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Ridiculous and Sublime 

Thursday, Jan 29 2004
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Photos courtesy Opera Pacific

“This must be what the gods were like,” writes Craig Seligman about Così Fan Tutte in the latest issue of the excellently wise Threepenny Review — which, by happenstance, landed on my doorstep on the eve of Opera Pacific’s production of Mozart’s sublimely ridiculous, tragic operatic comedy. Only gods, indeed, could contrive the harmonies that rise like audible ambrosia as the girls in Act 1 bind their departing swains to promises of once-a-day letter writing. Only a goddess could hurl divinely accurate thunderbolts across vast skyscapes as the heroine Fiordiligi proclaims the unassailability of her supernal womanly honor. And only a composer whose hand is flawlessly guided by Forces From Above could contrive an ensemble for four voices, the first three entering one at a time, with the same tune in exquisite harmony, the fourth (having partaken too freely from the flask) disrupting the shebang with a whole ’nother vocal line about his own drunken anger.

Così has had its problems, and still does. Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto, even if based on an actual episode as reported in a Viennese scandal sheet of the time, takes a low view of bedroom politics both His and Hers. Romantic audiences were shocked, shocked; if the opera was performed at all, it was often with a new title and text. It reached its first American audience only in the 1920s, 130 years late; what a treat it must have been to share the surprise and delight of a New York audience at the “Winds” Trio, the “Per pietà” duet with horn and every other godlike note on that magical evening! (Not unanimously: Paul Rosenfield, the critic I respect the most from that time, found it “elegant fribble.”) It helped the cause not at all that neither text nor music leaves a clue as to whether the girls, after having been deceived into falling in love with each other’s boyfriends (in high disguise, of course), then return to the original pairings or stay with the new suitors: a happy ending built on foundations of sand, in other words, or the ultimate cynical reflection on woman’s fickleness. In Bernard Uzan’s staging for Costa Mesa, they most decidedly stayed with the new guys; la donna è mobile indeed!

Somebody in the company obviously values the opera highly, and one of them was clearly the company’s music director, John DeMain, whose musical conception — horns and clarinets pressed into a wine fit for the gods, strings woven into the finest silk — flowed as a kind of chamber music writ large. The cast looked and, for the most part, sounded young and marvelously involved: Pamela Armstrong and Kristine Jepson as the donne mobile, Eric Cutler and the remarkably suave Kyle Ketelsen as their conniving swains, John Packard a somewhat weak-voiced Alfonso, and Alicia Berneche, a scene-stealer to the manner born, in the great theft-worthy role of Despina.

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Opera Pacific’s opening-night performance played to a sea of empty seats; where were you? The production was an old Jean-Pierre Ponnelle number, created originally for the Michigan Opera during that company’s days of partnership with Opera Pacific, and obviously well-traveled since then. (Judging from a video of a Ponnelle Così, a few background pieces have been lost along the way.) A few old touches remain, however: the girls’ quick costume changes from white to black reflecting the mood of the moment, the wine bottle (evidence of the men’s wager on the girls’ fidelity) that remains center-stage, Grail-like, through the opera.

Midway in its 18th season — the same age as the Los Angeles Opera — Opera Pacific, in its first two productions, has offered standard repertory stuff but in far-above-standard performances. I still can’t get over how much I was moved, against all better judgments, by its Madama Butterfly a couple of months ago, and now this. John DeMain’s musical leadership is strong; from the way he is greeted in the hall, the audience seems to recognize his qualities. But that audience is way too small — which is another way of saying that Segerstrom Hall is much too big — and with the new concert hall a-building the company is going to have more dates to fill in a couple of years. Its repertory is safe and standard, although I’m happy to see some Gilbert and Sullivan on next season’s schedule. The company has its assets, however: DeMain, and good young singers like the ones who made up this Così cast. (Ketelsen returns next season as Mozart’s Figaro.)

 

On gloomier days the gods weep at the fate of the nameless wanderer of Wilhelm Müller’s poetry, as set to music in Franz Schubert’s Die Winterreise. Sanford Sylvan, the Figaro and Alfonso of Mozart’s operas, the Chou En-lai and Klinghoffer of Adams’, had the wisdom to let Schubert’s set of 24 songs draw the audience’s tears on their own last Saturday night. Other singers succumb to the temptation to take a greater part in these unstageable dramas, and if truth be known, this sovereign music does bristle with temptation to act out — with voice, gesture or, in some sorry examples, with actual staged dramas — events along the misanthrope’s downward path.

Sylvan did not. “Intelligent” is the operative word, as on his marvelous Nonesuch disc of Schubert’s other cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin. Give or take the information that he was fighting off a bit of the whatever — as who isn’t, this time of year? — his singing was remarkably straightforward and admirably vivid, strongly seconded by David Breitman’s piano. (But was the piano’s out-of-tune-ness supposed to be an “authentic” touch?) Sylvan’s is not a voice you’d call beautiful; it’s an even-textured darkish brown with not much velvet. His German tends more toward the hard-toned North (“Liebken”) than Schubert’s softer Viennese (“Liebschen”), and I put this forward merely as observation, not criticism. I admire most his ability to let the music score its own points. By the time his singing had filled in that chill final picture — of the derelict-hero, more dead than alive, seeking the companionship of the frozen-fingered organ grinder — the wind-chill factor in the handsome precincts of the Doheny Mansion, where this “Historic Sites” concert took place, had sunk out of sight. Brrr, as in brrravo.

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