Jernigan's Opera Journal

by Charles Jernigan
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Sarasota Opera

February 27, 2016

Aside from the finale of the Verdi series in Sarasota, Peggy and I saw two other operas as part of our long weekend in this pleasant town on the Gulf of Mexico-- Così fan tutte and Fidelio


Così fan tutte

True to Artistic Director Victor DeRenzi's vision, the Così production was just as the libretto says it should be.  There was no updating; everyone was in pretty eighteenth century costume (by Howard Tsvi Kaplan) and Don Alfonso wore a powdered wig.  The locale was sunny Naples, just as librettist Lorenzo da Ponte wanted, with a painted Mt. Vesuvius in the background and a colonnaded series of arches where the scene changed easily by replacing a few chairs or a table or greenery, or with windows dropping from the flies, all to represent a café, a seafront terrace in Fiordiligi's house, or a room inside the house (scenic design by David P. Gordon).  The excellent stage direction by Kathleen Smith Belcher was true to Da Ponte and Mozart's concept too, with a nice balance between the broad comedy of commedia dell'arte and the serious, introspective moments in some of the arias like the tenor's "Un'aura amorosa" or the soprano's "Per pietà, bel idol mio."  There was no lesbian attraction between Dorabella and Fiordiligi, as in one production I saw; Despina was funny and silly in her disguises as a doctor devoted to mesmerism and a nasal notary, as she should be, but it was straight Da Ponte.  The supertitles translated the text accurately; people laughed at the jokes because the text is funny to begin with, and it went with the action and the style of the music.

Like all of Mozart's most famous operas, Così is a mixture of serious and comic elements; a director can come down on one side or the other in terms of emphasis, but the best productions get the balance right, always remembering that however zany the comedy is, there is a deep, underlying humanity in these explorations of human foibles, and the end of Così, like the end of The Marriage of Figaro, is about forgiveness.  There is also a tension in these two operas (and in Don Giovanni) between the aristocracy and the common folk which is scarcely disguised.   Figaro is about the overthrow of aristocratic privilege, and in Così, the maid Despina is the character who is realistic and who manipulates the plot.  Ostensibly, the idea to teach the two young men (Guglielmo and Ferrando) about the fickleness of woman ("All Women Are Like That" is a fair English title for "Così fan tutte") comes from the aristocratic Don Alfonso, but it is Despina who makes the disguise plot work, and who fools her silly mistresses, Fiordiligi and Dorabella.   It is Despina who tells these two empty-headed girls what "every fifteen year old woman knows" ("Una donna di quindici anni") and advises them to live for now.  Despina is the "new" woman who has no blinders on when it comes to love and men.  Dorabella and especially Fiordiligi live in a dream world not unakin to the princesses of Disney movies.  Despina is much more "modern."  And yet the love that the two women (and even the men) profess is real and fidelity is a noble virtue, and Mozart in his complex humanity recognizes that.  We may hear parody of opera seria when Fiordiligi swears she will be "unmoving like a rock" ("Come un scoglio"), but we hear serious hurt in her other aria "Per pietà, bel idol mio").  That kind of thing is what makes Mozart so complex, and why getting the balance between comedy and serious emotion right is so important in his operas.

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Sarasota's production did it, and kept the balance through the end.  There is always a question in Così fan tutte about that end.  Will Fiordiligi and Dorabella remain with their old fiancés Ferrando and Guglielmo, or will they switch mates as they had when the men were disguised as Albanians?  In this production, after the women plead for forgiveness and return to their original mates, they then switch men for the final coro.  The serious and the comic, the ideal and the realistic are there for all to see, and the meaning is for all of us in the audience to ponder as we drive home after the performance is over.

This basically excellent production was cast with young singers, all promising and all previously unfamiliar to me.  Jennifer Townshend sang the more difficult of the two women's roles as Fiordiligi.  She had the high notes and the low notes for this wide-ranging role, but if anything, was sometimes a little hesitant in the middle voice.  Her Guglielmo was Corey Crider, a baritone from Kentucky who was perhaps the best of the four lovers vocally and was a good and funny actor as well.  Dorabella, the more malleable of the two women, was Kathleen Shelton, a Sarasota Studio Artist who stepped in for an ailing Shirin Eskandani.  We had heard Ms. Shelton in the afternoon in a showcase for the young artists, and she lived up to her fine preview.  If there was any tentativeness about her taking over at the last moment, it was not apparent.  She is a natural on stage, with perfect facial expressions, and she seemed to know the role inside and out.  Ferrando, Dorabella's lover, was tenor Heath Huberg.  As the more dreamy of the suitors, he sailed through the difficult "Un'aura amorosa" as well as being a mellifluous participant in the many ensembles.  Stefano De Peppo, a bass-baritone from Milan was a wiry and knowing Don Alfonso.  He did suffer from some pitch problems, and sang a little too loudly in the miraculous "Soave sia il vento" trio.  Despina often steals the show in this opera, and pretty Angela Mortellaro came close to doing that here.  She was funny and pert on stage, pointed in her handling of the recitative, and just fine in her aria and the ensemble work.  Marcello Cormio, a young man from Italy, led the musical forces with élan.  Altogether an enjoyable evening with youthful singers who did justice to the music and a funny, traditional production.


