (Saimir Pirgu), Despina (Roxana Constantinescu, in disguise) and Don Alfonso (Lorenzo Regazzo) plot against the two sisters; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

The production has many witty ideas. The hot chocolate service in Despina’s first scene and later, a bottle and wine glasses provide opportunities for the characters to engage in funny stage routines. During Dorabella’s first act aria (nicely sung by Donose), Fiordiligi dozes off. The swift scene changes are a marvel in coordinated set moving activity (as in other Hytner productions) for principals, choristers and costumed stage hands.

All of Mortimer’s sets exude elegance, with the feel of wall to ceiling wood paneling, often enlivened by brightly colored costumes, and in the would-be wedding scene a dramatic canopy over the ceremonies.

[Below: the basic set for “Cosi fan Tutte” with Dorabella (Ruxandra Donose, at back, left) and Fiordiligi (Aleksandra Kurzak, right) in conversation; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Excellence at Los Angeles Opera

The first weekend of the Los Angeles Opera’s 25th season (introducing two important British opera productions to California, Hytner’s “Cosi” and Steven Pimlott’s conceptualization of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin”, both under James Conlon’s authoritative baton) met the highest standards of musical performance. It proves once again that an opera goer can have high confidence in the casting choices of General Director Placido Domingo and the Los Angeles Opera artistic management.

Hytner’s production of “Cosi” is an extraordinary experience. I have heard persons utter the opinion that “Cosi” is a step below Mozart’s other two masterpieces with Da Ponte librettti “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni”. The Los Angeles Opera mounting of Hytner’s reading will disabuse anyone of that heretical thought.

I regard the Hytner “Cosi fan Tutte” as a world treasure and recommend the Los Angeles Opera performances with this cast unreservedly.

For my previous reviews of performances by Saimir Pirgu (who confirmed rumors through the Los Angeles Opera program that he will be the Tebaldo in San Francisco Opera’s forthcoming production of Bellini’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi”)  see: Dessay’s Scintillating Role Debut as Violetta in Pelly’s Imaginative Santa Fe “Traviata” – July 3, 2009, and also,

Woody Allen’s L. A. “Gianni Schicchi”: Spoofing Italian Films – September 6, 2008.

For my previous review of a Ruxandra Donose performance, see: Dissecting “The Fly”: the American Premiere of Shore’s Opera in L.A. – September 7, 2008.

For previous reviews of performances of this opera, see: Bel Canto “Cosi fan Tutte” at Dallas Opera – February 18, 2010, and also,

Warhorse Warriors: John Cox’ ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’ in S. F. – July 2, 2005, and also,

Cosi Fan Tutte – October 25, 1956.