Amusement Park ‘Così’ Embraces Glitz Over Heart

Phelim McDermott’s production of Mozart’s ‘Così fan tutte,’ created for English National Opera in 2014, updates the setting to an amusement park and nearby motel in the 1950s. (Photos: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)
By James L. Paulk

NEW YORK — As the audience was seated for the first performance of Phelim McDermott’s production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte at the Metropolitan Opera on March 15, the message on the seatback screens read: “This production made possible by a generous contribution from Alberto Vilar.” Ironically, Vilar had been released from prison a few hours before the opening-night curtain, after serving a nine-year sentence for fraud. But since the program book contained no mention of him, and given the bad blood between him and the Met administration, it seems unlikely that Vilar, whose name was dramatically removed from the Met’s “Vilar Grand Tier” around the time of his conviction, was the production’s patron. Presumably this was an artifact leftover from the 1996 Leslie Koenig production, which Vilar had indeed sponsored.

Broadway star Kelli O’Hara gave a ‘nuanced portrayal’ of Despina.

That production, an utterly traditional, safe staging (“respectful” in the word of one critic), was emblematic of another era at the Met. It was conducted by James Levine, one of the great opera conductors of the modern era. As with Vilar, Levine’s departure (for “sexually abusive conduct”) was scandalous, even operatic. And, like the Vilar matter, it continued to unfold the very day of the new Così’s opening, with newspapers carrying stories of a lawsuit filed against the Met by Levine, and with the Met’s response appearing on its website. Under Levine and Joseph Volpe, general manager until 2006, the company specialized in extravagant but conventional productions for an audience that was steadily aging and shrinking.

Volpe was replaced by Peter Gelb, who, in fits and starts, has been shaking things up ever since. His biggest innovation, the HD telecast, has brought the Met a vast new international audience, larger than the one in the opera house, and that audience is not only open to adventurous productions, it expects them. McDermott’s Così is a clear example of this new environment, and, on some levels, it is a striking success: colorful, photogenic, and clearly made with the camera in mind.

Amanda Majeski as Fiordiligi; Serena Malfi as Dorabella.

Così is one of Mozart’s greatest operas, yet it presents real challenges for the stage director. The idea that the men, in their silly disguises, become unrecognizable to their fianceés is absurd. And 18th-century jokes about the constancy of women resonate quite differently today, especially in the #MeToo era. Peter Sellars, whose landmark 1986 production of Così is clearly the forerunner of this one, dealt with these problems by setting the opera in a contemporary diner and focusing on the ambiguous couplings, with the women as active participants, rather than on the silly prank. Sellars’ real achievement was in underlining the darker side of the opera: the doubts of the lovers about their own feelings; their concerns regarding the fidelity of their partners; and, of course, the guilt and blame stemming from the betrayals.

McDermott’s production, created for English National Opera in 2014 and continuing at the Met through April 19, took this a step further. He updated the story to the 1950s and placed the action around “Pleasure Garden” — an amusement park sideshow modeled after Coney Island — and the Skyline Motel next door, where Despina is a maid. According to McDermott: “There’s an idea of being away from home, and of the fairground being this magical place where the rules are not quite the same…a slightly altered world…and the deception becomes part of the fantasy of that world.” Whether modern Americans really view 1950s amusement parks and sideshows this way is open to question, but the choice does provide an excuse for a colorful, sometimes vulgar spectacle that becomes a sort of sideshow to the opera.

Carnival sideshow troupe backs Dorabella (Serena Malfi).

During the overture, the 12-member sideshow troupe popped out of a magic box and performed: a contortionist, a pair of dwarfs, a fire eater, a snake charmer, a couple of sword swallowers, etc. They then took up signs whose words they playfully arranged into jokey sentences. This all had the effect of overwhelming Mozart’s delicate overture, both visually and aurally, as the audience laughed and cheered each routine.

