at Orchestra Hall

February 13 and 15

When Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte wrote their trilogy of great operas they didn’t have fashion shows in mind. But the back-to-back presentations of these operas last month by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra might have led one to believe otherwise.

The ambitious opera marathon, I’m told, was conceived by Daniel Barenboim for the Bastille Opera several seasons back. It made a lot of sense then. Newly designated to head what was meant to be France’s national opera, the maestro had reasons to create a big splash in time for the bicentennials of the French Revolution and Mozart’s death. Lavishly staged, these operas would showcase the coterie of young singers and backstage talent he’d collected during the 80s in Salzburg and elsewhere. (He recorded all three operas with many of the same principals.) Presented consecutively, the operas would elucidate his pet thesis about their thematic and emotional kinship. Unfortunately for Paris, the project was sidetracked. So was Barenboim–unceremoniously sacked by the French socialist government, which perceived him as an overpaid elitist.

Was Paris’s loss our gain? Any production of a Mozart opera boasting a major orchestra and a cast of talented singers is a treat, let alone three in a row. And transforming Orchestra Hall into a venue for “fully staged” operas–a first in the hall’s 87-year history–was an experiment waiting to happen. Never mind that the stage is too cramped for opera. Never mind the cost. As it turned out, Barenboim’s magnificent obsession cost about a million dollars; having no corporate subsidy, it put the CSO solidly in the red for the first time in five years.

Certainly Barenboim is right about the kinship of these Italian operas. The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan tutte–written in only five years–have much in common, like panels in a triptych. Their protagonists, representing all walks of late-18th-century life, could be cousins. The Marriage of Figaro, based on the Beaumarchais play, sets into motion the new psychodrama of sexual politics in which class differences play a subtle role. While gently exposing the foibles of the fading aristocracy and the discreet charms of the rising bourgeoisie, each opera probes truth, honor, death, and above all the relationships between men and women. Mozart was at the height of his powers, deftly using recurring motifs and instrumental colors for vivid, nuanced characterization. (A tune from The Marriage of Figaro is even quoted in Don Giovanni.) His classical style had reached a kind of perfection in its well-proportioned architectonics. Even without staging each of these operas can still come alive, astounding us with its coherence, beauty, and wisdom–as countless concert performances have shown over the years.

What Barenboim and company achieved in Orchestra Hall was a hybrid–elaborate concert performances in which the singers, in costume, had enough room to “act” out the drama. The orchestra occupied the front half of the stage, and behind it stood a raked platform supporting a minimalist set and banks of lights. Devised by Paul Steinberg, the set, used in all three productions, included a white canvas wall, a desolate Doric column, and the sparest furnishings. The look was half German Expressionism, half Salvador Dali. Calvin Klein would’ve loved it. And the costumes. The handiwork of Oscar de la Renta and Gabriel Berry, they seemed the latest statements in Eurochic.

For Christopher and David Alden, the identical-twins director team, the mise-en-scene couldn’t be simpler: Mozart’s world is ours; his operas are morality plays for our time; his characters are angst-ridden yuppies. (Like most CSO subscribers, I missed one of the productions. However, reviews and comments indicate the Alden brothers’ interpretation of The Marriage of Figaro was much the same.)

The parallels were underscored most clearly in Cosi fan tutte. After all, its plot deals with high-stakes wagering and mate swapping. The cynical Don Alfonso bets Ferrando and Guglielmo that their fiancees, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, love them about as well as the next man. Confident of winning, the two young officers accept the wager. Pretending to have been called to war, they appear in disguise and begin to woo each other’s betrothed. At first protesting fidelity, the sisters eventually fall in love with the “new” suitors. When their fickleness is exposed, the lovers go through bouts of soul-searching, while Alfonso declares it’s only human nature. The least understood of Mozart’s operas, Cosi fan tutte has been accused of drawing-room superficiality. But that’s precisely Mozart and Da Ponte’s point: despite our protestations, we, like Fiordiligi and Dorabella, are susceptible to our changeable emotions. Only after coming to terms with that realization, as Fiordiligi does in her two famous arias, do we attain a sense of self-acceptance. It’s a profoundly humane and compassionate view of human beings, and it’s the essence of Mozart’s art.

