Thursday, August 16, 2018

Phelim McDermott’s Americanization of Mozart

Here in San Francisco we can take a justified amount of pride in the production of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelung that is currently in the repertoire of the San Francisco Opera, last seen in the War Memorial Opera House about three months ago. This production was particularly notable for the way in which Director Francesca Zambello conceived a staging that was true to the narrative of the libretto while drawing upon distinctively American icons to situate that narrative in a contemporary perspective. This past season, on the other side of our continent, Phelim McDermott took a similar approach to staging a more classical offering, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 588 opera Così fan tutte (so do all women), for the Metropolitan Opera.

Dubbed the “Coney Island Così” by some, McDermott drew heavily on 1950s Brooklyn but incorporated a wide variety of other sources to create a feast of visual impressions that, for the most part, did not overwhelm the underlying narrative of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto. Indeed, doing justice to that libretto is no mean feat, given that the conclusion is ambiguous enough to be interpreted in different ways. The idea behind the title is that all women are capable of infidelity; and in the libretto the women in question are a pair of sisters, Fiordiligi (soprano Amanda Majeski) and Dorabella (Serena Malfi). They are betrothed to Guglielmo (bass Adam Plachetka) and Ferrando (tenor Ben Bliss), who, in the opening trio, are boasting about their lovers’ fidelity to the cynical old philosopher Don Alfonso (bass Christopher Maltman).

Alfonso proposes a wager that he can demonstrate that both of these women can succumb to infidelity over the course of a day. The basic idea is that the young men will (ostensibly) set off on military service and then immediately return in disguise. In their new personalities each will woo the other’s lover. Alfonso enlists their maid Despina (soprano Kelli O’Hara) to help break down the sisters’ virtuous resolve. To make a long story short, both eventually succumb to their “new lovers” to the point that a wedding is planned, in the midst of which Ferrando and Guglielmo return from their military engagement.

This is where different directors have the liberty to decide how it all ends. Either coupling is consistent with the libretto text. All that matters is that all four of them are wiser, if a bit sadder as a result of the process. The most innovative approach was probably the one that Peter Sellars took in which mere sadness gives way to all four parties having nervous breakdowns. McDermott, on the other hand, seemed content to let things return to the “natural ordering” of the original pairing.

PBS aired the Live in HD broadcast of the performance that took place this past March 31. I recorded the broadcast on local television and finally had a chance to view it. I was impressed by the diversity of images but even more impressed with how very few (if any) got in the way of Da Ponte’s libretto. Occasionally, this involved tweaking the English translation in the titles but never in a way that distorted the source unduly. I can also confess to more than a little nostalgia over McDermott’s choices of icons, having spent several of my earliest years in Brooklyn, which included a few memorable visits to Coney Island.

Nevertheless, it is not the plot that makes K. 588 one of my favorite operas. This is virtually a “mother lode” of Mozart’s vocal music, not only for solo voices but for pretty much all combinations afforded by the six members of the cast. Ultimately, it is the expressive sensitivity of musical interpretation that wins the day in this opera while the rather “stock” approach to comedy works its machinations. I would assume that much of that expressiveness had to do with the excellent chemistry of all the vocalists with conductor David Robertson, working with an appropriately reduced ensemble and a harpsichord continuo player who knew a thing or two about improvisation. The result was an approach to the score that could not have cast Mozart in a better light with each vocalist keenly aware that (s)he was always contributing to a whole that was far more than the sum of its parts.

The one weakness came with the video production work. For the most part the cameras were always in the right place at the right time, but the same could not be said about the microphones. Mozart’s music is always about blending the resources just the right way, and there were too many annoying moments when the audio engineering team lost control of that blend. As might be guessed, the instrumentalists suffered more than the vocalists; and, as a result, those who know their Mozart would have been consistently annoyed by how his judicious use of wind sonorities tended to get lost behind the vocal work.

I only went to a few of the movie theater simulcasts of Met productions, and those were in the earliest days of those efforts. Indeed, the most memorable was the broadcast in March of 2008 of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde; and the memorability had as much to do with the video direction by Barbara Willis Sweete as it did with the contributions made by all of the instrumentalists and vocalists. Sweete’s technique reminded me of Jordan Whitelaw’s pioneering telecasts of concerts by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conceived in full appreciation that what you heard often depended on what you saw. Whitelaw used to invest considerable time and resources in preparing for each telecast, and my guess is that the Met quickly realized that it did not have the budget for a comparable investment. The impact of that change for the worse varies according to the opera being presented; and, where K. 588 is concerned, I am afraid that things turned out for the worse.

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