Most of the action took place in the amusement park or at the motel, with the sideshow troupe often functioning as silent witnesses and, sometimes, as co-conspirators. The initial meeting between the two men and Don Alfonso took place in a decadent nightclub whose waitresses wore bunny ears. Set designer Tom Pye produced digressions for key scenes: a carousel, for example, and a carnival ride featuring spinning teacups. One interesting innovation by costume designer Laura Hopkins was the disguises for the two men, who each wound up with a “greaser” look, complete with pompadours and leather jackets. According to the preliminary publicity, they were pretending to be “carnies,” so their attraction to the women was that of a taboo underclass, not wealth. The English translation for the seat-back titles was altered to eliminate some of the more glaring inconsistencies, such as references to the “Albanian” disguises.

Guglielmo (Adam Plachetka), Ferrando (Ben Bliss), Don Alfonso (Christopher Maltman).

McDermott’s format functioned well for the opera’s comic aspects but worked against the introspective melancholy of the second act. Following the Sellars template, McDermott tried to mitigate this by isolating his singers in front of darkened backdrops at the appropriate times, but here the result was mixed. It’s hard to switch gears from carnival to gloom, and it didn’t help matters that the sideshow troupe kept popping up everywhere.

The Met is usually at its best musically with the roll-out of new productions, which get the biggest stars and best conductors, and draw the most discerning audiences. The 1996 Koenig production was especially memorable. Lovingly conducted by Levine, who considers this work to be one of his favorites, it featured Carol Vaness, Susanne  Mentzer, Jerry Hadley, Dwayne Croft, and Thomas Allen in a night to remember.

Ferrando and Guglielmo, disguised as carnies, with Despina and the cynical Don Alfonso.

While this opening night was not an epic disaster, it was an immersion in mediocrity that failed on almost every level to match the Met’s usual performance standards for unveiling new productions. David Robertson’s conducting was swift but wooden. Coordination issues were frequent. During the first act, the orchestra’s volume was restrained to the point that many passages were virtually inaudible from my seat in the back of the room, though this error was corrected after the intermission. Vocally, there was a lack of precision all around. Ensembles were often sloppy. Even the Met chorus seemed off its game. On balance, things sounded under-rehearsed. Così is is an opera that needs to sparkle, and this performance simply didn’t have that magic element.

As Fiordiligi, Amanda Majeski was often unfocused, her voice thin, without the fine coloring and warmth she exhibited previously here as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro. She had her best moments in “Per pietà,” sung while suspended in a hot-air balloon, but her singing never quite caught fire. Serena Malfi, as Dorabella, was more successful, with a mellow, sweet sound.

Fiordiligi (Amanda Majeski) went aloft to sing ‘Per pietà.’ (Photo: Jonathan Tichler)

The best singing of the evening came from tenor Ben Bliss, who sang the role of Ferrando with a bright, elegant sound. Adam Plachetka, the Guglielmo, displayed a large, burnished bass-baritone sound and a jokey manner. The fine baritone Christopher Maltman sang the Don Alfonso role with a robust voice and showed just the right swagger.

That 1996 opening of Così marked the Met debut of Cecilia Bartoli as Despina, a star turn that managed to upstage even her illustrious co-stars in bigger roles. History repeated itself, sort of, with the arrival of Broadway star Kelli O’Hara in the same role. Unlike Bartoli, whose campy, mugging performance wasn’t universally successful, O’Hara managed a nuanced portrayal, balanced with serious vocal chops.

Opening-night audiences at the Met have typically been quite demonstrative, with either rousing ovations or booing, and usually both. So one of the most striking elements of this evening was the reaction of the audience: no booing at all, just polite, rather even applause. It’s as if they couldn’t decide what to think. Perhaps the whole evening was weighted down by “L’Affaire Levine,” but it might just be that the audience was hoping for a shimmering, refined performance of a favorite work, and this night didn’t quite measure up.

Additional performances: March 20, 24, 27, and 31; April 4, 7, 10, 13, 16, and 19. The March 31 matinee will be transmitted worldwide as part of the Met’s Live in HD series. For information and tickets, go here.

James L. Paulk is a freelance critic based in New York.  

Carnival sideshow posters and performers put the action in the 1950s. (Photo: Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera)