The Shape of Opera to Come

by Linda Theung on May 30, 2014

The Los Angeles Philharmonic production of 'Così fan tutte' (all photos by Craig T. Mathew and Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging)

The Los Angeles Philharmonic production of ‘Così fan tutte’ (all photos by Craig T. Mathew and Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging)

LOS ANGELES — The story is quite simple, albeit problematic: Two men place a wager with a philosopher to prove that their respective partners are above infidelity. To test their challenge, the men disguise themselves as Albanians and attempt to tempt their betrothed. They eventually lose their bet, as their lovers fall for the seduction of their alter egos in a wife-swapping-type arrangement. Despite the betrayal, all four end up shrugging their shoulders and pronouncing, “oh well, that’s just life!”

That is the story of Così fan tutte. The opera, the last of the trilogy by composer Mozart and librettist Da Ponte (the first two are Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro), is currently being presented by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In an age when stories are regarded as “impressions” and TMZ serves a source of reportage, how does a four-hour 18th-century comedic opera manage to be relevant and interesting? Does this form of performance still circulate precisely because it is the diametric opposite of the here-today-gone-tomorrow forms of entertainment that dominate today?

Perhaps. But the LA Phil has also reinvigorated the genre by inviting luminaries in architecture and fashion to add their take to the story. The LA Phil’s productions of all three Mozart operas have benefitted from incredibly inventive and strategic planning, which has made this otherwise staid trilogy a trifecta of operas that could pass as performance art, maybe even gesamtkunstwerk.

From the Los Angeles Philharmonic production of 'Così fan tutte' (click to enlarge)

From the Los Angeles Philharmonic production of ‘Così fan tutte’ (click to enlarge)

Each of the three productions paired Pritzker Prize–winning architects with renowned fashion designers, and all of the presentations were overseen by modernist director Christopher Alden. In 2012, it was Rodarte and Frank Gehry; 2013 saw Azzedine Alaïa working with Jean Nouvel; and, for Così fan tutte, which runs through tomorrow, Hussein Chalayan teamed up with Zaha Hadid.

This has led to a kind of turducken of architecture: a work of Hadid’s enclosed within Gehry’s iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall. It’s something to which audiences of many visual and performing arts institutions are getting more accustomed. Museums are steadily collaborating with architects to design exhibitions, and the LA Phil smartly capitalizes on this trend in the hopes of gaining audiences that might not otherwise be interested in stories of love and deceit sung in barely intelligible 18th-century Italian.

From the Los Angeles Philharmonic production of 'Così fan tutte'

From the Los Angeles Philharmonic production of ‘Così fan tutte’

Hadid’s set for Così fan tutte is sculpture; the piece could be a curve plucked from one of her buildings. The stark-white form appears as if made of finished stucco, filling nearly the entire stage of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The curves hint at a cross-section of a nautilus shell: all the lines appear to meet at a core that’s not visible, but from which performers emerge for a number of scenes. At first, I was a bit skeptical: the set seemed a bit too serious for an opera buffa. And when I first settled in, it looked incredibly static, even imposing. Then, near the end of the first act, it began to undulate. The movement seemed to be a product of lighting trickery, but then it became clear that the stage was made up of two materials: a solid element on which the performers walked and a scrim that silently pulsated to the music conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.

From the Los Angeles Philharmonic production of 'Così fan tutte' (click to enlarge)

From the Los Angeles Philharmonic production of ‘Così fan tutte’ (click to enlarge)

Chayalan’s costumes, presented against the dramatic, high-contrast lighting by designer Adam Silverman, appeared as though they had come straight from the runway. Inventively convertible — a coat mutates into a frock, a skirt-and-top ensemble becomes a strapless drop-hem dress — the costumes looked like spring ready-to-wear against the backdrop of Hadid’s minimal yet oversized catwalk. There were two styles of dress: the asymmetrical power suits worn by the manipulators, Don Alfonso and Despina, and the pastel-hued frocks worn by Dorabella and Fiordiligi. Their male counterparts, Guglielmo and Ferrando, were introduced in innocent-looking white shorts and pastel cropped shirts. When they traded in their lackadaisical perspective for their disguised egos, the two men donned dresses that looked borrowed from the Terracotta Warriors of the Qin Dynasty. Given Chayalan’s forward-thinking and conceptual work in the past two decades, I was surprised he didn’t use this opportunity as a platform for experimentation. He could have easily created outfits that matched the absurdity of Così, but unfortunately he played it safe. The different looks throughout the opera, however, worked beautifully to brand the characters and to distinguish between scenes, something that’s quite a feat given the zero set-and-prop changes.

The names of these two big stars at conceptual center stage made it hard not to fixate on the set and costumes, but that gave the production a welcome twist. Those elements tend to be secondary in opera, but the story is, by now, fairly well known, whereas Hadid and Chalayan’s custom work for this production was not. (No photos were made public until after the first performance last Friday.)

In a way, the six performers also had to negotiate with their costumes and the set as the audience did. The performers unraveled the costumes, while simultaneously delivering their arias. They balanced and multitasked like acrobats, ascending and descending the steep slope of the stage in their chunky heels and lanky threads.

From the Los Angeles Philharmonic production of 'Così fan tutte'

From the Los Angeles Philharmonic production of ‘Così fan tutte’

Dudamel, the LA Phil’s charismatic music director, was animated and precise in his leading of the musicians. To the audience’s delight, he even chimed in with his baritone voice when Don Alfonso (Rod Gilfry) stood in proximity to the conductor’s podium, reciting a line about having a party. Both paused to take in laughter from the audience, who seemed pleasantly surprised at the interaction between the conductor, musicians, and performers. Alden used a similar formula in last year’s production of Le nozze di Figaro to great success; perhaps he brought it back knowing it would draw a similar response. (It was even more popular this time around.)

This breaking of the fourth wall saw Dudamel and the philharmonic become representatives of  the audience. The unexpected injection garnered laughter to which the performers responded with a long, smile-lined pause, linking us more directly to the elaborate spectacle on stage. This small gesture — combined with Alden’s direction, Hadid’s spaceship-like form, and Chalayan’s androgynous designs — made us realize that this preposterous story from the 18th century, especially in its generalizations about gender, is not too far fetched from the preposterousness of the present.

The last performance of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Mozart/Da Ponte Trilogy: Dudamel Conducts Così takes place at the Walt Disney Concert Hall (111 South Grand Avenue, Los Angeles) on May 31, at 2pm.

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