They were the Odd Couple of late 18th century opera. Lorenzo Da Ponte, former resident of the Venetian Republic, Jewish convert to Catholicism, libertine, disgraced priest, slovenly and intellectual. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, born Salzburg, fervent Mason, shrewd showman, fashion lover, vain and impatient. And yet, for all their differences of personality and eternally mismatched temperaments, the two, brash librettist and inspired composer, effectively altered the entire course of music theatre, resonances still felt today.
The first two instalments in Da Ponte/Mozart’s vibrant trilogy of unrelated domestic comedies, The Marriage of Figaro (1786) and Don Giovanni (1787) essentially rewrote the opera buffa rulebook the moment they launched. Elements of uproarious slapstick collided and fused with gripping drama, pointed social satire with poignant characterization. Cosi fan tutte (Women Are Like That), premiered in 1790, raised the artistic stakes even higher, pushing the comedic envelope to its extreme. The final entry in the Baroque duo’s ground breaking triple bill, a heated operatic debate where the sticky principles of love, lust and devotion relentlessly intertwine, although moderately popular in Enlightenment Vienna, never aged well. Generations of 19th century opera-goers raised on the lofty principles of Romanticism were suspicious, not so much of Cosi fan tutte’s lusty hedonism, as its spirit of emotional anarchy.
Superficial, misogynistic, mean-minded, 200 years of entrenched critical judgement, invariably levelled at Da Ponte’s gravely under-appreciated sly, sardonic text, continues to motivate endlessly hollow attempts to reinvent a work of fundamental humanity.
Sweeping a long tradition of heedless reinterpretations into the dustbin of history, Against the Grain Theatre founder and artistic director Joel Ivany builds on a clean, unencumbered site, framing a unique, newly constructed Cosi fan tutte in a freshly inspired context. Staged with high style in CBC Toronto’s epic Studio 42, the mystery and messiness of love in all its imperfect glory plays out in vivid HD clarity. We have been invited to a live broadcast of A Little Too Cozy, a kitschy network reality show where happiness is a commodity and dreams, a marketable brand. What transpires are two hours of ferociously intelligent wit and observation sprinkled with moments of intense bittersweetness.
The plot, cleverly constructed from the raw materials of Da Ponte’s mad narrative, pivots around more than a smattering of hefty backstory. In a true over the top, ratings-obsessed, prime time opening monologue, Don L. Fonzo, A Little Too Cozy’s smarmy host, breathlessly brings us up to date in this, the show’s final episode. Two months worth of lovelorn contestants have paraded before the cameras, 16 frenzied bachelors and bachelorettes all out to land the perfect mate. The rules of engagement have been fierce. Text, email, Google Chat but no photos allowed. And no face to face encounters, either. At the end of each week, viewers have voted for their favourites. The suspense has built to fever pitch. Only two couples remain. The lucky winner of the grand finale nets a whooping $100,000 prize topped off by a luxurious honeymoon. Who will it be? Felicity and Elmo? Or Dora and Fernando? Stay tuned. A lot can change in an hour, particularly when the two impressionable young women are each confronted with the prospect of a Dream Date with an attractive man of mystery.
Of course, this being opera, things do not end well. Da Ponte’s original libretto strikes a crushing blow to sophistry and empty idealism. Ivany follows the master’s lead. What distinguishes this compass-straight, realigned take on Cosi fan tutte, the single simple elegant solution to a massive problem that has plagued the opera for centuries, is the elimination of disguise, invariably transparent, as a story beat. Elmo and Fernando are not required to mask their identities as dashing strangers to test their future mates’ constancy. Felicity and Dora have never met them. The Albanians need not enter.
A less obvious, perhaps, but no less meaningful edit focuses on the choice of title. The banner — A Little Too Cozy — sounds a distinctly ironic, even ominous undertone when applied to the quest for camera-ready romance. Da Ponte’s preferred caption, confined to subtitle status at Mozart’s insistence, La scuola degli amanti (The School for Lovers) is deliberately shunned by Ivany. There are no lessons to be learned here apart from one undeniable self-evident truth. Humans will be human. Bad decisions, blind leaps into the unknown, hearts lost to the wrong person, slip-ups and indiscretions crowd our lives. We are who we are.
