Dudamel and the L.A. Phil illuminate, elevate 'Cosi fan Tutte'

Mark Swed

May 26, 2014


Dudamel sings!
It is a rare playful moment in the Los Angeles Philharmonic's nasty yet startlingly illuminating new production of "Così fan Tutte" and a tiny surprise, which I have now spoiled.

But at its most elevated, opera is an art form liberated from spoiler alerts. It is not about what happens that matters but what is behind what happens that needs be explored. The story of "Così" is trivial and unbelievable. Yet the lesson of Mozart's wisest, wittiest, most mysterious, most disturbing opera and most viably contemporary opera is that liberation in love requires a despoiling of not innocence but expectations.

So enter into Walt Disney Concert Hall as well armed as you like for the last of Gustavo Dudamel's three-season survey of the Mozart's comic operas with librettos by Lorenzo Da Ponte. The more you know, the more you may be shocked by Christopher Alden's provocative production and the intense, superbly detailed performance by Dudamel, the orchestra and a gripping, outstanding cast.
The surprise was supposed to be the set that architect Zaha Hadid designed for the Disney stage and the costumes by fashion designer Hussein Chalayan. These London-based collaborators follow in the footsteps of home-team Frank Gehry and Rodarte, responsible for "Don Giovanni" in 2012, and French imports Jean Nouvel and Azzedine Alaïa, who handled "The Marriage of Figaro" last year.

Gehry had populated the stage of his hall with alluring, theatrically handy, pillowy white paper sculptures. But they required the orchestra to be behind the set, and that proved an acoustical problem. Nouvel all but redesigned the interior of Disney, making it his own disorienting, over-the-top installation space that the first impression Friday night in Disney for the first of the four performances of "Così" was underwhelming. The set by Zaha Hadid Architects (installed by Saffet Kaya Bekiroglu and Mostafa El Sayed from her firm, rather than Hadid, who was not present) is a white, swirling, steeply ramped structure that fits tidily onto the back of the Disney stage, with little fuss or muss. After the production closes on Saturday, the orchestra might consider donating the construction to the Venice beach boardwalk for the pleasure of skateboarders.

The conceit of "Così fan Tutte" — an untranslatable Italian phrase often rendered as "women are like that" — is that two teenage sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, with girlish infatuations on their fiancés, Guglielmo and Ferrando, are hardly beyond being seduced. Virtue makes them gullible. The setting is Naples, and old philosopher Don Alfonso bets the boys that their intendeds are fallible.
Alfonso, with the assistance of an unsentimentally flirtatious maid, Despina, devises a scheme in which Guglielmo and Ferrando disguise themselves as Albanians and set about on a farcical entrapment of their sweeties. That it succeeds causes a dangerous over-secretion of hormones of all four lovers, their confusion ultimately exceeding the confines of comfortable comedy. The moral is women can't be trusted, and the sooner their lovers get over that fact the more likely their union might last. But Mozart and Da Ponte avoid excesses of sexism by showing the men as the ones who actually do the deceiving. Virtue, for those like Da Ponte participating in the sexual revolution of the late 18th century, is relative, if there is even such a thing.

Alden's production is in no way sexist but rather philosopherist. Virtue in the less permissive aspects of our times can be the cause of utter chaos. He makes Alfonso a psychopath.
When illuminated by Adam Silverman's spectral lighting, Hadid's set looks like a sand dune, if one with hidden corridors and precipitous footpaths (requiring the women to remove their shoes to scurry up). It is also a place of quicksand, reflecting the ever-shifting emotional landscape revealed in Mozart's exquisitely crafted score.

In the end, this is an alien landscape and made all the more so by Chalayan's costumes. They are never unflattering to handsome singers, but beachwear and formal gowns have exaggerated shapes suitable to forbidden planets. The sisters and their fiancés are dressed similarly (not the first time this has been done in "Così"). Tops for men and women are made to be transformed, this also mirroring mutable emotions in these severely alienated characters.

Rod Gilfry is a commanding, forbidding Alfonso, who controls the lovers with insane glee but who is himself subject to his own fits of epileptic anguish. Rosemary Joshua's Despina is hard as nails.
Soprano Miah Persson brings a wrenching but captivating room-filling beauty to Fiordiligi, the more loyal of the sisters. Mezzo-soprano Roxana Constaninescu's Dorabella learns to suffer slowly but no less deeply. Baritone Philippe Sly is an entrancing Guglielmo, while tenor Alek Shrader is a more effortful, earnest Ferrando.

The orchestra placed on the front of the stage, slightly off-center, takes center stage. The singers, negotiating Hadid's set, are more distant from most of the audience (although quite close to those sitting by the organ pipes). From my seat in the front orchestra, instruments and voices were in ideal balance, and that included the clever and always audible continuo contribution of harpsichordist Bradley Moore and cellist David Heiss in the recitatives.

All of this allowed Dudamel to take a complex approach to "Così." His interaction with the singers had a laser-like intensity, as if he were modeling each phrase to their individual dramatic needs. That meant some very slow arias and ensemble numbers so fast that they barely held together.
Under different circumstances Dudamel would likely have a significantly different approach. But his virtuosic moment-to-moment theatricality here was amazing, especially with his ability to create lightning-like shifts in the L.A. Phil's sound — conveying Viennese creaminess or the needs of a 21st century psychodrama.

That being in the theatrical moment is, of course, what makes Dudamel's singing such a delight when he lightheartedly appropriates a line of recitative from Dorabella. Don't worry, it will still be a surprise. So too will be the ending, which is not lighthearted, of this sinister, otherworldly, 21st century "Così."