In the CSO’s production the pairs of lovers paraded around stylishly like models in an Obsession commercial–and with just about as much motivation. The sisters seemed congenitally petulant and excitable, their boyfriends bored dandies. Things picked up only after Ferrando and Guglielmo returned, disguised as supercool dudes (and not the Albanians they are supposed to be). This is not to say that the staging worked. Much of the time it favored madcap comedy over serious contemplation. Fiordiligi, for instance, was not allowed enough moments to muse in private, and as if to compensate for the dramatic slackness, the stage lights shifted colors often–like mood rings.

The cast was made up of unusually nice-looking singers. Lella Cuberli made a satisfactory though not sharply etched Fiordiligi, and Cecilia Bartoli was outstanding in her feisty portrayal of Dorabella. Neither Michele Pertusi as Guglielmo nor Bruno Lazzaretti as Ferrando made a strong impression, though Pertusi did display ample talent as a physical comedian. Wearing an elegant black tux, Ferruccio Furlanetto turned Alfonso into an uncommonly suave (and comparatively young) master of ceremonies. In the scene-stealing role of the maid Despina was Joan Rodgers, a British soprano with an engaging, supple voice. After a tepid overture the orchestra responded to Barenboim’s direction with verve. The clarinet playing–a barometer of any Mozart opera performance–was especially sensitive.

Unlike Cosi fan tutte, which could just as well have been done without any stage business, the CSO’s Don Giovanni conveyed a foreboding dramatic force. In between a tall cross dominating the wall on one side and rows of flower wreaths and candles on the other–between redemption and commemoration–the libertine’s descent into hell unfolded. The singers moved pawnlike through the chiaroscuro lighting, creating a film noir effect. The stark play of light and shadow added intensity to the struggle between good and evil impulses articulated with so much insight in the opera’s music. Particularly effective were the menacing shadows cast by Giovanni. Yet the monochromatic ambience had its drawbacks. Missing was the gaiety of the villagers’ revelry, the pageantry of Giovanni’s masked ball, and even the debauchery of his last supper, though the neon cross coming to light after his death was theatrical enough. And sometimes the stage direction didn’t make sense. Why was a coffin used as a banquet table? Why did Masetto hide in it?

In Don Giovanni too the singers were fashionably attired, the men in dark trench coats, the women in swank gowns, except for the village wench, Zerlina, who wore prim debutante dresses. The singing was on the whole excellent. In the title role, bass Furlanetto was simply magnetic–it was easy to believe that women of all classes easily succumbed to this dark, handsome man’s seduction. Waltraud Meier’s Donna Elvira was a mix of neurotic energy and resolution. As Donna Anna, the scorned woman seeking vengeance for her father’s murder, Sheri Greenawald acted with unnecessary reserve. Rodgers was a vivacious, perceptive Zerlina. Tenor Lazzaretti turned in a rather pallid, tear-jerking performance as Don Ottavio, but Richard Cowan was a virile, hot-headed Masetto, every ready to defend Zerlina’s honor. Bass Pertusi, gifted with comic timing, made the most of Leporello’s exasperation at his master’s antics and cruelties.

Barenboim conducted the music as if it were the Prague Symphony, full of dramatic undertows and unexpected lightness. This is the kind of approach that works only with an orchestra accustomed to playing symphonies, and the CSO delivered eloquently much of the time (and sounded more intense than the Berlin Philharmonic, which collaborated with Barenboim on the recordings). Onstage with the singers, the musicians focused attention on what Mozart intended all along: the orchestra as the other “player” in the music drama. In fact, with an ensemble of CSO’s caliber, there really was no need to dress up these concert performances–the costly staging ended up being more a distraction than not.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/George Mott.