Mozart meets Coney Island
The Metropolitan Opera's “Cosi fan tutte” melds sideshow performers with beautiful arias
If there’s a theme behind the Metropolitan Opera’s latest rendition of “Così fan tutte,” it’s “don’t worry so much and enjoy yourself.”
The stories behind operas — this one in particular — don’t tend to be literary masterpieces, so music, scenery and costumes have to do the heavy lifting. Mozart did more than half the work when he wrote “Cosi” more than two centuries ago. The music he penned is, as is usually the case, gorgeous. The rest was up to the Metropolitan Opera, which teamed with the English National Opera to transform the silly into the divine with pristine vocals and a fabulous mid-20th century backdrop set in, of all places, Coney Island.
“For me, Coney Island is a bit like a dreamworld,” Phelim McDermott, the opera’s director, said. “The 1950s was the heyday of the romance of that place. Costume-wise, it’s a great period for the singers.”
When he was growing up, McDermott, who was born in Manchester, England, often visited Blackpool — a gritty, amusement-festooned seaside resort town in the north of England that’s not unlike Coney Island.
Originally set in 18th-century Naples, Così fan tutte follows the exploits of two military officers, Ferrando (Ben Bliss) and Guglielmo (Adam Plachetka) — who enter into a bet with an older, world-weary friend, Don Alfonso (Christopher Maltman) — that their fiances — the sisters Dorabella (Serena Malfi) and Fiordiligi (Amanda Majeski) — will remain faithful, even after the two officers disguise themselves and attempt to woo one another’s girls.
Don Alfonso employs the girls’ domestic, Despina (Kelli O’Hara) — in this case a motel maid — to help him prove the two officers wrong. Don Alfonso maintains the cynical belief that all women are unfaithful, hence the title, which translates into “thus do all women.” I know, I know, hardly the appropriate narrative amid today’s #metoo furor, but once you ignore the story as completely ridiculous, the music, costumes and set work their magic in making the viewer forget how screwed up things are in real life. Jeff Spurgeon’s 3-minute synopsis on WQXR does fine work illustrating the fruitlessness of getting caught up in the story’s details.
To add to the show’s Coney Island authenticity, McDermott hired a troupe of real-life sideshow performers who would not be out of place at the Brooklyn beachfront community’s annual Mermaid Parade. The cast includes a bearded lady, Leo the Human Gumby and strongman Titano Oddfellow, who McDermott says trained himself to hammer nails through a board with his bare hands. Kiri Hochendoner, known by her stage name, Betty Bloomerz, performs as a sword swallower in the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, and along with Ray Valenz, duplicates the act several times onstage in Cosi. Zoe Ziegfeld, a snake charmer who also performs in Coney Island, took to the Met stage with her 5-foot-long albino Burmese python, Luna.
“What was interesting about auditioning these performers is that so many of them were like, ‘What I really love is opera,'” McDermott said. “They all came out and stood on the met stage and had tears in their eyes.”
The sideshow performers remain on the sidelines, and along with performing invaluable service as aesthetically complementary background performers and stage hands, discharge their unique specialties without stealing the show from the singers.
Tom Pye’s 1950s-themed scenery evokes the bold colors and big shapes used in films of the era. From the clever flagstone façaded motel set with walls that spin to allow the audience access to interior and exterior scenes, to the amusement park teacup rides the story’s lovers whirl across the stage in while wooing one another, Pye’s design shows an ingenuity that — like the opera’s ludicrous story and beautiful music — is just the thing to invite one to drift away from turbulent reality for a while.
Pye’s simple, but detail-oriented backdrops were complemented by Laura Hopkins’ costumes, which also made use of strong hues and simple mid-century designs to keep the actors in focus. In place of the Albanian soldier disguises from the original version of “Cosi,” Hopkins’ dressed Bliss and Plachetka like ’50s greasers, complete with short jackets, slicked-back hair and thin mustaches. Arriving at the motel scene bopping like pool room grifters from Canarsie, the tenor and baritone threw themselves with convincing creepiness at the two girls.
At times I found myself wondering if I’d stumbled into the operatic version of “Wild at Heart.” Don’t worry — these twin Bobby Perus were a lot funnier than they were creepy. From her opening scene, O’Hara showed off her Broadway chops, throwing sass into her role that put it on more equal footing with Don Alonso than may otherwise have been the case in Mozart’s time.
Of course the real treasure is the gift left by Mozart — the music. Delivered by skilled, emotive singers, it elevates a fun take on a quirky, out-of-date story to something of pure beauty. The duets and trios — “Prendero quel brunettino,” “Soave sia il vento” — remind listeners why they come to see opera at the Met, and how it is that “Cosi” has persisted in an age more sensitive to stereotypes. Majeski’s performance of “Per pieta,” as she travels in gentle circles against an empty stage in a Ferris wheel basket, is a bright star among many stellar arias.
Even in this unbelievable tale, the teenage anguish she conveys in her vocals is palpable. By contrast, Melfi exudes a coquettish charm in the preceding scene, her rich mezzo soprano intertwining beautifully with Plachetka’s baritone in a playful portrayal of “Il core vi dono.”
As operas age, it’s good to reimagine them from time to time, just to keep things fresh. McDermott’s vision for Cosi fan tutte doesn’t merely superimpose one era’s trappings onto another’s performance art. The glitzy-seedy Coney Island theme is fun, using background details more familiar to a modern audience to tease out the waggishness already living within a preposterous narrative. The fact that it’s set in the ’50s, when sexual tension was the hallmark of a prudish dating culture, makes more sense than setting the action in the Tinder era, when this particular story would have fizzled after the first screen swipe. McDermott’s version just works, and brings together two genres of performer who were probably meant to be together all along, much as they were when Groupmuse mashed up circus performers and Bach musicians at its New Year’s Eve bash at a Bushwick warehouse two years ago.
“It’s a difficult process putting an opera on — there are so many different elements and you don’t have a lot of time to put the thing together,” McDermott said, adding that the run-up for “Cosi” was only six weeks. “But the sideshow performers are used to going, ‘Well, here we go, let’s go for it.’ Opera singers are the same way.”
The row of old photographs lining the Met’s walls that depict opera singers decked out in all manner of flamboyant costumes echoes McDermott’s sentiments perfectly.