February 11th, 2010 5:33 pm | by JOHN MINERVINI News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP

EXTENDED REVIEW: Portland Opera, Così fan Tutte

Don Alfonso: What palaver. I thought I was in an opera.

A pair of Albanian princes with fake mustaches slink onstage toward the apprehensive young ladies. Wearing embroidered silk smoking jackets in a riot of Oriental colors, they recall SNL's Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd, just a couple of wild and crazy guys, crooning come-ons as they creep closer, crotch first. Ferrando (Ryan MacPherson) especially distinguishes himself for his pelvic thrusts; independent of other considerations, the motions of his trousered genitals —wild arabesques and fantasies clearly visible from row G—merit an award for best unsupported actor. The audience went wild for these exertions, but Mr. MacPherson's black stirrup pants were less sympathetic, as evidenced by an inconvenient rip along the inner upper thigh, exposing a pale pink patch of flesh perilously near the Albanian fertile crescent.

That just about sets the tone for Portland Opera's Così fan Tutte: not a terribly subtle production, but not short on laughs, either.

The Plot: Two young men, Ferrando and Guglielmo (Keith Phares), brag to their friend Don Alfonso (Robert Orth) about how faithful their girlfriends are. Guys, please note: this is never a good idea. In response, Don Alfonso bets them 100 gold pieces that within a single day, he can get the girls to fall for someone else. Remarkably, they take the wager, and what follows is a genuine Chinese fire drill, involving Albanian princes and mesmeric doctors, liquid arsenic and wedding cake.

For centuries, audiences and critics have grappled with the hi-low tensions inherent in Così. On one hand are Lorenzo da Ponte's lighthearted libretto and its constant, bawdy gags; on the other hand are the musical profundity of Mozart's score and its grim theme: infidelity. If properly managed, this tension can generate great energy and interest in audiences: but that requires a director who will let the jokes to be funny and the pathos pathetic. Unfortunately, stage director Elise Sandell fails to strike the appropriate balance.

The main problem is Sandell's grasping after easy laughs, which prevents the characters from developing. Especially during Act I, there is no gag too base, no humor too infantile for Sandell: highlights include phallic feather dusters, pies in the face, tantrums, wooing a la Pepé le Pew, pints of ice cream after a breakup, and enormous red heart-shaped boxes of chocolate, broken over the heads of eager suitors. Before intermission, the principals seem less like people, more like circus clowns.

Not that base humor has no place in Così. Heck, there are fake mustaches in the libretto. But it's all about knowing where to draw the line, and Sandell doesn't.

One natural consequence is that when they're not executing some easy sight gag, the principals seem not to know what to do with themselves. That's hardly surprising: they lack interiority, and lacking interiority they lack motives. Blocking is stilted and mannered, such that performers often end up standing on chairs for no good reason. Rule of thumb: if your performers are spending a lot of time standing on chairs, you've got a problem.

Another interpretative choice that probably aggravated things was to present Despina (Christine Brandes) as a sympathetic character. Despina is ladies' maid to the sisters Dorabella (Angela Niederloh) and Fiordiligi (Lauren Skuce), and there is a natural contrast—not to say, antagonism—between them. The girls are rich; Despina is poor. They are naïve, she is experienced. The way a director casts and coaches Despina has a great effect on how the audience perceives the girls. If we find ourselves drawn to the servant, we are less likely to sympathize with her charges, and vice versa. My favorite productions of Così have been those in which Despina was played unsympathetically—as a meddling, money-grubbing little minx.

However, Portland Opera plays Despina as a clear-voiced, sensible woman, a prudent ballast to her whimsical charges. Visually, this is spelled out by their respective wardrobes: Dorabella and Fiordiligi wear brightly-colored frippery, while Despina wears a no-nonsense shirtwaist dress in gray and white. In it, she evokes an English governess, hands clasped firmly behind her back, chin jutting, dispensing judicious advice, a regular Maria von Trapp. And while that might sound all right on paper, in practice it is disastrous. It sabotages most of Despina's best lines, and it pushes us away from the girls. The more reasonable Despina seems, the more ridiculous they look. At some point, we cease to sympathize with them entirely.

Vocals: The girls, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, do a great job within the framework they have been given. Their voices—Niederloh's mezzo and Skuce's soprano—blend uncannily well, especially in an Act I terzettino with Don Alfonso, “Soave sia il vento.” You'd swear they really were sisters. Portland audiences will be familiar with Niederloh, whose recent local performances include La Calisto and Cinderella. Her mezzo coloratura is just right, especially during “Smanie implacabili,” in which she articulates the runs very well. But the real surprise here is Skuce. She effortlessly leaps octaves in the difficult aria “Come scoglio,” and she shines at the limits of soprano technique in Act II's “Per pieta.”

On the men's side: the main consideration when casting Ferrando and Guglielmo is that they be handsome, and they are. Ryan MacPherson distinguishes himself as a tenor during a few lovely stretches of exposed singing in “Un aura amorosa.” At other points he seemed a bit ahead of the orchestra.

Orchestra: In Così, a conductor is doing his job if he keeps a good tempo and supports the singers while not calling attention to himself. George Manahan does just that, while subtly bringing out contrapuntal wind figures in the overture and pointing up instances of leitmotif—some of the very first in the history of opera—in the second act.

Sets: Promising but ultimately a bit skimpy. The overture and first trio were performed on the lip of the stage in an improvised “school of love”—blackboards and a teacher's desk, with Don Alfonso as headmaster. Then the blackboards were wheeled aside to reveal an enormous room, presumably the girls' bedchamber, an enclosed space on a rolling flat. The room was like a jewel box or a makeup compact; its reflective walls were etched with frosted floral patterns.

It was nice, but it proved to be the only set on offer throughout the rest of the show, with one slight variation. During Act II, the different segments of the room were wheeled apart and angled slightly, yielding a “time warp” effect. This was probably intended to symbolize the fracturing of the innocent world in which the lovers had begun the opera; however the campy first act had not earned even this easy symbolism. In any case, one wanted more eye candy. Perhaps there were budget constraints.

Costumes: Ostensibly drawn from postwar Italy, David C. Woolard's attractive costumes actually seemed closer to the American 1960's, something like Mad Men or Tom Ford's A Single Man. Think printed chiffon, shirtwaist dresses, snappy suits in glen plaid and peaked-lapel smoking jackets.

Before the show began, general director Christopher Mattaliano walked onstage and—as a prelude to a pitch for season memberships—mentioned that Così was one of his very favorite operas, Mozart his favorite composer. In retrospect, that strikes me as strange: why would anyone who loved the opera stage it in this way? It was offered as a bit of fluff, a Valentine's Day confection.

Portland Opera took the same approach to The Turn of the Screw last year, sacrificing depth in favor of cheap thrills. Then, it was horror-movie gasps; now, it's I Love Lucy antics. They might rather have offered a thoughtful production, something along the lines of last year's Fidelio, a natural point of comparison. In it, disguises and deceptions are a means to reconciliation and closeness, not bitterness and infidelity; in many ways, it was Beethoven's answer to what he perceived as frivolous and amoral Così. PO had no trouble making room for the beautiful music and complex themes that suffused that show—and no one came out beforehand to announce that Beethoven was his favorite composer.

SEE IT: Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St., 241-1802. 7:30 pm Thursday and Saturday, Feb. 11 and 13. $20-$135.
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