The confusion all begins with the title.
Cosi Fan Tutte — It is of course the Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart comic opera, or “opera buff,” that is today considered part of the gold standard of the opera empyrean!
But more about the title later.
Washington DC area audiences now have a real treat this coming weekend, in the second two of a total of only four performances of a new jewel in the Mozart crown.
It’s the snarky, larky update on the Mozart opera — Cosi Fan Tutte goes Hollywood, in a new original libretto, sparkling with bon mots, double entendres and intricate rhyming jokes and japes, penned by the wickedly wise and verbally venomous Nick Alcott. Directed with stunning success in her first-time-opera by Theater J regular Shirley Serotsky, and with a cast (Melissa Chavez, Samual Keeler, Sasha Olinick, Erin Passmore, Sean Pflueger, and Randa Rouweyha) that sparkles with luminous performances and skillful handling of the challenging recitatives.
Scenic Designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson, and Costumer Donna Breslin, firmly set the action and garb the players to perfection — reaching simplicity with the sets and colorfully with the costumes, that are a true hoot, especially when the hats start getting tossed about.
Finally, Music Director Stanley Thurston brilliantly controls the baton and deftly presides over a 5-person orchestra of first-class skills (strings and piano) perched directly behind the action on stage, not buried in some invisible orchestra pit, so always the music itself is juxtaposed as an integral part of the action.
Truly, Mozart and original librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte are brought to giddy life in this fully re-imagined retelling of the basic plot-line. It’s the ribaldry of fiance-swapping, with four young people trembling lustily (well at least the men are lusty, but the women must be wooed), who are on the verge of going all the way to fourth base, to find love in all the wrong arms.
The book and libretto of Cosi Fan Tutte was for much of the past two-plus centuries considered almost off-limits for respectable opera society. It was first performed in Vienna in 1790. Then it was mostly forgotten until after World War I, because it was so often condemned, especially by Victorian sensibilities, as risqué, vulgar, and even immoral!
Of course those so-called “Victorian” standards of bourgeois monogamy and even hetero-normativity, were frequently much more honored in the breach than in the observance!
In the US, it only received its first full performance — at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, of course! — in 1922.
Now this Mozart tour-de-force, no longer seen as a minor work, has been brought by DC’s The In Series to the intimate stage at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, with its final two performances there next Saturday and Sunday.
It ascends there to new heights of naughty and risible brilliance and — along with the mischief on stage — there flows the sprightly musical backdrop of the virtuoso composer.
Yes, it’s merely Mozart, the prodigy who was to die prematurely, and for unknown (and just perhaps even sinister) causes, in 1791, and then buried in a common gravesite, just a year after the opera was staged, but at that only for five times before mostly falling out of popular favor.
And yes, this same Mozart (1756-1791) has been perhaps the most classical of all the composers in the classical canon. After all, he composed over 600 works in his all-too-brief lifetime, including symphonies, concerti, truly awesome liturgical works like the great “Requiem” mass — and of course opera, glorious, sublime, unforgettable– and, as in “Cosi Fan Tutte,” hilarious — and indeed at The In Series’ production at Atlas, nearly foot-stamping, laugh-out-loud, even nearly uncontrollably so — opera!
But Mozart has also been ruthlessly caricatured — in the 1984 film Amadeus –as an enfant terrible and obnoxious sex fiend, all this in the film that won the Best Picture Oscar as well as an Academy Award win for best actor — F. Murray Abraham, in the role of Mozart’s musical rival, the baffled and supremely frustrated and all-too-human rival, Antonio Salieri. It also won Oscars for Best Director (Milos Forman) and best screenplay for Peter Shaffer, who adapted it from his eponymous 1979 stage play. It also swept the Golden Globes that year for Best Picture again, etc.
But now, more about the title!
First of all, it’s been commonly mistranslated from the original Italian (yes, Mozart also composed for German libretti).
In Nick Olcott’s new English translation of the original libretto — or the text used in a long musical work — by Lorenzo Da Ponte, the ironical meaning of the title comes clear only during the bitingly brilliant Olcott lyrics, especially towards the end of Act 2, close to the finale. But more of that in just a moment!
Sometimes the title is wrongly translated as “Women Are Like That!” But (as Olcott’s insightful libretto makes clear), this is way too misogynistic, and not much different than the role of Eve in the Fall of Man, who has fallen into sin, wishing through hubris to be equal in knowledge to God Himself, where Adam’s fall is sparked by Eve, in a slighting view of femininity straight from the pages of “Genesis.” There she is depicted as devious seducer of a rather dim Adam but also as a derivative creature, born of Adam’s rib — to be His companion, and in effect courtesan — to meet His needs first, not her own — although finally through her failings in moral character — and therefore Woman is clearly needing to be ruled by a Man — she could not even do that!
Anyway, sometimes it’s been translated as a title reflecting the fact that both sexes are equally culpable, and equally human — “They All Do It.” From this perspective, each gender could and should pull up its socks, at least once in a while, so that maybe the title in fact ought to be “coulda-woulda-shoulda.”
Other times it’s been called “School for Lovers,” as if a little learning could ever be much more than a dangerous thing when it comes to the “war between the sexes.” Let’s face it men — and women — might even benefit from a gentle but regular rap on the knuckles. Or maybe we should just accept that people fall short of the mark routinely, women as well as men. That’s certainly Olcott’s take, though not necessarily Da Ponte or Mozart.
Consider the plot, which bobs and weaves along a zany track of deception and betrayal, gambling and even the proverbial casting couch.Two sisters come to Hollywood, in the 1920s, before “talkies,” seeking fame and fortune as starlets. Fresh out of what a Hollywood insider, the wily and inimitable Tina (Randa Rouwweyha), a budding screenwriter, calls “Hicksville — Sandusky, Ohio — the two winsome wannabes, sisters Dorrie (Erin Passmore) and Florrie (Melissa Chavez), are accompanied by their vaudevillian boyfriends Elmo (Sean Pflueger) and Randy (Samuel Keeler) hijinks ensue when a producer “Donald Fonso” (prominent DC actor and sometime director Sasha Olinick) traps the boys into making a bet to test their girlfriends’ fidelity.
All six of the cast are superbly voiced, and although this opera boasts relatively few arias, it features numerous duets, trios and sextets, in which the words and rhymes fly like hummingbirds about the stage. And oh those rhymes — like “script” with “unzipped” — and some beautiful singing, that it’s really quite pointless to single out any one of the 24 songs from the opening one, “I know that my Dorrie” (“La mia Dorabella apace non e”) by Randy and Emo and Fonso, to the glorious finale in #24, “What a farce we have prepared” (“Fate presto…La piu bella comediola”), by the entire cast — this is a garland of floral magnificence as sheer musicality is concerned.
See this one by ALL ways and means!
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, plus one intermission.
Cosi Fan Tutte Goes Hollywood plays on Saturday, April 30, 3026 at 8 PM Sunday, May 1, 2016 at 4 PM at The In Series performing at Lang Theater at the Atlas Performing Arts Center -1333 H St NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993, or purchase them online.