Cosi at the Salzburger Festspiele


In a time when opera is trying to reinvent itself and competing with all number of entertainment that has to do much less work to seem relevant, Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte at this year’s Salzburger Festspiele is a remarkably original balance of the old looking forward to the new.

This balance begins with supernumeraries who are already on stage as audience members find their seats. Enlightenment-era scientists, wearing long white masks and velvet robes, mull over two sketches of human anatomy—one female, one male. Pulling on long beards, frowning at the ovaries, these perplexed philosophers show that the scenes to come are already but a mise-en-abyme. Their antiquated science is quickly framed and replaced by our own rationalization of the romantic comedy before us. After all, who can make sense of love?

Conductor Ottavio Dantone makes his Salzburg Fest debut with this opera and controls the work with precise tempos both fast and slow. As he began the overture, a curious Dorabella and Fiordiligi scurry to stage left where the scientists have retired at individual laboratory tables, laughing and pointing at the diagrams. But the scientists follow the unsuspecting women back to center stage, seize them, and cover their mouths with a handkerchief of chloroform. The men position the unconscious women on a settee, who later awake as if in a dream, and Mozart’s comedy becomes a scientific experiment of Enlightenment proportions.

The program notes that director Sven-Eric Bechtolf wanted to capture this opera in the year 1790, when it originally debuted, as a moment of (violent) transition from scientific logic to the romantic chaos that the French Revolution engendered. What he’s done here with the stagecraft—from blocking to set to costumes—is a clever symmetry throughout. The two pairs-—Fernando and Guglielmo, Dorabella and Fiordiligi dressed in period costumes—organize so neatly across the stage, crossing paths and then re-organizing, that the identity confusion inherent to the plot is heightened to a satiric degree. Even while the plot tests the essence of opposite genders, it also makes this stark difference paradoxically homogenous.

The talent across the board makes it possible to raise this special peculiarity of time and space where historic attention meets innovation. German soprano Julia Kleiter, as Fiordiligi, floats and soars with transporting grace (she was undoubtedly the audience favorite at the curtain call). As Dorabella, Angela Brower fulfills the more changeable sister’s character with a sweet and accurate clarity while still performing as an amusing flirt. Alessio Arduini (Guglielmo), the experienced Martina Jankova (Despina), and the puppet master Michael Volle (Don Alfonso) all perform with the ease of true professionals. The standout is Mauro Peter in the role of Ferrando, who delivered a quintessential “Un ‘aura amorosa” with a thrillingly round timbre for a tenor. It’s singers like these that make you forget you are watching an opera and allow you to be simply consumed by it.

Naturally, the setting of the Festspielhaus in Salzburg, half cliff-half theatre, reminds one of the ancient, not to the mention the fact that Mozart’s birth house is a street away. How difficult it must be, then, to maintain ties to the opera’s roots while delivering something that feels as new and exciting as Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versaille.

The trick is in the details. When the opera proper begins, for example, the scientists unroll and set up idyllic watercolor backdrops around the six characters and then appear a level or two up between the cloisters built into the cliff. As they look down on the singers playing out their gendered experiment, emotion takes the lead. When Ferrando realizes he is betrayed, he stabs a watermelon brought out for refreshment and breaks into it with his hands, pulling finger-fulls up into the air and squeezing juice onto the rug below. Next he moves over to a pillow, which he also stabs and hurls the stuffing across stage left. The metaphor is not subtle, and while it is at one moment making light of the changeability of women, the next it borders on a darker aggression that many iterations of Cosi don’t even come close to.

If you paid your 10 Euros for the program, you’ll also get a list of the Cosi’s the festival has performed. Since 1922, the festival has produced the opera 44 times. The statistics makes this production even more impressive, if that were possible. This is Mozart opera at its absolute best, delightful and timelessly provoking, because it finds us racing to logic even as it presses on those human conundrums that find no refuge in rationality.

