Monday, July 17, 2017

Portland Opera’s production of "Così fan tutte" updated with Keep Portland Weird vibe

Photo credit: Cory Weaver
Sasquatches, virtual reality goggles, bean-bag chairs, dreadlocks, jumbotron, and REI chic were all part of the mix on opening night (July 14th) in Portland Opera’s production of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte,” giving it a “Keep Portland Weird” vibe that was fun but also distracting. Opera purists were certainly shaking their heads at this concoction, but the mashup of styles that was unleashed by director Roy Rallo fell mostly into the silly storyline of the opera. The only problem with the onslaught of visual imagery was that it sometimes took the attention away from the music, which was some of the best Mozart ever wrote.

Perhaps the visual diversions were seen as a way to keep audiences involved in the opera, which, with intermission, lasted about three and a half hours. The oddities started right away when a Sasquatch, wandered onstage during the Overture. After changing into the garb of a gentleman from Eighteenth Century, it turned out that the Sasquatch was Don Alfonso (Daniel Mobbs), the friend of Ferrando (Aaron Short) and Guiglielmo (Ryan Short). All of them initially wore traditional clothing as did their fiancés Fiordiligi (Antonia Tamer) and Dorabella (Kate Farrar). But after the wager between the men was made, Ferrando and Guiglielmo reappeared as dreadlocked dudes, sporting plaid suits and bearing Voodoo donuts. Fair enough, the men were supposed to be exotic Albanians. Okay, maybe exotic Portlandia-Albanians. After being rejected by the women, the men in despair drank poison and were then revived via virtual reality goggles, which the women wear also – with all of them collapsing onto big bean-bag chairs. Despina (Mary Dunleavy) controlled their VR world with a joystick before taking a drag on a vaping cigarette with Alfonso.

Photo credit: Cory Weaver
As the costumes became more modern – men in REI camo and women wearing modern hairdos with garish colors – they seemed to be removing the outer layers of custom and tradition while playing the game of seduction. The scenery, designed by Daniel Meeker and built by Oregon Ballet Theatre for Portland Opera, included a large back wall with spacious panels that magically framed the wonderful video projections of Paul Clay. The imagery of the projected videos augmented the text with terrific imagination for the most part. But the paintings of nude women apparently went too far for the lady sitting next to me because she had brought her young daughter and they left after intermission. The videos of lips, hands, feet, and humans were magically interwoven, and the best sequence was one that showed of paisley patterns melting into human forms.
Photo credit: Cory Weaver
The problem with all the ingenious imagery was that sometimes it didn’t compliment the music, but rather distracted everyone. The most obvious case occurred after intermission during the jumbotron segment when Ferrando brought out a video camera and directed it at the audience. Everyone got engrossed watching themselves on the big screen (the panels on the back wall) and totally forgot about the beautiful aria that Guiglielmo sang.

Did I mention singing? Oh yes, there was plenty of that and all was very well done by the cast, four of whom are members of the company’s resident artist program. Tenor Aaron Short, in particular, has excellent voice for Mozart’s music: smooth and gentle with no hard edges. Yet all of the young professionals – baritone Ryan Thorn, soprano Antonia Tamer, mezzo-soprano Kate Farrar – were excellent, and they expertly collaborated with the veterans Mary Dunleavy and Daniel Mobbs. The “Soave sia il vento” (“A Calm Sea and a Prosperous Voyage”) trio was gorgeous, and there were many heart-stopping arias that were sung with absolute conviction. Dunleavy captivated the audience with her persuasive arguments for the women to have a little fun, and Mobbs easily conveyed the cynical side of one who has seen it all

The orchestra pit at the Newmark seemed to have been enlarged to accommodate a twenty-seven piece orchestra. The musicians played well under the direction of Nicholas Fox, although there were a couple of exposed passages for the violins that were a tad rough. The chorus sang with gusto, but when they appeared in underwear, it seemed incongruous with the outdoor setting. Perhaps that is why they had to change to Sasquatches at the end. Another oddity was Ferrando kneeling in a skirt while trying to win over Fiordiligi. The final scene, in which the back wall was lifted into the fly space, revealed the tech crew and packing crates surrounded by a chorus of Sasquatches. That was pretty absurd. Yet it sort of went well with Portland, which is proud of its eclectic reputation – like the fellow who wears a skirt and a Darth Vader mask while peddling a unicycle and playing flaming bagpipes. Ah... "Così fan tutti frutti."


Curtis Heikkinen said...

I have to admit I'm glad I missed this production, James. It all sounds rather silly and smacks of a desperate attempt to engage modern audiences with dated operatic warhorse. It is shame that Portland opera feels compelled to mount an oddball production of a tired opera rather than present a compelling modern opera that might have something worthwhile to say. Of course, the fear of being punished at the box office trumps all other concerns, so the parade of Butterflys, La Bohemes, Magic Flutes, etc, continues on into eternity, not only here in Portland but elsewhere as well.

James Bash said...

Hi Curtis, I hope that you can see the David Lang double bill at the end of the month. They will fit your interests.