I have found myself discussing the issue of contemporizing well-known operas quite a lot of late, particularly involving Knoxville's local University of Tennessee Opera Theatre. There are certainly arguments on both sides of the updating question, but I've come to the realization that it is beneficial in the context of training operatic performers as long as the work's musical requirements remain uncompromised.
The bubbling-with-energy UT Opera Theatre production of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte last weekend at Carousel Theatre is a perfect example. This was a contemporary plot in 1790 for Mozart and his librettist, Da Ponte, so it's not really a stretch to place the setting in something more familiar to contemporary audiences as director James Marvel has done by creating a cinematically-derived, 1960s-flavored, mad scientist laboratory. And, despite the remark attributed to Emperor Joseph in *Amadeus* about "too many notes," opera-going in 1790 was as much a social occasion as it was a musical event; audiences expected a long evening of entertainment and "too many notes." Contemporizing Mozart is certainly a way of bridging the centuries of difference.
The benefit of contemporizing to young operatic performers is also apparent. Marvel has injected motivations, energy, and excitement into the roles that are familiar, comfortable, and relatable, for singers, and the audience. And, developing believable comic performances is not necessarily easy under any circumstances, certainly not for young acting singers. While I'm sure the discussion of opera contemporization will continue, last weekend's Cosi fan tutte was a vote in the affirmative.
I managed to catch the performances of both sets of the split cast on Thursday evening and Saturday afternoon. While comparisons are inevitable, I can happily report that the differences were in nuances and individual personality, certainly not in performance quality. Thursday's Don Alfonso was bass Peter Johnson, a performer who possesses not only an incredibly rich voice, but also brilliant comic instincts. Saturday's performance saw Aaron Dunn in the role, also with an equally enticing richness and a nicely detailed character that ranged from conniving to melodramatic.
The opera's sisters in question, Fiordiligi (soprano) and Dorabella (mezzo-soprano), were each given a wonderfully contrasting character look by Marvel, helped along by height-increasing boots and comic hair-styles. Thursday's pair, soprano Murrella Parton and mezzo-soprano Lauren Ashleigh Lyles, were vocally and comically marvelous. Saturday's women, Jenni Sohl and Dallas Noelle Norton, were equally strong and just as delightful in their fall from romantic faithfulness.
Thursday's roles of Guglielmo (baritone) and Ferrando (tenor) were taken by Mattia D'Affuso and Todd Barnhill, respectively, whose personalities were a bit more distinct than Saturday's pairing of Scott Beasley and Marshall Rollings. While all four gave exemplary performances, D'Affuso certainly gets the vocal energy and stage presence award.
Last, and certainly not least, comes the character of Despina, the maid, who is entrusted with the substantial duty of comic entanglements. Each of the singers, Sydney Gabbard and Emily Hagens, possess amazing comic abilities as well as powerful voices, each eating up every inch of stage they were given. Gabbard's blazing, almost manic energy coupled with her smaller size is funny in itself. Hagens was equally amazing with a gorgeous voice and stage-taking comedy instincts. Both should have no problem with a bright performance future in comprimario roles, at the very least.
Although, a 60s mad scientist laboratory seems a departure, Blair Mielnik's set was merely a brilliantly disguised comic "drawing room" set, with two doors for entrances, furniture for "reclining," and plenty of room for interesting props.
Having seen last month's Prince Igor Met performance which featured S. Katy Tucker's video projections, it was enjoyable to see her work in a comic, and substantially more subtle, context. I have to admit that this was the first time I had seen swimming sperm as a visual metaphor for sexual intercourse on an opera stage.
Conductor Kevin Class kept the pace as brisk as needed, positively admirable under the blind circumstances of the staging arrangement in Carousel Theatre. Although it pains me to say it, the student instrumental ensemble, particularly the brass, struggled on a number of occasions. Developing pit stamina and consistency are certainly not skills to be overlooked if one expects a professional career.