Tuesday, December 19, 2017

AIDAN LANG INTRODUCES COSÌ FAN TUTTE

Listen to or read this downloadable podcast by General Director Aidan Lang. Così fan tutte, the ultimate operatic mash-up of buffa & seria, thought vs. feeling, Mozart's heartfelt music and Da Ponte's cynical words, returns to Seattle this winter (seven performances, January 13-27). Aidan introduces this fascinating opera and the ever-contemporary production which now returns, updated for 2018, to our city.

Hello, everyone, it's Aidan Lang here, and today I'm here to talk about Così fan tutte, our next opera!

Così fan tutte is always classified as a comedy, but as always with comedy, the old adage that it's the most serious art form was never truer than it is with this piece. It's a piece which delves very deeply into our psyche and into human behavior. Built into it are ideas and topics which are very germane to the lives we lead today and the society we have today.

This production is a revival of the production which was mounted here back in 2006 by the acclaimed director, Dr. Jonathan Miller. Jonathan said that "Così fan tutte is not about fidelity. It's about identity, and what happens when you put on a disguise." And I think there's an awful lot of truth in that.

The four young lovers—that's the sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, and their fiancés, Guglielmo and Ferrando, four young people, start the opera with a confidence about their feelings for each other and where they stand in the world. And then as part of what is a very cruel experiment, instigated by their friend the older character Don Alfonso, the fidelity of the girls is put to the test, and it's put to the test by the men pretending they have to go off on military service. And they come back almost immediately, in disguise, in this case disguised as Albanians.

Now, disguise is an interesting thing; it's a bit like a masked ball, where the code of the masked ball was that you were able to behave in a way that would probably not be so acceptable without your mask. The conceit was: it is not me; it is my character. It is not me, it is my mask who is flirting with somebody. And the same way here, that the boys dress up in outlandish disguises, and certainly in the first half of the opera they think they're having a good time. To give an example of this, Guglielmo sings a very witty number, which certainly to the eighteenth-century was well understood, where the Albanians extol their noses and mustaches! So there was a sort of crude joke going on, and I think the point is that Guglielmo wouldn't dare to make that joke as his real self, but he's able to do it because he's in disguise.

In other words, the men have taken on this bet, and this sort of outrageous disguise as a matter of fun, and before they know what has happened, they themselves find themselves being sucked in. These personas, the Albanians, begin to take them over as well. And so pretty quickly, like a house of cards, the whole solidity of the beginning of the opera begins to fall away. And it is the personas of the boys in disguise—their extrovert sexuality—which ironically is the catalyst for the two girls to begin to change their point of view. Jonathan I think is right that the disguise and the license that it allows is the catalyst for the drama.

Even Despina, who's complicit in the act, is feeling that the two girls should learn a life lesson. Despina appears in two disguises, as a doctor and as a notary. But then at the end she's wounded by what has happened to her. I think her guilt is partly through the fact that she has allowed her own disguises to take her over; her reason has gone. She's been a part of the whole situation falling out of control.

Certainly the four lovers, plus Despina, do go through a change throughout the opera. The time scale is 24 hours, that's the bet from Alfonso, that the girls will fall within a day, within 24 hours. And at the end of that day, five of the six characters are profoundly different from what they were at the beginning of the opera. Alfonso I think not. I think Alfonso is a man of experience and he feels he's seen it all. And he is confident that something will happen to these people. That they will be, in his view, wiser human beings.

Within this production, what we're going to see is that the two girls gradually change their appearance, in terms of costumes, to almost subconsciously chime in with the looks given to the boys as they come in disguise. It's almost as if without realizing it their choice of attire is designed to attract, or to feel at one with the new men who have entered their lives.

We should feel at the end of the Act One finale that with the humor and the knockabout comedy of that scene, we should feel that this experiment has not worked. That the men are being sent packing, and they've been so outrageous, they've had a laugh. We start Act Two and it seems very different: the scene at the beginning of Act Two may be an hour or so later, where they've had time to digest the events. And then we see them beginning to change, thinking: "Well, you know...the men are away; it'll be for entertainment, it'll just be for a laugh...what else will we do?" They're almost talking themselves into putting themselves into a position where they're vulnerable.

And then pretty swiftly, in the duet between Dorabella and Guglielmo, we see Dorabella ready to take this encounter to the next phase. And I think this catches Guglielmo out. He's not only surprised that it's the partner of his friend who has made a beeline for him. I think the boys thought that they would flirt with their own partners. And where it twists is that the two girls choose the other one. They've been attracted by someone else. Which I think catches the boys unaware. And then you get the whole macho thing, "I've got to fulfill my bet," and yet that's the lamest excuse ever for bad behavior. During the course of the sequence in Act Two, we see all four characters going into areas of their personality and psyche which they never dreamed existed. And all of them feel guilty about it.

I think a very important point around the title of the opera, Così fan tutte, must be made in order to clear something about the intention of the piece. And that's this: the title is an abbreviated quotation from a line of Don Basilio in The Marriage of Figaro, where, if you remember in the Act One Trio, it seems that Susanna has been caught in a compromising position with Cherubino, and Don Basilio says, "Così fan tutte le belle" (All beautiful women are like that). And Mozart wanted this as the title of the opera. But the title which the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte gave it was La scuola degli amanti (The School for Lovers), and there's a really important difference between a title of "The School for Lovers" and one that says "All Women Behave In This Way." And that's this: that for Da Ponte, the opera was about all four lovers. Yes, there has to be a plot mechanic which puts the women's fidelity to the test. But Don Alfonso, for whom you read Da Ponte, knew well that the boys were being put to the test as well.

Unfortunately Da Ponte lost out in the argument. We know he resisted Mozart's desire to give it the musically witty title, and lost, and I think that's a great shame. Because I think the title which Mozart chose—you could say, that title is more emblematic of an eighteenth-century view of the nature of the two sexes. But I think had the opera been called The School for Lovers, it would be perceived very differently. While undoubtedly there is a sort of misogynistic side to the action, also to Alfonso's plot—I mean, you can't deny that—but actually, the overarching intention of the piece, from Da Ponte's part, was to show a difference of youth and experience. That really it is about all four of these young people, who start from a position of confidence, finding themselves changed, and having learnt a lesson.

What makes this piece such an extraordinary work is the range of emotions which Mozart describes in the music, the subtlety and nuance of it, the fact that the characters are not two dimensional, that even in moments which seem quite straightforward there is complexity. It's a complex plot in terms of character development. And the miracle of Mozart's music in this opera is the way he captures that range of often conflicting emotions, sometimes in the same moment. Human beings are not black and white, they are infinitely varied, and I think what he manages to do here is suggest that at every moment these characters' lives are tinged with doubt, which underpins certainty. As the four lovers progress from a state of assurance to one of complete confusion, Mozart depicts that but always with sympathy for their suffering. There's a humanity to his music which shines through. He seems in this opera to me to capture the strengths, the weaknesses, the conflicting emotions which we as human beings go through on a daily basis.

So I think what's really interesting and also difficult about this opera is this: were we in the eighteenth century, we would perceive this opera in one way. We would see the resolution which comes at the end, when Alfonso essentially says, "Look, you've been through this experience, it was part of a learning curve, kiss and make up and you'll be better people for it." And full stop. And I think to an eighteenth-century sensibility, that's fine. We know the nineteenth century struggled with this opera immensely. It was very seldom performed. They felt it immoral; it completely countered the notion of the perfect union of marriage, which was central to nineteenth century respectable thought, and to even suggest that a woman would have thoughts for another man just freaked them out! So they either rewrote the piece, in ridiculous manners, or they simply didn't perform it.

You can pinpoint the revival of Così fan tutte to the fact that it was programmed in the initial season of the by-now famous Glyndebourne Festival, in 1934. It was those performances, and the fame which very quickly Glydnebourne gained which helped to put Così fan tutte back on the map. And it's never looked back. But what happens now is, we question that eighteenth-century worldview in the light of contemporary thought. We look at these events in a very different way; we feel the suffering of the characters a lot more. We question the right of Alfonso to play that game. We question whether the two young men should even have gone along with the bet. You know, how callous are they?! And we have a very, very different view of the piece.

And one of the great beauties of this work is how it ends is open. Some productions end with the characters going back to their original partners; others say the intensity of Act Two, and the interactions with the 'other' partner are so strong that they couldn't possibly go back to their original partners, and they go off with the new pairing; and others sort of break up the production entirely. Indeed, Paul Daniel, our maestro, told me of a production—which I saw in London, but I only saw it once, so I didn't know what was happening—apparently, all the singers had free license to end each individual performance the way they felt it needed to end on the basis of that evening's show. So every time they did it, it ended differently! I of course only saw it once, so I didn't quite realize this is what was going on. But Paul said, throughout the run he as conductor didn't know how it was going to end. That helps keep what would otherwise be a problematic piece today, it keeps it fresh and alive. Because there is no prescribed outcome.

I think one of the strengths of this particular production was Jonathan Miller's insistence that it was played in modern dress. This production in fact originated in the 1990s at Covent Garden, where the designer was Giorgio Armani. And when the production got revived, a couple years later, Armani, who had previously provided creations which were of the year of its creation, said, "Well, that was last year! You have to have new creations this year!" This gave Jonathan Miller the idea that whenever the production was remounted—and it's been seen in Florence, it's been seen in DC as well as Seattle—it should have costumes which are not only totally contemporary, but also pertinent to the ethos of the city in which they're being presented. In other words, were we doing it in Italy, we'd see different costumes to Seattle. I think this is a really smart idea in order to keep this piece which has so changed throughout its performance history, to keep it alive. Two years ago I did myself, I directed a production of Le nozze di Figaro, where we very consciously costumed the piece in a kind of modern riff on eighteenth-century costumes. And I did that because the plot itself dictates a social setting. Here, yes, the piece has an eighteenth-century sensibility baked in; but it's that very sensibility which is up for grabs, and up for questioning. And therefore in order to make us today view the piece with a proper and detached viewpoint, it's important to know who these people, these characters are in the light of contemporary living, rather than filtered through an eighteenth-century eye.

What of course is interesting about this opera also is that it is in a kind of way a battle of the sexes. And one way of looking at it, to start with, is to look at the relationship between Alfonso and Despina. It's clear that they've known each other and sparred off each other for some time. Now, this production takes a slightly different reading in terms of the setting, where this opera takes place. But in the original text, the two girls are from Ferrara, and they've come to Naples to have a holiday. First question, why have they got no chaperone? Who are these two sisters? There's no mother in sight; are they orphans? And Despina comes with the house. She's not their servant from Naples. She's local. And so clearly she and Alfonso know each other and they play off each other, which is why I think Despina is happy to go along; she's a bit fed up with these girls who've rented the villa.

But there's a difference. Alfonso, you know, he uses her, he manipulates Despina. There's something rather cruel about his behavior to her, even though their relationship seems to be based on banter; we see that funny little number when we move to the garden, where Alfonso and Despina both do a courtship, to demonstrate how to court the opposite sex. So the imbalance is there. It seems the two, Despina and Alfonso, are equal partners, but there's a clear imbalance, and the man is controlling the woman.

With the lovers, what's interesting is the way musically throughout much of the first half, and bits of the second half, the two sisters and the two men sing in harmony with each other: the sisters often a third apart, the men often a sixth apart. It's as if they're kind of identical. They become "Woman" or "Man."

It becomes clear musically, as well as from a character point of view, that both the two sisters are different people and also the two men are different people. And that's again part of the genius of this piece. Something which seems very neat and pat in its opening 40 minutes begins to take on complexity.

As Act One moves on we begin to see the difference. The first thing is, compare "Come scoglio," Fiordiligi's aria, with Dorabella's first aria. Both are written in a quasi-opera seria fashion; but "Come scoglio" is for real. It has an accompanied recitative, which indicates a character of importance, and then she's absolutely sincere in her language and her intent. Dorabella's aria, "Smanie implacabili," it's a parody of opera seria music. They come storming in, the man just having gone off. She's: "Close the windows, I need darkness!" The text of the aria is like a Greek tragedy, talking about "I will be hounded by the Furies!" It's extreme behavior! And that's the first indicator that there's a difference between Dorabella and Fiordiligi. This is a hysterical reaction of someone who's probably going to fall. Whereas Fiordiligi's use of opera seria music is sincere. It's a subtle point, but an important point. And it's no surprise that it's actually Dorabella who has if you like a more grown-up view in Act Two, once she's been off with Guglielmo. When she comes back for "Amore è un ladroncello" (Love is a naughty little devil), she's quite at home with whatever happened when she went off with him! Whereas for Fiordiligi the fall, if you like, is a much more painful experience.

Likewise with the two men. As soldiers they sing dutifully together. After "Come scoglio," both men have an aria; and Guglielmo's is funny. This is the one where he's extolling the masculine virtues, and he's playing around and having a laugh. Left alone, Ferrando is much more reflective. We see a deeper soul there.

