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March 3, 2006
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Volume 34
Issue 09
 
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HILARITY AT THE OPERA HOUSE
HILARITY AT THE OPERA HOUSE
by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

To write in a Gay newspaper about Mozart's 'Cosi fan tutte' and not deal with its extreme sexism seems more than a little outrageous to me. But that's just what I'm going to do. That sexism exists within such a glorious outpouring of musical brilliance is simply a fact that we can't do anything about.

I approached Seattle Opera's mounting of Jonathan Miller's updated-to-the-present production of 'Cosi' with dread. What possible justification could exist to update this lovely 18th century setting?

Well, hilarity, for one. This show is simply the funniest I have ever seen on the operatic stage. Yes, the music does sometimes suffer. But it can take it. Notes often got drowned out by the laughter of the audience, and antics by singers who were not at the moment singing sometimes drew attention away from a singing singer. These are ordinarily sins I do not forgive. But I, like so many others, I was seduced by the great fun I was having.

The scene: instead of aristocratic sisters of their period, we get modern sisters who are apparently fashion designers; the period maid becomes a personal assistant; the lovers transform into swaggering would-be rock stars instead of weird foreigners. Personal computers and cell phones play big parts. It all works better than anyone could expect because of the brilliance of 72-year-old director Jonathan Miller. The humor also derives from Jonathan Dean's excellent updating of the supratitles. But ironically this is also a darker reading of the play than most. In the end, each character leaves the stage alone and disillusioned.

None of the changes would have worked without the excellent casts and the long rehearsal time that Seattle Opera regularly gives its presentations. This is above all an ensemble piece, and the singers had to work together well. In fact, I can't think of any popular opera with more ensemble numbers. The first 45 minutes is almost entirely duets, trios, and quartets, spun by Mozart with incredible facility and great musical rewards.

There were only six singers, and all six were different on Sunday afternoon from the Saturday opening. Tenor Matthew Polenzani was simply the finest Ferrando I have ever heard, on stage or recording! His first act aria (notoriously difficult because of such a high tessitura) was gorgeous and seemed effortless. What a beautiful voice! Sunday's tenor, Don Frazure (debut), was very good but obviously had tired by the end of his second-act aria. Baritone Christopher Maltman was a stronger Guglielmo than his Sunday counterpart, David Adam Moore. But both were the kind of eye candy that made their bare-chested 'rock star' charades especially fun. ("High Voltage" was tattooed just above each belt line.) I found the Saturday pair the more hilarious of the two. The fun they were having was contagious.

The sisters were scarcely less effective. Alexandra Deshorties (debut) was a much better Fiordiligi than she was on the Metropolitan Opera broadcast a few weeks ago. Her Sunday counterpart, Jessica Jones (debut) was nearly as good. One of the highlights was the Seattle debut of mezzo Christine Rice as Dorabella. With a flawless, amble, and utterly free voice, she was stunning. Definitely someone I hope to see back at Seattle Opera soon. Also debuting in Seattle was the Sunday Dorabella, Maria Zifchak. She warmed up after a rather wobbly start and was great fun to watch, obviously enjoying every minute on the stage.

Where the Sunday cast excelled was in its Don Alfonso and Despina. Unfortunately, the excellent Richard Stilwell has passed his prime and can no longer sustain this role vocally, although he was a fine actor. On Sunday, Valerian Ruminski (debut) showed us the bass line we had been missing on Saturday night. A little pushed on the highest notes, he nonetheless possessed a powerful and supple voice, which he used most musically.

Kimberly Barber had neither the charm nor the voice for an ideal Despina. Sunday's Frances Lucey (next summer's Sopie and last season's Rosalba in 'Florencia en el Amazonas') was far better suited both vocally and dramatically.

The set was minimal and hardly added or detracted from the happenings. It changed not at all during the whole, rather long opera. About the greatly diminished (in numbers) Seattle Symphony and the conducting of Andreas Mitisek I would love to expound at length, for they were a delight from start to finish. Brisk tempi, utter clarity, superb balances, phrasing that was sometimes a revelation&these were among the virtues we enjoyed. Mitisek impressed us a few seasons ago with his excellent 'Eugene Onegin' and is known for his work with modern operas at Long Beach Opera, where he is general and artistic director. We were lucky to have him!



Review Rod Parke can be reached at: rod@sgn.org

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