Cosi fan tutte

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September 22nd 2009 8:32 am | Theatre | Review – By Diana Simmonds

Joyous wizardry of music and theatre

CosiCosi fan tutte, Opera Australia at the Sydney Opera House, 17 September-29 October 2009; www.opera-australia.org.au. Images here by Branco Gaica.

JIM SHARMAN is a name that immediately causes a frisson of interest and excitement when announced in tandem with the words “new production”. And especially when it’s a new production of a favourite warhorse such as Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte.

Sharman the showman – or shaman, take your pick – is a cerebral yet joyously visual wizard of theatre. He is still best known for groundbreaking musicals Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar and, most significantly, The Rocky Horror Show (then the movie adaptation, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but also in his portmanteau of credits are such productions as Voss and Death in Veniceplus the most telling of the Patrick White theatrical canon. Glimpses of all are to be found inBlood and Tinsel his memoir, published by Melbourne University Press and highly recommended.

So, that’s what underpins the creative thinking behind this new production of , an opera first staged in 1790, a year before Mozart’s premature death.

And Cosi needs some underpinning in the 21st century because it’s what could be termed aproblematic piece. In essence, a couple of young men, Ferrando (Henry Choo) and Guglielmo (Shane Lowrencev) are goaded by an older, more cynical man, suave operator Don Alfonso (Jose Carbo) into trying to prove to themselves and each other that their true loves will be faithless hussies the minute their backs are turned.

Given that Cosi is subtitled “The School for Lovers”, it’s debatable what the quartet is supposed to – and does – learn. Ferrando and Guglielmo are officers, about to strap on swords and go off to war. Their tearful girlfriends, Dorabella (Sian Pendry) and Fiordiligi (Rachelle Durkin) swear eternal love and constancy and are offended by the suggestion that either might waver. Don Alfonso, aided and abetted by the pragmatic Despina (Tiffany Speight) knows better and bets to win on their weakness.

Boys being boys – and, let’s face it – boys knowing all too well how they would behave in similar circumstances, take the bet, then assume disguises and set out to do the dirty on each other and their girls. So, when the girls eventually succumb to temptation and Despina’s sageadvice that, as blokes have known for millennia, love and sex are not the same thing, the lads have their prejudices confirmed and – one could argue – learn nothing.

For their part, Dorabella and Fiordiligi learn that in keeping with the patriarchal constructs of all the best opera, the status quo will prevail: bad girls or lower class girls will pay the price and society’s norms will be upheld. (Think La Boheme, Madama Butterfly, La Traviata etc.) The best they can hope for, therefore, is to be truly sorry for behaving like young blades and, if they’re lucky, their young blades will deign to forgive them and True Love will be theirs once more.

Sharman’s cast is beautifully balanced in this dubious endeavour: Lowrencev is tall and gangly – and, when in disguise with lank dark locks, uncannily resembles art and philanthropy maven Brian Sherman, (who was in the opening night audience). Yet Lowrencev is a fine vocal and visual foil for Choo: a spunky chunk whose tenor voice would make an angel swoon. Similarly, Pendry and Durkin are thoroughly modern young opera singers: they are plausible as the local hot chicks, and they act well; their voices intertwining in moments of harmonic loveliness. While as the saucy sceptic Despina, Tiffany Speight is a deservedly confident scene-stealer and the comedic heart of the piece.

Ironically, if there is a weak link in the line-up it’s Jose Carbo. He’s simply too attractive, visually and vocally, to totally convince as the world-weary bastard Don Alfonso ought to be. If anything, it’s hard to suppress the thought that the women would be way better off making a play for him rather than sticking with their coltish boyfriends.

For modern audiences, well some of us anyway, there are a few problems with the idea of Cosias a mere romp and whimsical depiction of the battle of the sexes. There is a core of misogyny and misanthropy beneath the frothy surface that can and should be addressed. Sharman throws up some interesting diversionary tactics through the design and costumes concept. Gone is any hint of the Enlightenment elegance and deception of the old Oberle/Jarfeldt production. Instead there are layer upon layer of observers – of The Gaze. (Pause here to check out your visual and feminist theory text books.)

The audience gazes at the action on stage, a roving video camera (actor/video cameraman David Ford) enables a directorial gaze at specific aspects of the action; a tiny icing sugar couple on a traditional multi-tiered wedding cake gaze at the antics of the wedding party and are mirrored in a Japanese tourist wedding couple whose fate it is to gaze (and learn?) while simultaneously being the object of the audience gaze. For most of Cosi the chorus is also in the position of observer – at a tenuously staged wedding celebration, upstage, as the lovers and their teasers go about the business of fickleness downstage. And so it goes. It’s a disconcerting, unsettling series of usually unconsidered human traits which suddenly become disconcerting and unsettling when the objectivity of The Gaze is turned on them.

In this way substance is suggested and toyed with in a mainly pleasingly distracting fashion, but that’s as far as it goes. In a recent interview with Bryce Hallett (SMH) Sharman said, “It’s a serious comedy driven by betrayal, not just the young women but the men as well. It’s confronting and, I think, emotionally subversive.” Yes, but a funny thing happened on the way to realising that thought and it somehow disappeared in a finale of social power restored. (Commentator and Stagenoise contributor Caroline Baum has noted that in Jonathan Miller’s recent London production of Cosi the closing moments see the lovers acknowledge reality and depart in four separate directions.) Now that’s subversion.