Likewise, once Guglielmo returns from his "encounter" with Dorabella, he has a long recitative in which to try and find his way around it and laugh it off, and his recourse is to turn to every woman in the audience and basically say, "It's your fault," when he is the one who's instigated it. Which is a very immature approach. Whereas Ferrando, he's deeply hurt by what's happened. And he's hurt by his friend as well. Certainly Jonathan Miller's view is, he goes into the seduction of Fiordiligi partly out of revenge on Guglielmo, his friend who has betrayed him.

One of the features of this production is we have many people making their debut, and one or two welcome returnees. On our podium we have Paul Daniel. Paul was Music Director of Opera North, in Leeds, and then for many years Music Director of English National Opera. And he is also currently the Music Director of the opera in Bordeaux. He's making his Seattle Opera debut, but is no stranger to this piece, having conducted it many times.

We've given the task of reviving Jonathan Miller's production, to Harry Fehr. Harry is a young director in his own right and, for someone of tender years, has got a number of impressive productions under his belt, including a new production of The Flying Dutchman at Scottish Opera, which was done to great acclaim a couple of years ago, as well as a production of Orlando at Welsh National Opera. And he's also an experienced hand with this particular production, having worked with Jonathan on it I believe three times in mounting it.

This production back in 2006 had new costumes, as I said before, crafted specially for Seattle by Cynthia Savage, and Cynthia has come back to make yet more new costumes for 2018 Seattle. Cynthia has a long association with Seattle Opera. She was the Costume Shop manager way back, as far back as 1984, and has managed countless productions, including the mammoth costume task for War and Peace, and as I say was the designer for this production in 2006.

Among the cast, a lot of people making their debut, and I guess the best place to start is that we are featuring two stellar sisters as the two sisters! Marina and Ginger Costa-Jackson are playing Fiordiligi and Dorabella, respectively, and both are amazing singers. But they tell us they've never actually before sung together onstage, so as well as making their Seattle Opera debut they're making their family debut as well in this production.

Our other two sisters are the Finnish singer Marjukka Tepponen, who is making her I believe North American debut as well as her Seattle Opera debut, as Fiordiligi; and a welcome back to Hanna Hipp, who of course we saw as Isolier last year. And she's going to hang on for a bit and play Beatrice in Beatrice and Benedict as well, so it's great to have Hanna back.

For the boys, it's a welcome back for Craig Verm as Guglielmo, alongside a debut for a wonderful American singer, Michael Adams; and as our two tenors we have another Finnish singer, Tuomas Katajala, again making his American and Seattle Opera debuts in the role of Ferrando, and another debut for Benjamin Bliss. Ben has actually moved to Seattle, so although his career is taking him everywhere, it's great to know that he's on our doorstep occasionally and we're delighted to feature him as Ferrando as well.

Don Alfonso—we've single-cast Alfonso, and Kevin Burdette tells me he hasn't been here in about ten years. Kevin is one of those marvelous singing-acting bass-baritones, he's an absolute tour de force. I saw him recently in Santa Fe, in The Golden Cockerel, where he was absolutely magnificent. A terrific singer and we're delighted to welcome him back, and he too is staying on to sing Somarone in Beatrice and Benedict. And the third of our cast who is staying on is our Despina, Laura Tatulescu. Laura, you will remember, played Susanna in my Marriage of Figaro, a couple years ago, and it's great to have her back. And she is staying on to play Hero in Beatrice and Benedict as well.

One way we wanted to bring a level of familiarity to a group of new singers to you, our audiences, was to bring some singers back immediately, and take advantage of the fact that we could offer members of the cast two adjacent contracts and keep them in town. So consequently four of the Così fan tutte cast are actually featuring in Beatrice; as well as Kevin, Laura, and Hanna, Craig Verm is playing Claudio. In this way I feel we can build a repertoire ensemble of new singers for you to enjoy, and to see their work on more than one occasion.

So by way of signing off, I'm greatly looking forward to this great masterpiece, and very proud that we're presenting it on our stage. It's a piece which just as we saw earlier has changed throughout its performance history, will continue to do so. I'm looking forward especially I think to our TalkBacks, to hear from you what you feel about the piece, what you feel about the way it was presented, and what resonance it had for you.

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