Fidelio

Beethoven's Fidelio was the other non-Verdi work we saw as part of Sarasota's spring season.  Fidelio, great work musically though it is, always strikes me as an odd amalgam between comic singspiel (German opera with spoken texts) and heroic rescue opera.  As successfully as Così fan tutte is at combining comic and serious elements, this text by Joseph Sonnleithner and Friedrich Treitschke is like two different operas yoked together, and not always successfully.  Opera was not Beethoven's forte, and it is not surprising that he never wrote another one.

Rescue opera was a very popular genre in the Classical/early Romantic period.  It was certainly tied to the revolutionary movements of the time (the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789), and expressed the hope through a plot with a happy ending that the  people would be liberated from tyranny and dictatorship.  Cherubini, much admired by Beethoven, was a master of the genre in a work like Les deux journées.  The plot of Beethoven's opera came from an earlier French work by Jean Nicolas Bouilly called Leonore, ou l'amour conjugal; it had been set to music by Pierre Gaveaux in 1798.  Several other composers, including Donizetti's teacher Giovanni Simone Mayr set the same story.  The rescue of Florestan by his wife, Leonore, who dresses as a man, is said to be based on a real incident that took place during the French Revolution.

The heart of Fidelio is the rescue plot wherein Florestan is imprisoned by the evil Don Pizarro.  His wife, Leonore, disguises herself as "Fidelio" ('Faithful One') and goes to work for the jailor Rocco.  Rocco's daughter, Marzelline, falls for "him," and that bit of mistaken identity is the basis for the comic plot.  In the end, Leonore/Fidelio "rescues" her wretched husband just before Don Pizarro is to kill him; trumpets indicate the arrival of Don Fernando, the King's minister.  He releases Florestan and punishes Pizarro: the plot seems to say that the just rule of an enlightened ruler will eventually conquer injustice and evil.

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The opera went through several revisions after its first (and unsuccessful) production in Vienna in 1805.  Some of the comic element was cut and Beethoven added the fourth overture he had written for the piece, the one we know today as the "Fidelio Overture."  Our production used that overture in the beginning and played the more famous Leonore Overture No. 3 just before the final celebratory scene.  These wonderful and justly famous pieces (the Leonore overture is certainly one of the best known pieces of classical music) are always highlights of any Fidelio production.  But there is also Leonore's great aria towards the end of Act I, and Florestan's aria in Act II.  There is also the marvelous Prisoner's Chorus, as the prisoners are let out of their dark cells for a brief respite, and come into the light.  In many ways, this Chorus encapsulates everything that Fideliio is about: the freeing of the wretched of the earth, and their coming into the 'light'.

sarsota.fidelio2The Sarasota Chorus did themselves proud in this and other choral moments, particularly the exciting extended finale.  The orchestra under Ekhart Wycik was good too, perhaps not the best ever heard in the often played overtures, but nonetheless, good.  The trumpets and horns were in tune too.  The young singers were also good.  Kara Shay Thomson sang a powerful "Abscheulicher" aria and acted well, expressing her reluctance to accept Marzelline's overtures and her great love for her husband.  I thought she did a splendid job.  Vanessa Isiguen was a delightful Marzelline.  Her singing was among the best of the cast, and she was very lively on stage.  The villain, Don Pizarro, was Sean Anderson.  He made the most of his snarling baddie, and if he was one dimensional, that's how he is in the libretto.  The other men were not quite up to the excellence of the ladies, although Harold Wilson's Rocco was good.  Michael Robert Hendrick's Florestan sounded strained at times, and Christopher Trapani's Jaquino was a little weak.  No one, however, was bad.  The opera built to the exciting climax that Beethoven intended, and the "release" that is in the story is also in the music, and it came across to the audience.

Scenic design by Michael Schweikardt was traditonal--the prison was forbidding, the secret underground cell where Florestan is kept was dark (lighting by Ken Yunker), so dark that you did not see him at first.  Stage direction by Tom Diamond was first rate, and the characters portrayed anguish, love, pity and joy as the story and music dictate.  Costumes by Howard Tsvi Kaplan (all set appropriately in Beethoven's time) tended towards brown colors as did the set.  It all worked.

A final note: all four operas we saw in Sarasota this year were traditional in terms of sets and costumes, and they were not updated; La battaglia di Legnano was medieval, Aida was ancient Egyptian, Così was eighteenth century sunny Neapolitan, and Fideliio was darker, early nineteenth century.  It is so rare these days to see an opera that is not updated, where the singers are not wearing contemporary suits and dresses and sporting sunglasses and carrying uzis when the text says "sword" or "pistol."  I realize that I am old fashioned, but I think opera loses something fairly vital when we deny it the element of spectacle and period costume.  Would a soap opera like "Downton Abbey" have half the audience if it were set in 2016 with rappers instead of flappers, ruthless Wall Street types instead of lords and ladies?  Affairs, illegitimate children, searching for the right husband, even death may be the same today as they were in 1915 (or 1925 or 1176), but where would we be without Lady Mary's splendid period costumes?  Without that Great House?  "Downton Abbey" in Trump Tower?  I don't think so.

Charles Jernigan