#TeamFelicity. #TeamDora. Against the Grain cannily involves us both as studio audience and fans. We applaud the wannabe stars up close, in person. And later record Likes on Twitter. Used by AtG as a promotional tool, the ubiquitous hashtags underscore the multiple layers of theatricality at play here, reflected, not only at the level of social media, but also in the strongly drawn character sketches of the two young women that lie at the core of this very of-the-moment production. A series of pretaped segments, excerpts from earlier shows replayed on studio monitors, reveal Felicity and Dora in flashback. It soon becomes clear that the pair are in competition more with themselves than with each other. Giddy and obsessed — Dora collects Twitter followers, Felicity has the clothes — they bask in their 15-minutes of fame until suddenly reality hits. They have fallen for each other’s partners on Dream Date night thanks to Don L. Fonzo’s conniving. Fernando and Elmo’s willingness to play along proves deeply hurtful. There will be no winners in this televised love match because, in fact, there were never really any solid contenders. Happiness and the prize money go unclaimed. Fantasies are seductive. The Fonzos of this world never tire, it seems, of concocting new ways of exploiting them.
Appearing in the roles of Felicity and Dora, soprano Shantelle Przybylo and mezzo Rihab Chaieb contribute high-spirited, vivacious performances, brightly embodied, clearly individuated. Przybylo’s clear, lustrous instrument effortlessly bespeaks good girl Felicity, a shameless sentimentalist though by no means immune to strong feeling. Like an anchor, Ivany’s take on Come scoglia, is an unquestionable Act I triumph as conveyed by this gifted artist. Chaieb’s more spontaneous, hard-drinking Dora embodies the dangerous side of the duo, passionate, reckless, adventurous. Her fiery rendition of Smanie implacibili, a wild outburst of repressed passion, repurposed as I’ve been through everything, is explosively rendered.
Tenor Aaron Sheppard sings Fernando. Baritone Clarence Frazer is Elmo. The balance of timbre and tone on display here graphically evokes the two opposed personalities — Fernando, sweet, guileless lunkhead; Elmo, smooth, practiced player. Sheppard’s I see you, I love you is achingly tearful in its tender evocation of Mozart’s Un aura amorosa. Frazer’s contribution to A Little Too Cozy’s featured Dream Date duet This heart I will give you, Ivany’s gentle rephrasing of the composer’s gorgeous Il core vi dono, is quite simply beautiful.
Soprano Caitlin Wood is Despina, A Little Too Cozy’s nimble, no-nonsense talent relations manager. This is a remarkable voice endowed with impressive agility and range much in evidence in her lilting salute to the joy of sex, The Bachelor, or Survivor, is that what you call men? sung to In uomini, in soldati, sperare fideltà. Funny, irreverent, poised, Wood turns in a performance of great appeal. Add her crisp coloratura and a scene-stealer is born.
Baritone Cairan Ryan is the glib Don L. Fonzo, a master of the arched eyebrow and snappy one-liner. “You found your match but there’s always a catch.” Forever in the spotlight, stage centre in our consciousness, this archetypal ring master, has a way with words, sung or spoken, his delivery as sharp as his suits and matching wing-tip shoes. Contemptible and charming in equal turns, Ryan is a one-man, stand-up, knock out, forever centre stage, a singing actor of immense charisma.
Conducting from the piano, music director Topher Mokrzewski leads a polished 4-player string consort, violins, viola and cello, on an endlessly sparkling, joyful journey through Mozart’s irrepressible score. Evoking a profound measure of rich orchestral texture sourced from his own purpose-composed arrangement for chamber ensemble, Against the Grain Theatre’s resident maestro turns in an evening of exceptionally fine work.
Workshopped at the 2015 Banff Summer Arts Festival, A Little Too Cozy has proven well worth the wait. This is a splendidly crafted production, bravely mounted, artfully produced. Given the scope of AtG’s latest offering, what lies ahead for Ivany and company will likely surpass even the wildest imaginations.