A Great Così

Così fan tutte is one of those Mozart operas I’ve never been able to warm to. The music is superb—possibly even better than in any of his other operas—but that only makes the cruelty of the plot more noticeable, and more despicable.  I once saw a successful Così in a little black-box theater in the Neukölln section of Berlin, but that one worked because it was an all-male cast, which was a bit of a cheat, since the whole plot hinges on what men think of women. And in the Berlin production, the music had been reduced to eight hands on two pianos:  fun, but hardly the full Mozart score.

Still, I never give up, so on Friday my husband and I set out for the LoftOpera production of Così in Bushwick. The tickets were only $30—an excellent sign, since it meant that young people and the otherwise-not-rich would be able to go—and the thought of watching an opera in an abandoned warehouse was kind of thrilling. Bushwick, too, is outside my usual territory, so it was rather exciting to navigate from the L-train’s Jefferson station through streets lined mainly with warehouses and garbage trucks, until we finally got to the inhabited portion of town, around Bogart and Morgan. On our lengthy and ultimately successful search for a restaurant, we passed by two young artist-looking guys sitting on a front stoop on Ingraham, and (in a manner completely foreign to Manhattanites) they spontaneously said hi to us, though with a definite note of surprise in their voices. “It’s as if we’re the first people over forty they’ve ever seen,” I confided to my husband.

LoftOpera itself turned out to be a bit daunting at first sight. It was indeed located in a huge abandoned warehouse, most of which was taken up by empty space, bike racks, Port-a-Potties, and beer stands.  Off at the far end stood the stage, raised and projecting out into the ground-level seats — most of which were, alas, backless benches. The air inside the warehouse was stifling on Friday night, even after the outside temperature had cooled below its high of 86, and all the audience members were waving their programs as fans. “We can leave at the intermission,” I assured my husband. This assurance was reiterated when the performance was delayed by twenty or thirty minutes due to problems with the L train.

The minute the music started, however, I relaxed completely.  It was a full orchestra, under the baton of Dean Buck, and they played the overture beautifully. When the first two singers, the tenor Spencer Viator (as Ferrando) and the baritone Alex DeSocio (as Guglielmo), opened their mouths and began to sing, I was a goner. There was no way I was going to leave before it was over.

Viator and DeSocio were not the only wonderful performers; the two women playing Fiordiligi and Dorabella (Megan Pachecano in the soprano role, Sarah Nelson Craft as the mezzo) were also terrific. Michelle Trovato, who was apparently ill, still did a lovely job as the maid Despina, and Gary Ramsey was a perfectly good and very clear-dictioned Don Alfonso. Moreover, all six singers could act (quite an unusual thing, in the opera world), and thanks to the director, Louisa Proske, they had been given real acting parts. For the first time in my life, I found the opera funny (especially in the first half) and moving (especially in the second).

Proske’s brilliant move was to present the four lovers as teenagers, with Don Alfonso as the boys’ teacher and Despina as the girls’ put-upon cleaning lady. Simply by reducing their ages and putting them in classroom desks, this approach made sense of Ferrando’s and Guglielmo’s idiotic willingness to take Don Alfonso’s bet about unfaithful girlfriends. It also made all the stupidity about love—the blind conviction about its permanence, the terror of infidelity, the mooning about at temporary abandonment, the anger connected with jealousy—seem to apply to these particular teenagers, rather than to men and women in general. And in taking a rather contemptuous attitude toward these young fools, we in the audience found ourselves in very much the position of the evil, string-pulling Don Alfonso: a realization which caused me, at least, to rethink my position and sympathize more with the young lovers.

Risks were taken here. Don Alfonso was presented (though with great subtlety) as an envious old homosexual, half in love with his boys and half resentful of their active sex lives with their girlfriends. Despina was markedly working-class—overweight, badly dressed, routinely angry, and not at all the sprightly, sexy little maid played more typically by the likes of Danielle de Niese. Both of these factors gave motivation to the vengeful plot inflicted on the young lovers by these two. And though the story needn’t be realistic to succeed—can’t, in fact, be realistic, given the problems of recognition and non-recognition that so often afflict opera plots—the removal of the usual coldly motiveless malignity made it much easier to stomach the cruel proceedings. There was also great humor in the portrayal of the two secretly returning young men, who were not Turks or Albanians so much as grownups in suits, with huge fake mustaches: they had been turned from boys into men and were successfully hiding behind their new roles.

By the intermission, I had forgotten my backless bench and my overheated self; I just wanted to stay on and see how the piece would resolve, emotionally. And I wasn’t disappointed. Every detail of the production had been thought through, so that the girls themselves, and not the boys, were the ones who chose each other’s lovers in disguise. (On first approach, the transformed Guglielmo and Ferrando had actually tried appealing to their own original lovers.) The change-over in the couples was signaled even with hairstyles, so that Fiordiligi wore her hair up for the first half of the opera and down for the second, while Dorabella did the reverse. And the usual hurrying-up toward the end of the plot, when the impostors disappear during the wedding scene and are almost immediately replaced by the grooms in their original personae, worked in a way it never had before, because these were confused teenagers who just wanted to avoid embarrassment and forget their terrible pain. That the pain became general at that moment—a function of love, beyond teenage angst, beyond opera gimmicks—was part of the great beauty and delicacy of the show.

Such performances in such locations create great camaraderie among the audience members, and a whole cluster of us headed off to the subway together, losing our way on the dark streets and then being found and rescued by other audience members headed the same way. After my husband and I had stupidly used our Metro cards on the wrong side of the L tracks and were unable to get back into the system on the Manhattan-facing side, the two friendly strangers who had guided us to the station gave us swipes from their cards. And these two guys left us with a great story, as well.  Having been delayed by the problematic outward-bound L, they told us, they had arrived at the warehouse after the overture was over and the singers had already begun to sing. Entering the huge, dark space, they saw in the far distance a tiny lit-up opera, which grew larger and more audible as they made their way toward it, until they finally took their seats and were swept up in the utterly convincing, life-sized performance. It was an image I will treasure as long as my own direct experience of this Così—and that, I suspect, will be forever.


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