How can an opera’s venue and staging make so much difference? It just does in this spiced up, expansive and zany remount of In Series’ Cosi Fan Tutte Goes Hollywood at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. The theatrical adaptation of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s master work about women and morality is by Nick Olcott.
In 2009, I reviewed an excellent In Series staging of Cosi Fan Tutte goes to Hollywood at Source theatre, a tight squeeze in the black box. Now in 2016, it’s back as a refreshing, new opera in the 260 seat Lang Theatre at Atlas. The script with some minor tweaking is basically the same but given more room to breathe. The space opens up the playing area and the actors so that the energy flows like electricity. This makes for a vibrant revival well-worth experiencing.
We’re in the Hollywood studios of Monumental Pictures in 1929, where broken scenery used for screen tests and auditions, leans against the walls. (Set design by Jonathan Dahm Robertson). As it was in Mozart’s 1790’s, when fiancé and partner-swapping among the aristocrats was considered scandalous, questions of sexuality and morality are hot topics at the peak of the Roaring Twenties. Can a woman be trusted to be faithful and loyal to one man?
Two vaudevillians, Randall/Randy (Samual Keeler) and Elmo (Sean McArdle Pflueger), blinded-by-passionate love to Dorrie (Erin Passmore) and Florrie (Melissa Jean Chavez), exalt their fiancés as perfect models of virtue. The foursome, who are aching for a break in Hollywood are confronted by Donald Fonso (Sasha Olinick), a world-weary casting director, who challenges their idealism: “…a dame is a dame.” and “…girls are flesh and hormones,……” A wager is made: Fonso, the cynic, bets Randy and Elmo $1,000 each that if given the chance, the girls will cheat on them. But the starry-eyed, country boys remain firm. “Our girlfriends are faithful…..they won’t let us down.”
Fonso, who is committed to winning the bet, proposes a trick to test the girls’ virtue. Ambitious Randy and Elmo, collude with him, and agree to travel to New York for a job offer “with the Follies.” What’s awesomely different from the 2009 staging is that the Lang stage offers a wide area for mock-heroic acting. (The suicide scene is brilliant, as discussed later.)
Shirley Serotsky, in an In Series directorial debut, directs her ensemble with a flair for the flamboyant and a quick-tempo pace, elegantly maintained by musical director, Stanley Thurston, who conducts a valiant string quartet placed on-stage left-of-center. Each character has an expansive expressive moment that brings individual voices to a soaring pitch.
Melissa Chavez’ and Erin Passmore’s soprano voices, for instance, soar with greater assurance right up to the climactic Act I full cast number “Why? Oh Why? did we ever leave Ohio?/Ah, che tutto in un momento,” initiated by Florrie and Dorrie, who are sad about the departure of their fiancés. With sweeping arm gestures, all stops are pulled. And the full cast, singing bravura style, deliver a celebratory conclusion to Act I about women in ascendancy, maintaining their loyalty to their lovers from Sandusky, Ohio, firm in their places on the pedestal of virtue.
But all is mock-heroism. Heroines and heroes, filled with pride, are in for a fall. Fonso has enlisted Tina, a screenplay writer, as a co-conspirator. Soprano Randa Rouweyha, who created the same role but as a secretary in 2009 sings with compelling nuance. In the Aria: “Testosterone is a hormone/In uomini, in soldati,” Tina mocks the men’s fidelity and tempts the two greenhorn sisters, to wise them up, and have some fun.”You’re on your own, my girl, time to run wild!/It’s nineteen twenty-nine, time to run wild!”
A masquerade has been planned. Fonso introduces Tina and the two girls to two big name movie stars, who are really Randy and Elmo in disguise. (It takes suspended disbelief to believe, but it’s worth it.) As part of the ruse, the guys have returned wearing moustaches and dark glasses as big name movie stars to test the girls’ virtue. Thereafter, they pretend to seduce each other’s fiancées. Each character’s morality is at risk, right up to a rollicking conclusion.
But, at the top of Act II, comes the highpoint of all highpoints that sent thrills up my spine. The heavy duty seduction begins with “Now in agricultivation/Una donna a quindici anni” (No. 16), probably the most charming aria in Mozart’s original opera. Here Rouweyha sings it coyly, with naughty-child-like mischief. This aria in English is a delightful merger of farming techniques with match-making Hollywood-style. Tina advises the sisters, Florrie and Dorrie, to play the field.
