In my review of last season’s Mozart’s Men, a comic opera produced by the In Series, I asked why a rebel within the ranks of women didn’t speak up against Don Giovanni’s serial seductions before all go to Hell. Here’s the answer in Cosi fan tutte Goes Hollywood, an over-the-top opener for 2009-2010: Women are human too.
The marquee on 14th Street’s Source announces that Cosi fan tutte Goes Hollywood is “pocket opera,” or a grand opera made so accessible you can figuratively put it in your pocket and bring it home. It means an opera sung in English, instead of Italian or German, performed in a small space—like the Source’s black box. A cynical satire of aristocratic behavior, Cosi fan tutte, considered scandalous in 1790, was composed for an 18th century theater that was smaller in scale. In the original, two men test the faithfulness of their fiancés, with disappointing results. And Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte seemed to conclude it really doesn’t much matter: Women are like that.
In an amazing adaptation, Nick Olcott blows the dust off this comic masterpiece and resets the story in Hollywood in the Roaring Twenties, at a time when questions of sexuality and morality are hot. Gender differences are separated by a fine line. Fiancé swapping is “in.” And even though this isn’t exactly a John Updike novel, women are breaking away from Victorian expectations. Can a woman be trusted to be faithful?
Only to a point. It’s 1929, smack at a turning point, the year before the Hays moral codes closed in to clean up declining morality in the movies. A poster of Rudolph Valentino, “The Great Lover on the Silver Screen,” in A Sainted Devil, graces the back wall of the Monumental Pictures production office (set design by Osbel Sussman-Pena). Another poster of Greta Garbo reminds us that women were expected to be angelic models of beauty and purity.
But even the most straight-laced sisters, Florrie (soprano Mary Gresock) and Dorrie (mezzo-soprano Tara McCredie) have libidos. And two handsome guys, Randy (tenor Philip Bender), engaged to Dorrie and Elmo (baritone Terry Eberhardt), engaged to Florrie, are vaudeville stars waiting for a break. Nick Olcott’s libretto and lyrics are edgy and wonderful, at times quirky but clever enough to keep you off-guard and hoping for more. Under pianist Victoria Gau’s smooth conducting of a string trio, Mozart’s music soars and the pacing from the singing performers stays presto tempo, fit for a farce with never a letdown for almost two and a half hours. That’s impressive.
Here’s the story that dates back to Boccaccio, Roman farce, Ovid, and even Shakespeare. In a tinsel town office, Elmo and Randy are boasting to the producer Fonso (the incomparable baritone-bass, Bryan Jackson) about how their country-fresh fiancées possess souls of virtue. Each bets $1,000 with Fonso that their girls will remain eternally true. One ground rule: the worldly-wise Fonso gets a day to prove them wrong. So here’s the set up: Elmo and Randy will pretend to leave for New York on a casting call and return disguised in moustaches, silk cravats, and sunglasses as successful Hollywood stars, to seduce each other’s fiancée. If Florrie and Dorrie resist the seductions, then Elmo and Randy win their wager. And Fonso has to pay them $1,000 each (a lot of money in 1929). If the two men lose, they each have to pay Fonso. Tit for tat.
What makes Cosi fan tutte a great model for Olcott to adapt is its classical balance between sublime music and intense drama, as well as the flowing seesaw between recitative and aria. From the point in Act I, Florrie and Dorrie – Gresock and McCredie delivering potent performances – appear to be rock-solid in fidelity to their fiancés. The demanding aria, “Come scoglio,” which translates as “Go no further/Call me prudish….” seems to confirm it. But golden-voiced Bryan Jackson as Fonso, who wants to win the wager, has a beguiling voice as well as a seduction plan. The blend of voices in the sextet, “I should like to introduce you….” is exquisite. After Fonso introduces the sisters to Randy and Elmo in disguise, temptation to philander within the wide-eyed girls builds quickly. Of course, you have to willingly suspend disbelief beyond the question of why Florrie and Dorrie don’t recognize their boyfriends in disguise. Especially when on opening night, more than the girls’ morals were at risk (the moustaches kept falling off). But the performers’ firm conviction and secure well-placed resonant singing voices, capable of handling this opera of difficult range, transcended any glitches. The overall ensemble delivered a magnificent, at moments, inspired performance.
Worthy of mention is the Act I finale that comes as a surprise. “Why? Oh why? Oh Why? Oh!” is a delightful take-off on Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town, “Why, Oh Why, Oh Why, Oh Why Did I Ever Leave Ohio?” (lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green). In Cosi fan tutte Goes Hollywood, it’s the girls asking why their fiancés ever left Ohio for Hollywood.
Another highpoint is the character development that parallels the original opera, as Florrie minds her morals better than Dorrie who eventually slips from her self-righteous pedestal. The stakes get higher as Fonso bribes Tina, played by Randa Rouweyha, costumed in a diaphanous flapper outfit, with the promise of a screen test. Tina, the soubrette schemer, who disguises herself as a doctor with Harpo Marx-like glasses, shines in the aria “Now in agricultivation…”, when she urges Florrie and Dorrie to succumb to their Hollywood lovers. Her earthy message? Instead of acting like Ohio farm girls, Tina advises Florrie and Dorrie to use “lover rotation,” a form of “crop rotation.”
Only one flaw. Sometimes those clever lyrics are overpowered by the resonance of those voices and we lose the singer’s articulation of individual words in the overtones. We need to hear every word enunciated or we miss some of the rib-tickling lines.
What impressed me most about all the singers was there was no use of hidden mics to hype their voices. Singers like Bryan Jackson and baritone-bass Terry Eberhardt use well-trained natural projection. Baritone Eberhardt gets the chance to use his full-bodied, vibrant chest voice that levitates like an electric current. He doesn’t just sing. When he takes out all the stops, his voice takes a leap beyond talking from the heart, as he addresses the women on stage and in the audience, as if he’s speaking to women everywhere: “Listen up, you girls and ladies……why are you no better than a guy?” It’s clear by this time that a reunion of lovers is possible.
Bryan Jackson, , memorable as Jupiter in Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld last season, sustains a buoyant performance and brings a charming balance to any traces of cynicism even in an ambiguous ending that resonates with modern times. What’s the moral of this story? “Women behave as men do. That’s what makes it hard to live with them. Let’s just try to work it out.”
Cosi fan tutte Goes Hollywood
Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte
Adapted in English by Nick Olcott,
Directed by Nick Olcott
Musical Direction by Victoria Gau
Produced by the In Series at the Source Theatre
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy