The Tricks of Comedy – Macerata’s Così fan Tutte

Mozart, Così fan Tutte:  Conductor, Riccardo Frizza; Sets, Costumes and Staging, Pier Luigi Pizzi; Lighting, Vincenzo Raponi; Chorus Master, David Crescenzi; Choreographer, Roberto Maria Pizzuto. Orchestra Regionale delle Marche; Marchigiano Chorus V Bellini; Salvadei (on-stage) band. Teatro Lauro Rossi, Macerata 24.7.2011 (JB)

Cast: Fiordiligi -Carmela Remigio; Dorabella -Ketevan Kemoklidze; Guglielmo -Andreas Wolf; Ferrando -Juan Francisco Gatell; Despina -Giacinta Nicotra; Don Alfonso -Andrea Concetti

Production Picture © Alfredo Tabochini

Comedy is a tricky business. And what a business those tricks turn out to be. It may have surprised such classicist practitioners of the art such as Groucho Marx, Mae West, Woody Allen or Kevin Bishop to know that their tricks, ploys, mockeries, and even some of their plots and gags were firmly in place when the originating Father of Comedy, Aristophanes, presented his plays in Athens in the fifth century BCE. It seems we have been laughing at the same things for twenty-five centuries. Aristophanes’ plays belong more to what we today would call farce. But as Allen and Bishop know, the best farce should be presented with a straight face and never named as farce.

Lorenzo da Ponte’s life was so farcical it is hard to grasp that it is not a fiction. He was born Jewish but when his forty-something father, just widowed, decided to marry a sixteen year old girl, he was obliged to convert to Christianity and for good measure, brought his three sons with him into that religion. This was lucky for the newly-named Lorenzo. He was eleven but had never learned to read or write. He soon made up for lost time, outstripping all the other boys in the seminary in Latin and Italian. He became a priest. But he also had a mistress and delivered their baby himself. All in a day’s work, he was heard to say. When the Church frowned on this, he and his wife opened a brothel! You might say that he did everything in his own way. And his autobiographical material came in use for his comic scenarios.

At the time he was working on the libretto for Così fan Tutte da Ponte was having an affair with the soprano Adriana Ferrarese, who was Fiordiligi at the premiere. (Her real-life sister was Dorabella.) Mozart was exaggeratedly jealous of his friends and da Ponte’s taking up with Adriana would have been enough for him to punish her. He duly did so with all her punishingly difficult music. (He would later deal out the same punishment to his hated sister-in-law who sang the Queen of the Night.) You can hear da Ponte’s chuckle as he lists the characters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella as two Ferrarese ladies. You should also know that at the time, the women of Ferrara were known for being forward.

Mozart and da Ponte were both at their peak at the time of Così. That shows and sounds. And so are Riccardo Frizza (conductor) and Pier Luigi Pizzi (Staging, sets and costumes). So Macerata had an ideal quartet for the opera in the city’s jewel of a court theatre, designed by Antonio Bibbiena and named after the Macerata composer, Lauro Rossi.

All four gentlemen (Mozart, da Ponte, Frizzza and Pizzi) know the golden rule that farce must be played with a straight face. The more unnatural a situation is, the more natural it must be made to seem: a technique started by Father Aristophanes himself. Only Despina stepped out of line on this. But more of her in a minute.

Maestro Pizzi made his set, costumes and light in whites and shades of grey. It is set on a rocky beach with the girls’ house raised up on a terrace and two floors at stage right. Both realistic and stagy (especially the exaggerated whites) but the emphasis is firmly on the realism. We are introduced to the six characters during the overture. All six could comfortably find work as Hollywood movie stars: dashing, trim and radiant.

Don Alfonso (Andrea Concetti) rips the gauze curtain from the top to bottom of the stage and it is smoothly whisked away, revealing the white beach. The boys appear, strip to the waist and perform press-ups to the music. Despina and the girls appear on the terrace of the house with that kind of movement that indicates they are hoping not to see one another. Activity is the watch-word. And the music fits it well.

Riccardo Frizza has all the right ideas about tempi. In order to make farce work it has to be taken “seriously”. But how many times have you heard parts of Così slow down to stodginess. Maestro Frizza does not fall into that trap. He is very good at keeping the show moving. Of course, we don’t want it to sparkle uninterruptedly for the entire evening. But when matters become “serious” (and this is a much-used ploy of da Ponte and Mozart) it is essential that we are made to feel the inverted commas round the “seriousness”. In this edition, we do.

Vocally, the girls were better than the boys. But that, in part, is because Mozart has mostly given them better music. Carmela Remigio (Fiordiligi) doesn’t take Mozart’s punishment lying down. Appropriately, she stood on a rock for Come scoglio and left us with the feeling that this determined young woman would not be someone to meet on a dark night. Parody this may be, but it works best when played straight. That is what she did. The enormous leaps were perfectly in tune and the coloratura accurate. No one will ever sing the demanding role as well as Margaret Price but Remigio’s Fiordiligi is one to be reckoned with. She gave an equally impressive account of the rondo, Per pietà, ben mio, perdona which the opening night audience applauded warmly and long.

It is very easy to have the impression that Dorabella is under the shadow of her sister, and Ketevan Kemoklidze did nothing to dispel that impression. Nevertheless she made her mark vocally, especially in Smanic implacabili which Lord Harewood persisted in seeing as a parody of exaggerated tragedy, but which Kemoklidze had the good sense to deliver straight-on. This glamorous Georgian mezzo soprano is an accomplished actress. And above all, a vocal actress.

Andreas Wolf (Guglielmo) made his mark in that delicately written aria, Non siate ritrosi -or as much as he is allowed to make, since you may recall that the authors interrupt this expressiveness in the interests of farce. Juan Francisco Gatell (Ferrando) rose well to the vocal demands of Ah lo veggio, quell’ anima bella and moved throughout with the athleticism of an Olympic medallist.

Da Ponte and Mozart use Don Alfonso as the Greek Chorus: it is he who is the voice-over narrator and who plots the mischief and guarantees the story-line. The role calls for an unassuming actor (don’t look at me, I’m only the story-teller) and in Andrea Conceti, Macerata found an ideal actor-singer for this role.

There is certainly something of the serva-padrona (servant-master) in the scheming nature of Despina. But Giacinta Nicotra played the role all padrona and no serva. She dominates all the scenes in which she appears as though she might be playing Lady Macbeth. I had better say that the Macerata audience liked her performance. But in so playing Despina, she eliminates all the charm. And that is a great deal in this role.

Jack Buckley