The Un-Divine Comedy

Modern Love Can Be a Drag: Garry Magee, Rinat Shaham, Thomas Allen, Helen Donath, Eric Cutler, and Alexandra Deshorties in Miller's Cosi Fan Tutte--a farce and a journey of self-discovery--at BAM.Photo: Richard Termine

Although it may sometimes seem that way, Jonathan Miller does not believe that every opera ever written could profitably be set in a decaying mansion located in Surrey, circa 1910. No, the director’s latest take on Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte, recently seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, takes place in a cream-colored city loft designed by Anne Patterson, a space definitely in the here and now. The two sisters who own the apartment are dressed in elegant designer clothes—soft spring colors donated by Eileen Fisher—and we first see their boyfriends in smartly tailored business suits. They look so straight, in fact, that when they disguise themselves as a pair of counterculture grunges to put the make on the other guy’s girl, one can actually believe that for once the ruse might work—especially on this Fiordiligi and Dorabella, depicted not so much as lovable Neapolitan ladies who make fools of themselves but as contemporary airheads who get pretty much what they deserve.

That’s where this Così gives me problems. Like so many other directors these days, Miller wants to show us that the opera is no mere farce but a journey of self-discovery in which four young people find out more about themselves than they can bear, and any kind of happy reconciliation or readjustment of affections becomes impossible—during the final ensemble the four of them stare daggers at each other and storm off in opposite directions. Fine, but as presented here, the characters are made to appear so irritatingly superficial that one doesn’t really care what happens to them, despite a score crammed with music that tells us just how much Mozart cared. But then, I seldom have the sense that Miller ever listens to the music of the operas he directs. His Così is witty but heartless, and therefore a failure.

The cast, however, was first-class, particularly the two senior manipulators of the plot, Helen Donath as Despina and Thomas Allen as Don Alfonso. Both singers are on the shady side of 60 or getting there, but they have plenty of voice left and stage savvy to burn. The mere sight of a nonchalant Donath, surreptitiously sipping her Starbucks café latte while Dorabella has a fit, is priceless. The very models of modern young singers, Eric Cutler (Ferrando) and Garry Magee (Guglielmo) managed to be satisfying Mozart stylists while doing whatever damn-fool thing the director asked of them, and that with grace, intelligence, and perfect timing. The ladies were less convincing, thanks largely to Miller’s mishandling of their characters. Even at that, and despite a rather glassy soprano that is definitely an acquired taste, Alexandra Deshorties found Fiordiligi a far more congenial Mozart assignment than her unfortunate Konstanze in Abduction From the Seraglio at the Met earlier this season, and Rinat Shaham blended in smoothly as Dorabella. The Brooklyn Philharmonic, however, seemed several rehearsals away from perfection under Robert Spano’s dutiful baton.

It’s a pity that most of New York’s enterprising small opera companies have long since folded, but at least the city’s music schools continue to stage unusual repertory as well as provide promising young singers with a showcase. The Manhattan School of Music has been doing both for decades. I’ve lost count of the unusual works I’ve seen at the school over the years, and the number of singers who have graduated into major careers has been impressive, too—my first sighting of Dawn Upshaw was in a Manhattan production of Hindemith’s Sancta Susanna, and a few years later a young and eager Susan Graham bounded onstage to enchant everyone as Massenet’s Chérubin. It was no feat of fortune-telling to predict a bright future for these talented singers.

If all goes well for Jennifer C. Holloway, she may be the next Manhattan graduate to hit the big time. Her vibrant mezzo-soprano and generous presence shone brightly in the school’s recent presentation of Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict, an opera exquisitely performed in concert not long ago by the New York Philharmonic but not often granted a full production (the last one hereabouts, typically, was at the Juilliard School). The music scene is currently well stocked with wonderful mezzos, but Holloway has her own individually textured voice, one with an appealing throb and a palette of colors that she already uses with considerable expressive imagination. Directed by Christopher Mattaliano, conducted by Laurent Pillot, and designed by Erhard Rom, this was otherwise a modest but deftly noninterventionist performance of Berlioz’s delicious operatic scherzo, in all important respects a pleasure from first to last.

Speaking of Susan Graham, the mezzo recently gave a recital in Carnegie Hall and got the full star treatment, including the presence of a recording crew to preserve the event for future release—a rare compliment for any musician in these tough times. Graham, who could give fashion tips to her colleagues, swept in sporting a stunning black ensemble that cleverly conjured up both diva glamour and down-home friendliness, and instantly hurled herself into Brahms’s Zigeunerlieder with unrestrained gypsy abandon. Having successfully gotten our attention, she then devoted a major part of the evening to that corner of the repertory she long ago established as her own special province, French music.

The prize item was Debussy’s Proses Lyriques, four songs set to the composer’s own poetry and for some reason not often sung in recital. They are among his most intricate songs, full of elaborate musical imagery in the accompaniments (ravishingly played by Malcolm Martineau) that support melodic lines of an unusual lyrical intensity, a vocal style that Debussy would soon learn to modify. Graham’s creamy voice wrapped itself around the notes to delicious effect, giving verbal meaning to every poetic twist in the text. The same qualities were effectively lightened and applied with equal skill to Poulenc’s 1931 Apollinaire songs and, finally, to three operetta goodies by André Messager and Moïses Simons. A model evening of song, and I can’t wait to hear it again.

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Così Fan Tutte
Opera by Mozart; directed by Jonathan Miller at BAM.

Béatrice et Bénédict
By Berlioz; conducted by Laurent Pillot at the Manhattan School of Music.

Susan Graham
Recital at Carnegie Hall.

The Un-Divine Comedy