Friday, June 14, 2013

San Francisco Opera: Così fan tutte

June 12, 2013

The mathematical symmetry of Così fan tutte is a thing of beauty, and a master harmonist like Mozart must have drooled over the possibilities: two sisters, soprano and mezzo, constantly together; two best friends, baritone and tenor, constantly together.

From that thought, we wander into a mysterious area of music one might call timbral matching. When two singers with complementary timbres deliver a harmony just so, it produces a "ping" so enchanting that it seems to radiate from the stage. This sensation, likely a product of interlocking overtones, may be heard in Exhibit A: tenor Francesco Demuro, playing Ferrando, and baritone Philippe Sly as Guglielmo. Both possess classically lyric Mozartean voices (Demuro edging toward Verdi), and their unison passages produce "pings" by the truckload. At times, for the listener, it's almost an out-of-body experience.

These two also excel in their individual endeavors. Demuro, a memorable Duke of Mantua last fall, gives a captivating performance of "Un aura amarosa," particularly in a gorgeous piano restatement. Sly, attempting to seduce Dorabella out of her fiance's locket in the duet "Il core vi dono," sings with heart-melting tenderness.

Returning to timbral mathematics, we have Exhibit B: soprano Ellie Dehn as Fiordiligi and mezzo Christel Lötzsch as Dorabella. Here, the timbres are more distinct: Dehn on the creamy, lyric side, Lötzsch a little more edgy and dramatic. The "pings" are noticeably absent, particularly in contrast to the men. Interestingly, this difference serves its purposes in other ways. A balanced, even tone suits the moral propriety of Fiordiligi, whereas an edgier tone fits the saucier (some might say easier) Dorabella. Lötzsch's performance is just sexy all around; she unleashes a single rolled R in Act Two that could seduce a pope (and singing most of a scene in her undergarments certainly doesn't hurt). Dehn masters the ridiculously wide intervals of "Come scoglio" (see novel excerpt below), but is even better in the elegant legatos of "Per pietà, ben mio," backed by lovely passages in the horns.

As our ringmaster, Don Alfonso, bass Marco Vinco is a pure delight and a pure rascal, equipped with a captivating stage laugh and the sly movements of a confidence man. When he adds a bowler to the Edwardian suit and silk vest,bone could swear he was about to start pitching snake oil. The richness of Vinco's tone serves as a grounding force to the emotive lovers, and he is absolutely the captain of the comedy. As Despina, soprano Susannah Biller went a little too far to the side of the hardened professional - the role is much more enjoyable when Despina appears to be doing it for fun. Biller did well, however, in the disguise scenes, particularly as a notary resembling Groucho Marx.

The WWI Monte Carlo setting (a 2004 co-production with Opéra de Monte-Carlo) is a suitable enough update, the eve-of-war finale adding to the intensity of Da Ponte's discomfiting libretto. Robert Perdziola's designs for the sisters' wedding dresses and hats are extraordinary, and the garden of umbrellas signifying the beach is a playful delight. The Albanian boat is a campy marvel, bringing laughter every time it scooches up to the shoreline.

Stage director Jose Maria Condemi does a fine job of exploiting the small comic opportunities, particularly when Ferrando slides down the back of a settee into Fiodiligi's lap, and when Don Alfonso signals the disguised men that they are mistakenly trying to seduce their own fiancees. Nicola Luisotti conducted from the fortepiano, and threw some sassy improv commentary into a few of the recitatives. Watching Luisotti conduct the Act One sextet was particularly fascinating. He would point directly to a singer as they were about to begin a flight away from the ensemble, carry them through it, then point at the next soloist and repeat the process.

The use of language was particularly amusing. Tasting the cocoa, Despina declared "So good!" in accented English. Later, the supertitle translated her description of the sisters' whereabouts thusly: "They're in the garden, bewailing their fates to the mosquitoes." The company pre-recorded the orchestral introduction to the Act Two serenade, "Secondate, aurette amiche," and added some clicks and pops so it would sound like it was coming from an on-stage gramophone.

Through July 1, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $22-$340,, 415/864-3330.

Images: Ellie Dehn (Fiordiligi). Philippe Sly (Guglielmo), Christel Lötzsch (Dorabella), Ellie Dehn (Fiordiligi), Francesco Demuro (Ferrando)and Susannah Biller (Despina). Marco Vinco (Don Alfonso) and Susannah Biller (Despina). Photos by Cory Weaver.

Following is an excerpt from the novel Operaville. Maddalena Hart is a fictional singer, but the protagonist's description of her performance may offer some insight into the role of Fiordiligi. Operaville is available at

If you were a singer in Mozart’s company, you really couldn’t lose. He would write the role to accentuate your strengths, and dance artfully around your flaws. Thus was created one of the scariest roles in the canon: Fiordiligi of Cosi fan tutte, her stunning rollercoaster vocal lines inspired by the awesome high and low registers of Adriana Ferrarese.

It’s quite possible, however, that that’s all she had. Other than Fiordiligi and a few productions as Susannah in Le Nozze di Figaro, Adriana had a pretty lackluster career. This came from two important shortcomings: she couldn’t act, and she couldn’t do comedy.

Aha! you say. (Go ahead – I’ll wait.) So why was Adriana so successful in the decidedly farcical Cosi? Excellent question, and here’s your answer: because Fiordiligi is the square peg, holding firmly to her church-girl principles even as all around her are screwin’ around. This custom-crafted role came about either through good fortune or because Adriana was sleeping with the librettist, da Ponte. The torridness of the affair (owing largely to the married status of both participants) doubtlessly contributed to the libretto’s conflicted views on love and fidelity.

Regardless, given the way that Mozart treats Fiordiligi as his own personal yo-yo, any normal soprano should be forgiven for not being entirely up to the part. Fortunately, we’re not talking about normal sopranos – we’re talking about Maddalena Hart. Hart’s easy top notes are the stuff of legend, and her bottom end is not to be disregarded. For recorded evidence, note the low sobbings at the denouements of Boito’s “L’altra notte” (Mefistofele) and Dvorak’s “Song to the Moon” (Rusalka) from Hart’s Favorite Arias album. The depth of these passages has won the singer much-deserved comparisons to Tebaldi.

Naturally, it’s not just having the notes, it’s how the notes are deployed. Many a singer has come to these clifftop drops and landed on the low notes with all the tender sensitivity of a professional wrestler. Hart manages to make the descent more deftly, like a hang glider, dipping her toes to the precise mid-point of the pitch before catching the next updraft. Not once does this seem like work, and not once does she lose her supremely intelligent sense of dynamic flow. Hart often creates the impression that none of this is so unusual, that these are just everyday conversations that decided to take wing.

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