‘Cosi fan tutte’ melds Coney Island sideshow and Mozart at Met Opera
Coney Island is star on stage and in film
Coney Island has risen in the arts in recent months. The Woody Allen film “Wonder Wheel,” set on Coney’s beach and boardwalk, opened to mixed reviews. Then, in March, the Metropolitan Opera offered a Mozart favorite transposed from bayside Italy to the amusements by the Atlantic. This reporter has seen both.
The Coney Island of the opera world shines as the better re-creation. In “Cosi fan tutte,” four lovers are lured to a fantastical waterside resort on a bet offered by wily zoot-suited Don Alfonso, aided by his accomplice, Despina. The wager is that the women won’t be faithful once their men have shipped out with the navy.
The set is an imaginary playland with lights of a roller coaster and a Ferris wheel as a backdrop. Reality arrives with a cast of genuine Coney Island performers. Before the curtain rises. Don Alfonso (Christopher Maltman) reveals his scheme. He coaxes the real Coney Island performers — a snake charmer, two sword swallowers, a bearded lady, contortionists, two little people and others — out of a magic box to listen to the plot: that women are fickle, a popular operatic theme.
Then the curtain rises showing the Coney Island guests more involved in the story. They move sets and react in pantomime to the tale. Dressed in costumes with tattoos, tall and short, fat and thin, they help move the action to its unlikely conclusion. I swear that I saw some lips move as the chorus sang.
Their effect is to mill about as a mute Greek chorus, reacting to the stage business. Then, when the Met cast sings in Italian (with subtitles) rather than Brooklynese, the performers wander off stage to help the audience focus on the action. They contributed more to the performance than just as bystanders.
As an unbelievable “fuhgeddaboudit” fantasy with sexist overtones, it also has laughs as well as beautiful voices. Kelli O’Hara, a comic realist rather than a nurse from Iowa, changes from a motel cleaning woman to a phony doctor with a John Bolton look and then to a wedding clergyman and finally to a rhinestone cowboy. The other leads — Amanda Majeski, Serena Malfi, Ben Bliss and Adam Plachetka — sing beautiful Mozartian arias although, as in other operas, with much repetition about how they will die because of love.
Magical free-standing rides are propelled by the guest performers as they move carousel horses and swan boats around the stage. The entire cast works together to offer a fun and melodic presentation that really works.
The best way to enjoy the show is through the Met Live in HD presentation on film, which will be given as an encore on April 4 at BAM Cinema.
While the opera is skillful and creative, the Allen film comes through as a chore and not among his best. But the sand and surf make an outstanding background.
Justin Timberlake never fills the stereotypical Allen psychotic character, but he also fails to be a believable lead. Kate Winslet and Jim Belushi fit into more traditional acting roles, he as her husband and a merry-go-round operator, she as a clam-shucking waitress. They contributed more tension to the film but the plot lines develop along predictable paths. It seems that Winslet as Ginny, a former actress, is a loser who aims toward imitating Blanche DuBois. Juno Temple as Belushi’s daughter, is wasted.
The only positive side of the film is the look of Coney’s beach, Ruby’s bar and the Vourderis brothers’ Wonder Wheel. Special effects make a 1950’s postcard beach scene come alive with a moving Parachute Jump, boardwalk and Steeplechase. Ruby’s, a clam bar for the movie, remains intact; even the pages from this writer’s book, “Coney Island Kaleidoscope,” reappear on a back wall. Unfortunately, none of the stars ride the wheel of the title. It just remains a symbol of life’s rat race.
But the real Coney Island USA will arise once more this spring with a gala fund raiser in March followed by real sideshows featuring many of the Met Opera performers leading up to the Mermaid Parade and the opening of the real beach at Coney Island.
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