"I don't know where we are!" I heard a fellow audience member exclaim during intermission. We were at the Santa Fe Opera's opening of its new production of Così fan tutte, of course, but I knew what the person was referring to: The production was part prep school, part Western, part strange Texas disco, part formal dinner party and part pyrotechnics show, all on a stark and sterile white prism raking toward the back of the stage, with thick black paint and trap doors thrown in.
Where were we, exactly, indeed?
Young director RB Schlather and his equally vibrant team, including a tireless orchestra deftly conducted by Harry Bicket, have turned Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's dramma giocoso (an opera full of contradictions, largely comedic but with high drama sprinkled throughout) into a radical, hyper-sexualized, ultra-modern visual poem presented by what SFO dramaturge Cori Ellison called a "dream team" cast. And while I sound unhinged when I try to explain it to anyone who wasn't there, it all worked.
Taking this one in is like reading highly imagistic poetry. Some pieces, so deeply concerned with aesthetic and wordfeel, don't seem to mean much of anything upon first read—like perhaps the disparate images and motifs in this opera may confound a more intellectual, logical approach. But just allow it (a poem, this Così) to just sound nice and evoke weird, amorphous feelings, and it sets a strong tone to create an undeniable ambiance in your mouth.
It's understandable to want to discard something that could take so much chewing. But if you instead just swallow it whole and let it make sense more in the heart than in the head, it feels good. Maybe even beautiful.
So goes this Così. Lean back and feel what you viscerally feel; you will know exactly what Schlather intended, and will soon swoon over this nearly perfect cast selected to convey his vision.
It helped that the weather once again cooperated with the mood inside the Crosby Theatre. As the overture draws to a close, at the very end of the geometric set a figure slowly rises into view. He steps onto the stage and ambles down, lightning flashing, wind blowing audience coifs to and fro; it is Rod Gilfry's Don Alfonso, a Sam Shepard-esque cowboy character in full Western costume. He hit his mark on Saturday at the end of the stage right in time for a clap of thunder, surveying a half-confused, half-infatuated audience. It set a mood, for sure.
We then meet best friends Guglielmo (baritone Jarrett Ott) and Ferrando (tenor Ben Bliss) in all-white schoolboy outfits, wrestling around the stage and swooning over their fiancees. Don Alfonso laughs in their faces and tells them that all women would surely stray from their men if given even an ounce of opportunity. The three men (and the three women, for that matter) are all as strong actors as could be found on any musical theater stage. This combination of honey voices and intelligent portrayals should have been impossible.
Alfonso encourages the men to pretend they have been called off to war, then to dress in disguise and try to woo each other's women to see what happens. The men agree.
And then come the women. I'm tempted to crow about the pair being the highlight of the production, but so were the impeccable men, and so were Don Alfonso and hilarious and feisty chambermaid Despina (Tracy Dahl)—so just suffice to say that the whole dang cast was absolutely stellar.
Dorabella (mezzo-soprano Emily D'Angelo) and Fiordiligi (Amanda Majeski, who was also last year's positively smoldering Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos) have some of the best chemistry you could ever ask for. The pair, who are sisters easily mistaken for a dynamic and complex pair of girlfriends, are in white outfits of a similar bent to those of the men: tiny tennis skirts and perfect white sneakers paired with white tee shirts on bodies that affected childish poses at every possible opportunity, emphasizing the women's adolescent girlishness that eventually evolves to adult agony.
Their fiancees reappear in all-denim Texas tuxedos to say they are headed off to war; the women believe their heartbreak will kill them. That is, however, until their beaus reappear (up through a trap door in the floor—unconventional means are the only ways into and out of Paul Tate DePoo III's radical set) in new Western tuxedos, this time made of shiny silver metallic fabric. The audience burst into laughter. It doesn't take long for them to start to woo the women despite their claims of heartbreak. But, in aforementioned dramma giocoso style, the conflict is not all funny, nor is it all a dire dirge; the action vacillates between heart-rending and light and fluffy, sometimes even in the same couplet.
Speaking of the costumes, Terese Wadden only added to the strange beauty of this piece with her impeccable choices. Indeed, this is one of the most aesthetically pleasing operas I could ever imagine (could you get a more good-looking group of six?), and the costumes added visual and atmospheric depth in a positively inspired manner … even if, for most of the second act, characters aren't even wearing too many clothes at all.
If the costuming is the seventh character, the lighting in this opera is the eighth. Designer Jax Messenger so often lights the action from behind, or with stark, harsh whites from unexpected angles that the set seems almost always cut off by darkness, or actors are multiplied in crisp shadow on far walls. Sometimes, characters aren't even lit at all during important movements; all the light may be concentrated at the back of the stage, and the singers are at the front, so we must watch them in silhouette. Back to the idea of feeling this viscerally: What does it mean? It's hard to tell in the moment. What are their faces doing? No way of knowing. Does it work? Undeniably, if you allow it.
There is so much more to say about individual characters. Dahl's impossibly lovable but wily Despina in particular positively lit up the stage, and not just with literal fire. The athleticism of these performers can't be underreported either, as D'Angelo's Dorabella sings while rolling across the stage, and Gilfry at one point delivers from an effortless wall squat. But, as previously established, I'll just sound like a crazy person if I try to tell you how great and unexpected it all was. Best to just see it yourself.
This opera could have been a miserable failure had this cast been even an inch less talented. And indeed, in discussing apprehensions with fellow opera-goers, I wasn't alone in my expectation that it would fail, perhaps spectacularly. But Schlather has proven himself a risky visionary with this one, and the Santa Fe Opera has done audiences right by trusting him with a production that seemed too off-the-white-wall to make an iota of sense. Bravi.
Così fan tutte
Six performances through Aug. 22. $42-$320.
The Santa Fe Opera
301 Opera Drive, 986-5900