July is Renovation Season…


…for Germany’s opera houses. It’s a cruel trick to imagine what I’ll be missing when the fall season opens across the country (in Berlin, the Staatsoper under den linden; in Bayreuth, the Margravial Opera House). I’m just hoping the Wortham will catch onto the summer trend?IMG_0488IMG_0523



Wagner Festival in Bayreuth

I’ve just left Bayreuth, Germany, where the famed annual Wagner Festival began on Monday with Parsifal. Anticipation was high, the city on alert, as the Wagner-obsessed descended. After a few walks through town and visit to the newly-renovated Richard Wagner Museum and Wannfried House, the concept of Wagner seems to be punctiliously marketed (no doubt because the Wagner family estate still maintains powerful influence there). The Richard Wagner Museum’s audio tour carefully notes, for example, that despite Wagner’s blatant anti-semitism, “he had many Jewish friends.”A Bayreuth local mentioned to me in a whisper that some say Wagner’s music had an influence on Hitler–a understatement that surprised me given the widely-acknowledged association elsewhere. A favorite of mine, Stephen Fry’s notable 2015 documentary Wagner and Me is rooted in the reconciliation of the value of Wagner’s music (it’s magnificent, no denying it as far as I’m concerned) and Wagner’s problematic philosophy at large.

A plaque in the park below the Festspielhaus suggests that unrest nevertheless persists in Bayreuth.


Houston World Premieres of Note

…at Lone Star Lyric Festival, which runs through June 25. Classical music is funny about supporting new work and living composers, as the sage Alex Ross wrote about this very week regarding the Metropolitan Opera’s new appointment of Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the NY Philharmonic’s Jaap van Zweden. Looking around at companies not only in Houston, but in America, LSL looks very forward-looking to me. Read my review at Houstonia Magazine.

Brave New World: The Opera

A letter from Aldous Huxley housed in the Woodson Research Center here at Rice University made me wonder what could have been (Bernstein’s response is not supplied):

April 4, 1957. Letter to Leonard Bernstein.

As a very busy man with a large correspondence, I can well understand your annoyance at receiving yet another letter from a perfect stranger. But, at the risk of being a bore, I am writing to ask if you would be at all interested in reading a dramatic verskion [sic] of my novel ‘Brave New World’, which I have recently made, with a view to a musical setting. (I envisage the piece as a play with music and dancing, rather than as a conventional ‘musical’.) The story calls for a very resourceful composer, who can run the gamut from the primitive dances of the Indian Reservation to the music of the hypothetical future. So I naturally thought of you and am hopefully writing this on the off chance that you may have the time and the inclination to consider such a project.

What Trios They Were

In the Ensemble Theatre this morning at the world premiere of What Wings They Were: The Case of Emeline, I began to think about the advantages of a three-person opera.

A historical recount of a civil case Emeline, a “free woman of color,” brought against Jesse P. Bolls in 1848 Houston, Houston Grand Opera’s (HGOco) What Wings They Were is a moving story told by soprano Gwendolyn Alfred, bass-baritone Christopher Besch, and tenor Brian Yeakley.

Composer John L. Cornelius II creates a wonderful score for the piano, performed with purpose and feeling by music director Bethany Self, but the vocal parts seemed separated from their accompaniment and even from one another. Any opera buff will admit to a love of ensemble numbers, traditionally the satisfying climax of an act (my favorite is the sextet “Chi Mi Frena in al Momento” from Donizetti’s Lucia Di Lammermoor), but with newer operas these ensemble numbers have fallen out of the repertoire somehow. Give me some cohesive harmony, some sense of melodic arc—good ensemble can still feel original, no one has condemned it with the old-fashioned stamp.

Three singers translate into opportunity for some rousing ensemble numbers. Bastien and Bastienne, a comedy Mozart wrote when he was only 12 in 1768, for example, has some beautiful duets and ends with a triumphant trio. In the same vein, Donizetti’s Rita, a comedy written in 1860, is ripe with jaunty duets. On the other hand, consider Stewart Wallace’s three-cast Hopper’s Wife, which makes its east coast premiere at the New York City Opera this weekend. The opera assigns a different singing genre to each character (and one character spends a good part holding her own in the nude). Mark Swed of the LA Times calls it “brave” in the realm of American opera for realist historical drama, though he stresses it’s also “not a particularly likable opera and certainly not nice.”

What Wings They Were: The Case of Emeline tells an awe-inspiring true story of a woman who sued for her freedom, and for the freedom of her two children, and won. Doesn’t such an incredible story deserve an equally galvanizing trio to ignite its victorious finish? Must new opera sound so isolated?