This ‘Cosi’ is a farce. You got a problem with that?

Cosi fan Tutti. Photo: Portland Opera/Cory Weaver

Chatting with a friend in the lobby of Keller Auditorium during halftime of Portland Opera’s Cosi fan tutte on Friday night, Mr. Scatter became aware of a controversy he hadn’t realized existed.

“Audiences tend to love this production,” my friend, an exceptionally knowledgeable follower of the opera world, sighed. “And critics tend to hate it.”

Up to this point I’d been having a rather jolly time myself, although I knew the production, which originated in 2003 at Santa Fe Opera and emphasizes brisk farcical shtick, wasn’t strictly traditional. So I stuck his comment in the back of my mind, returned to my seat for the second act, and continued to have a jolly time along with the rest of the audience, right up to the curtain call.

And this morning I did a little researching. It’s true. A lot of critics (though by no means all) have found this Cosi distressingly populist. “A gag-filled, vulgar romp,” J.A. Van Sant wrote in Opera Today, reviewing Santa Fe’s 2007 revival. That might sound like a good ad quote, but he didn’t mean it as a compliment.

Since Van Sant seems to speak for a lot of other critics, let’s give him a little more room to explain himself:

Politely put, (stage director James) Robinson’s Cosi was a gag-filled, vulgar romp. Such is not Mozart’s Cosi, an elegant, ironic comedy – not an ambiguous study of human nature requiring Regietheatre treatment, as is the present day style with this piece. To make Cosi into slapstick comedy combined with faux psychological exploration of the characters is to miss the point.

Essentially a bittersweet comedy of character types, set to some of Mozart’s most exhilarating and beautiful music, Cosi indeed has dark edges that serve to heighten amusement over the foibles of human nature.

You shouldn’t overdo the darkness, Van Sant continued, but you shouldn’t sacrifice the elegance to showy gimmicks, either.

A couple of other points emerged from other critics.

  • First, the not-too-reluctantly philandering sisters in this play (the story is by Lorenzo da Ponte, who also wrote the librettos for Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni) and their gentleman-and-an-officer lovers have traditionally been played by older singers, suggesting that these erotic foibles are less the result of sheer youthful exuberance and more of something innate in human nature.
  • Second, the play is very much about social convention at a level of society in which adherence to social convention is extremely important. These characters, if they’re going to sin, would do so cautiously, with a sense of decorum, not with casual friskiness. To give Cosi the sheen of 1950s naughtiness that this production does is historically misleading and saps some of the intellectual vigor from an opera that has a far subtler soul.

Objections noted. And on this one, I’m going to side with the audience.

Photo:  Matthew Staver/Opera Colorado

I’ve seen a huge number of concept productions that horse around with the times and settings and sometimes even the underlying intentions of the original shows. It’s common in the theater world, so much so that it’s inspired a hoary but apt joke: “Did you hear about the radical concept for the new Hamlet? They’re doing it Elizabethan style.”

The true question isn’t, “Is it authentic?” but, “Does it work?” That is, does the concept fit metaphorically with the essentials of the original? Is it carried out consistently, without laboring to make its connections or dropping them halfway through? Does the concept have a purpose other than simply being different?

And, oh, yes: Does the audience like it? That last is a tricky one. Audiences like all sorts of things that are aesthetically half-baked, but artists who ignore their point of view make a grave mistake: No piece of theater is complete without an audience in the house. Indeed, if it’s not for an audience, it’s not theater.

To me, this Cosi is organic. David C. Woolard’s costumes, which veer from late ’50s girl-group chiffon to Shriner convention madcap, mesh beautifully with Allen Moyer’s curlicued folding box of a set, which cracks open magnificently at the top of the second act. And stage director Elise Sandell, working from Robinson’s original ideas, carries out the same sort of concise overstatement, a swift and busy flow of controlled exaggeration that plays in counterpoint to, but not against the grain of, Mozart’s extraordinary music — which, after all, is the core of the opera.

This is the language of farce. And a lot of the objections to this production, I think, are essentially objections to farce itself, which seems to many people somehow a lesser form of art, unworthy of playing in conjunction with Mozart’s sounds. I happen to think farce fits this story well, but then, I also happen to think that good farce is a great and serious business, a way to slice to the heart of human nature and analyze it shrewdly without getting all heavy and morose  about it. Farce’s serious-but-frivolous nature seems an excellent complement to this beautiful music, and I had no trouble either integrating the farce and the music or understanding that the two are complementary but not the same.

About that music, and its performers. The six key figures in this Cosi are true actor-singers, and their easy engagement in the extreme physical actorly demands of what is already a strenuous opera to perform was delightful. The orchestra, under George Manahan’s baton, was both sprightly and nuanced. The balance of voices was good. And the almost mystically seamless flow of Mozart’s music, from harmony to aria to harmony again, was the eye- and ear-opening wonder that it has never ceased to be since the opera’s debut in Vienna in 1790. If I had to choose one standout from this uniformly lovely cast, it would be soprano Lauren Skuce, partly because her Fiordiligi carries the emotional weight of the opera with her brilliant second-act aria of vexation and moral indecision. Farce can have weight, too. Good farce always does.

I noted a lot of young faces in Friday night’s crowd, and I’m guessing that performance created more than one opera fan for life. My bet: They liked the farce, and loved the music.


CAPTIONS, from top:

  • From the left in Portland Opera’s “Cosi fan Tutte”: Robert Orth (Don Alfonso), Keith Phares (Guglielmo), Angela Niederloh (Dorabella), Lauren Skuce (Fiordiligi), Ryan MacPherson (Ferrando) and Christine Brandes (Despina). Photo: Portland Opera/Cory Weaver.
  • Allen Moyer’s cracked-open set for “Cosi,” from a recent Denver production with the same sets and cosumes as Portland’s but a different cast. The set, created for Santa Fe opera, will be broken down and recycled after the Portland production — a shame, but Santa Fe is finished with it and doesn’t have a good place to store it. Photo: Matthew Staver/Opera Colorado.