As Rouweyha’s voice crescendos with trills, the implied motif of sowing is literally planted. The implication, based on Olcott’s approximate rhymes, is that love must be grown like a crop in a field. But more specifically, when in love, men, like crops, must be rotated. “…..There has been some innovation/You both know about crop rotation/ Well, it’s just the same with your men./You might have a boyfriend for ev’ryday/He might satisfy in ev’ry way…..”
In No. 17, the turning-point duet: “It’s the tender, handsome sly one/Prendero quel brunettino.” Dorrie and Florrie decide to take Tina’s advice and philander on the side. This well-known duet gives the singers the chance to use their full vocal range and Passmore and Chavez play to the hilt the fine line between heartbreak and spaced-out craziness. Together the sopranos are pitch-perfectly beautiful and, just as a stand-alone scene, is worth the price of admission. In actuality, what the two sisters don’t realize is that they are really yearning for the other’s fiancé This double wooing makes for outrageous confusions, hilarity and heartbreak. It’s Mozart’s music at his most brilliant.
Samuel Keeler, tenor, as Randy, and Sean Pflueger, bass-baritone, as Elmo, are hilarious in the fake suicide scene that works so much better on a larger stage. The spurned Hollywood suitors turn to suicide by downing vials of poison and act out their mock-heroic deaths with slapstick pratfalls and grandiosity. Well-done.
Other experimentation with stage craft, reminiscent of a by-gone era of the 20’s and 30’s cinema world, is impressive. Projections, that might be apt for a silent screen movie, flicker and amplify the conflict between what’s real and what isn’t. Upstage surtitles, such as “The whole thing is just a show,” or “Virtue Thy name is Dorrie” are projected against the upstage black wall backdrop at apt moments, like comic surtitles for a silent movie. Or lines echo and add emphasis to the recitative, like “Friendly breezes take my sighs to my beloved.” Or stage directions, such as “Alone together.” Or “Our hearts are united to our happiness.” And “Smooch” reinforce key points in the action on stage.
Randa Rouweyha has shining, stellar moments, delivered with delightful self mockery. In hot salmon-colored flapper costume (costumes by Donna Breslin), she is an absolute standout visually, as the epitome of the saucy, upstart career climber.
Cosi Fan Tutte Goes Hollywood
closes May 1, 2016
Details and tickets
Sean Pflueger, who lends his rich, mellow bass-baritone to the role of Elmo, brings a wide-eyed, flustered innocence to the stage. Mega-kudos to him for stepping in as Elmo, to replace a cast member who had to drop out, leaving three weeks rehearsal time before opening. Pflueger provides a fine, delicate balance for Samual Keeler’s tenor voice as Randy and scores with a great punch line, the moral, that hits us in the heart, (thanks to script writer Olcott), in the Aria No. 21: “Listen up you girls and women/Donne mie, la fate a tanti,”…..”I really must ask why? Why you’re not better than a guy?” It brought down the house.
Shasha Olinick as Don Fonso, has trouble with intonation now and then (he is not a singer) but who cares? Olinick plays the sleazy character with ease. He is convincing as the oily manipulator out to exploit a buck from the young and naive country swains.
The moral of the story? You have to decide. Is this really the way women are?
A few drawbacks: We lose some of the lyrics, the rhyme-lines and punch lines to gags. The singing actors need to project and enunciate more clearly. Some of the high point satiric wit is lost because of vocal resonance. Suggestion: follow closely the excellent “Synopsis” in the program. What’s unique? The singers are actors, present in their moments. The overall production is exciting to watch, keeps you on seat’s edge with toe-tapping listening. But hurry. Cosi Fan Tutte goes Hollywood plays for one more weekend until May 1.
Cosi Fan Tutte goes Hollywood, based on the opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as adapted by writer Nick Olcott. Director: Shirley Serotsky. Music Director & Conductor: Stanley Thurston. Featuring soprano Melissa Jean Chavez as Florrie, tenor Samual Keeler as Randall/Randy, bass-baritone Sasha Olinick as Don Fonso, mezzo-soprano Erin Passmore as Dorrie, bass-baritone Sean McArdle Pflueger as Elmo, and soprano Randa Rouweyha as Tina. Set Design: Jonathan Dahm Robertson. Lighting Designer: Stefan Johnson. Costumes: Donna Breslin. Stage Manager: Debbie Grossman.
Instrumental Ensemble, conducted by Stanley Thurston. First violin: Gavin Fallow. Second Violin: Sonia Garcia-Lee, John Philligin (4/30). Viola: George Ohlson, Osman Kivrak (4/24). Cello: Anna Bain Pugh. Pianists: Joseph Walsh, Carla Hübner (4/24). Produced by the In Series Opera Company. Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy.