Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” goes Chicago, 1958
The usual message of Così fan tutte — that women are fickle — annoyed Dmitri Toscas. Toscas, director of the Skylight Opera Theatre staging of the Mozart/Da Ponte opera, did something about it.
For the Skylight’s new production, Toscas leveled the playing field in the battle of the sexes by moving the action to Chicago, 1958, and making an important change in Da Ponte’s story. In the original, two army officers guys bet the older, worldlier Don Alfonso that their girlfriends, who are sisters, would never be untrue to them. So — this being comic opera — they disguise themselves as Albanians and woo each other’s girls. The girls relent, Don Alfonso collects, and everyone agrees that, well, women are like that. Though sadder, wiser and more ridiculous, all forgive and reconcile.
Toscas’ change: The girls see right through the disguise, the boys don’t realize this and get strung along through their ruse. In this single stroke, Toscas’ new English libretto adds a whole new level of irony and comic possibility to the play and to the music.
“With the girls knowing who the guys are, the arias take on a different intent,” he said. “The cast had a hard time shaking off the original sentiments in the music.”
In this version, those ardent songs of love come loaded with double meaning. And remember, that in the original the women are who they are. In Toscas’ version, they’re “acting” for the purpose of undercutting their disguised suitors. So the four principals play the roles of characters playing roles, and that subtle difference must come out in both the acting and the singing if the comedy is to play.
That much Toscas could have done with the usual Dorabella, Fiordiligi, Ferrrando and Guglielmo in 18th-century Naples. Why Dora, Flora, Elmer and Randal? Why Chicago, and why 1959?
“I wanted something that would feel like a Hollywood romantic comedy,” Toscas said, in an interview Wednesday. “And in the 50s, I found a parallel to a time when people were boxed into roles during conservative times.”
Toscas once worked as a researcher on a biographical film about Hugh Hefner, and became fascinated with the origins of the sexual revolution and the role Playboy played in it. That, too, partly explains the choice of time and place. He thinks Così, thus re-imagined, can catch the inklings of what was to come a few years later, when the 1960s became the 1960s (about 1964, as I recall).
“Hefner was the first one to say, ‘Women are like men — they like sex, too,” Toscas said. “People have tried to do this opera with hippies, but that’s too late, the sexual revolution had already arrived. The 50s fit perfectly.
“I’ve flipped everything. At the beginning, a guy drops a file in the office and bends over to pick it up, and the girls remark on his nice ass.”
Toscas, who staged a rethought La Traviata (with Violetta as a pop star) for the Skylight in 2oo8, started with a literal English translation of Da Ponte’s Italian libretto. He worked through it line by line to move it in time and place and twist the plot. But he also had to keep musical declamation in mind; the piece had to remain eminently singable.
“It was like fitting together a big puzzle,” Toscas said. “And it had to be funny.”
He and music director Pasquale Laurino mostly kept the music intact, aside from the usual reduction for the small Skylight pit. The one exception, an aria for Despina, the cynical maid who pulls the lovers’ strings, often in connivance with Alfonso. Chicago had a lively jazz scene in the 50s, and Toscas has Despina moonlight as a jazz singer. Toscas and Laurino have transformed her aria into three versions in three different jazz styles.
The Mozart/Da Ponte comedies are zany, but all of them have a moment in which one character or another stops and thinks about the cost and pain of betrayal. In Marriage of Figaro, it’s when the Countess sings Dove sono, which gives the comedy weight and raises the emotional stakes.
“Everyone has that moment in this Così,” Toscas said. “A some moment, every character realizes: We’re all ‘like that.'”
Cast and Credits
Stage Director/Translator, Dimitri Toscas; Conductor, Pasquale Laurino; Associate Music Director, Ruben Piirainen; Set Design, Kenneth Goldstein; Costume Design, Carol Blanchard; Lighting Design, Annmarie Duggan.
Dora, Lindsey Falduto; Fonzarello, Peter Kendall Clark; Despina, Danielle Hermon Wood; Flora, Kathy Pyeatt; Elmer, Mark Womack; Randal, Brandon Wood.
Performance Info and Tickets
The Florentine Opera, the Skylight and Next Act Theatre are offering a joint package that includes Cosi, the Florentine’s Italian Girl in Algiers and Next Act’s A Sleeping Country (opening March 24) for $100. The Florentine is handling the package; call 291-5700 ext. 224, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. through Friday.