The Classical Music Development Foundation of T&T (CMDFTT) launched its Opera Festival and tenth anniversary celebrations last Friday night at Queen's Hall, St Ann's, with a production of Mozart's popular comic opera Cosi Fan Tutte, the libretto for which comes gift-wrapped for a local audience raised on bacchanal, horning and tabanca and whose cast boasts sweet men, lyrics men, horner men and women.
Those opera buffs who cherish Mozart's ebulliently sparkling overture, delivered by a full orchestra might initially have been disappointed to see the orchestra pit bare except for two pianos and conductor June Nathaniel. Yet celebrated New York voice coach and pianist Dr Jeffrey Middleton and his Big Apple fellow-accompanist Byron Sean Burford fingered the score masterfully, allowing the audience to focus on the voices and stage action, which more than compensated for the absence of the woodwind, strings and brass we usually associate with Mozart.
The orchestral accompaniment was echoed by a sparse yet functional set design: 1960s pop art style back screen of trees stage left (suggesting the garden and exterior scenes), with two marble-panelled screens, stage right (presumably for interior scenes). There's nothing wrong with a relatively bare stage, yet the opening scene clustered round a diminutive card table at the extreme left of the stage, left a centre stage vacuum, which was fortunately quickly filled with the momentum of the three male and three female lead voices.
Whether by design, or fortuitous synergy, the combination of these six lead voices (the young blades with Canadian baritone Justin Welsh as Guglielmo and Chilean tenor Diego Godoy-Gutierrez as Ferrando; their sweethearts the sisters, with Trinidad's star coloratura soprano Natalia Dopwell as Fiordiligi and compatriot mezzo soprano Megan Pollonais as Dorabella; the two schemers: Trini baritone Daniel DeCranie-Pierre as Don Alfonso manipulator extraordinaire and Trini soprano Stephanie Nahous as his mercenary sidekick, the maid Despina, doubling up as doctor and notary) provided a dynamics of sound, in which individual styles both complemented and augmented each other. This productive combination gave us much of the colour and depth normally supplied by a full orchestra.
The premise of the Lorenzo Da Ponte's libretto–that all women are fickle–(as in the title which has generally been translated as "this is what all women do" but which in reality holds good for both sexes) is a well-worn motif from literature and life, as is the fianc�e-swapping theme, traceable back to Boccacio's Decameron and Shakespeare's Cymbeline. Throw in the element of disguise and the comic possibilities are boundless.
The libretto, which was regarded as risqu� and even amoral at times (particularly in the context of 19th century morality), quite possibly raises different issues for a postmodern audience, heirs to both the sexual liberation of the 1960s and raised in a climate of increasing gender equality.
While the comic potential of disguised identity remains intact, we can hopefully now move beyond the implicit misogynism (the inconstancy of women) and the hypocritical double standards of La Ponte and read this comic opera as a critique of romantic or courtly love and an analysis of loyalty, trust, deception, betrayal, desire, temptation, or quite simply, human fallibility and the tolerance and forgiveness required to live with it.
The dovetailed swift-paced plot sweeps performers and audience along together, neatly juxtaposing the almost maudlin sentimentality of Act One, with the tightrope of farce and impending catastrophe in act two. As Don Alfonso, lynch pin of the proposed deception (the two officers Gugliemo and Ferrando "go off to war" and return disguised as Albanians to woo each other's fianc�e) the young Daniel DeCranie-Pierre successfully exuded the maturity required by his role, making the duping of his two prot�g�es entirely credible.
For the uninitiated, Alfonso's exaggerated facial expressions gave valuable clues to his unfolding web of deception but may have prompted some to interrogate his motivation. Justin Welsh and Diego Godoy-Gutierrez grew into their roles as the brash Romeos of Act One (Gutierrez's cutting tenor, a perfect foil for Welsh's more lyrical baritone delivery), whose test of their fiancees' fidelity threatens to explode in their faces during the increasing hysterical tension of Act Two, which at points descends into pure slaptick comedy.
However, the success of Cosi Fan Tutte inevitably hinges on the performance of the two sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, who the audience is invited initially to sympathise with as lovelorn damsels in Act One, and then to despise as weak, deceptive bimbos in Act Two.
The pairing of Dopwell and Pollonias proved excellent casting: from the early duet Ah guarda sorella–"Ah look sister") Pollonais' commanding mezzo soprano suggesting the extent of her romanticism and ardour, against Dopwell's superbly controlled coloratura, which evoked the nuances necessary for the audience to accept her apparent betrayal of Guglielmo in Act Two.
The opening quintet: Sento, o Dio, che questo piede � restio–"I feel, oh God, that my foot is reluctant") which launches Alfonso's ruse, alerted the audience to scintillating ensemble singing they could expect throughout the performance, with individual voices sensitively creating the necessary spaces for all, rather than one to dominate.
The sisters' tabanca and an overdose of bleeding hearts is comically juxtaposed against the maid Despina's pragmatism and Stephanie Nahous gave a dark undercurrent to her role inviting us to ponder the problematic gap between morality and intention, reality and desire, whatever the dominant comic mode.
The contrast between Fiordiligi's Come scoglio – "Like a rock" declaration of constancy does nothing to discourage the "Albanian suitors" and their ridiculous peacock strutting, gloriously subverting the over saccharine taste of courtly love with their ludicrous attempt at poisoning themselves and Despina's equally farcical Mesmer-inspired revival with a magnet.
Despina's aria Una donna a quindici anni – "A fifteen-year-old woman" sets the tone for Act Two, which for all its comic tension (as the "Albanians" now woo each other's fianc�e) balances the push and pull of desire and temptation with insights into deception and betrayal, pitching the ideal against real. Despina's advice on how to play a man, have your cake and eat it, indulge in a little naughtiness to stave off boredom, might be taken locally as good advice for prospective horner girls or more broadly and darkly as anachronistic male chauvinism.
Comedy has always been a vehicle for serious issues and if there is a conceptual flaw in Cosi Fan Tutte, we may find it in the denouement, or maybe it's just symptomatic of La Ponte's unwillingness to address the fact that infidelity is an aspect of the human condition, rather than a female failing.
Although as in all comedies and romances there's the inevitable happy ending, in which the sisters are reconciled with their lovers, one can't help but ponder the unresolved issues this neat conclusion glosses over. But then this CMDFTT production, within its constraints, tightly directed by Dr Hilwig Helmer, admirably gave food for thought beyond the conventional ending. Individually and collectively, experience and nascent talent presented a local audience with the rare opportunity of experiencing one of operas classics.
The production ends its run on Sunday evening at 6 pm.
Despina teaches the sisters about seduction. PHOTO: DANIEL GOMEZ