Absence of profound subversion and thoughts aside, Sharman’s creative team has conjured a determinedly fresh interpretation of the opera, which was long overdue and welcome. It is sung in English in a quirky, irreverent translation of da Ponte’s original by Jeremy Sams that well suits the overall intent. The orchestra, under Simon Hewett (out of Simone Young by Stuart Challender) is sprightly and responsive to the demands of Mozart and the singers. Costume designer Gabriela Tylesova has gone to town on a succession of extravagant and witty feasts for the eye. She has heeded Sharman’s call for colour and movement and the contrast with Ralph Myers simple, steeply raked, white abstract set is arresting.

Ultimately, however, the production belongs to the singers and in this instance the six principals, Tiffany Speight, Jose Carbo, Henry Choo, Sian Pendry, Rachelle Durkin and Shane Lowrencev, can and do pick up and and carry the weight with ease and sure delight. It’s a pleasure to spend three hours in their company and the freshly minted spontaneity on stage is a tribute to them and Jim Sharman.

Cosi fan tutte conceived in a burst of confetti

ORIGINAL ARTICLE →

Bryce Hallett
September 16, 2009

JIM SHARMAN jumps to his feet and scuttles up a steeply-raked floor that skateboarders would covet. The slope stands in the centre of Marrickville Town Hall’s grand assembly chamber where the showman’s modern take on Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte is taking shape.

Born into the world of travelling sideshows, the theatre and opera director who captivated audiences with Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar and The Rocky Horror Picture Show is attempting to unearth the contradictory emotions and uneasy truths at the core of the opera buffa’s seductive score. “It has been conceived in a burst of confetti,” says Sharman of his starkly expressive staging for Opera Australia. “I want to communicate both the surface and substance of the piece. Usually you get one or the other. There is a brash theatrical side and a poetic side which can prove elusive. It shifts from the cartoonish to a work of great emotional depth and a revelation about love and desire not being mutually exclusive.”

Sharman has spent many months investigating the life and times of Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte with whom he also wrote The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. “Their work revealed the yearning, humanity and wisdom beneath the lightness and artifice.”

Early in its history, however, Cosi fan tutte was admonished for its morals and misogyny, notably by one Berlin critic who described it as “the silliest rubbish in the world; it only gets an audience because of the splendid music”. Sharman says it’s a popular misconception to dismiss the opera as easy listening. He argues the opposite. “It’s a serious comedy driven by betrayal, not just the young women but the men as well. It’s confronting and, I think, emotionally subversive.”

During rehearsal the director sticks to his long-held maxim: to stage the classics as though they’ve just arrived in the post and to treat new operas and plays like classics. The production will be sung in English in a translation by Jeremy Sams.

First performed in Vienna in 1790, Cosi comes from the age of reason to speak to an age of uncertainty, says Sharman, who proves to be as methodical as he is spontaneous. “It fell out of favour for a long period before recapturing the public imagination after World War I. The terrorist attacks of September 11 made it popular again. It’s now one of the most performed operas in the world.”

Mozart wrote Cosi in his mid-30s and the director has gathered a troupe of similar-aged creators and performers to re-energise the work at a time when Opera Australia itself has faced great uncertainty and is undergoing change. “After a choppy period, Cosi and Peter Grimes [opening in October] offer a sense of renewal [at OA] and a sign that the ground is beginning to shift in its culture,” Sharman says.

Subtitled The School for Lovers, the opera begins with the officers Ferrando and Guglielmo claiming that their two lovers, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, will be eternally faithful. Their confidant Don Alfonso lays a wager to test their allegiance. What begins as a sparkling romp with ample throws of confetti darkens into a morally ambiguous rite of passage.

Sharman, who directed the operas Voss and Death in Venice, is very much the tribal elder on the set of Cosi. More a paternalistic cajoler than autocrat, he likes nothing better than young artists venturing ideas and taking risks, much as he did in his liberating theatrical adventures in the ’70s.

Opening at the Opera House this week, the production was to have been his second collaboration with the OA’s music director Richard Hickox, until his death last November amid a controversial debate about musical standards and the alleged neglect of mature female singers. Hickox had planned to join forces with Sharman after the success of their revival of Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice in 2006. They felt that the time was ripe for a popular and sophisticated interpretation of Cosi fan tutte. (The OA last staged the opera in a revival of a Goran Jarvefelt production in 2005.)

Sharman began to recruit talented, open-minded practitioners and performers. His hand-picked creative team includes Ralph Myers (set), Gabriela Tylesova (costumes), Damien Cooper (lighting) and Joshua Consandine (choreographer). They have conspired to conjure a fluid, minimalist, playful void – Myers likens his set to a loudhailer – to showcase a new generation of Mozart singers who, in Sharman’s view, promise to be the company’s great future singers. They are Sian Pendry, Rachelle Durkin and Tiffany Speight, all of whom star in Benedict Andrew’s version of The Marriage of Figaro for OA next year, and Henry Choo and Shane Lowrencev.

A vital element, however, was missing. Who would fill the not inconsiderable breach left by Hickox? Sharman began his most pressing search. He needed a maestro who trusted his vision, if only to avoid the clash of egos for which the opera world, rightly or wrongly, is renowned.

The director heard about Simon Hewett, a young Brisbane-born conductor who had been an assistant to Simone Young at Hamburg Staatsoper and who is firmly establishing a name for himself in Europe as a conductor based in Berlin. Sharman made tracks to France, where Hewett was conducting Mahler’s 3rd Symphony with the notoriously demanding Paris Opera Orchestra. They spent hours discussing Cosi and sharing ideas. The conductor watched a DVD of Sharman’s Voss and was won over by its realistic gestures and dreamscape aesthetic.

“I have been very fortunate in opera to get to work with fine artists and, as it’s turned out, Simon has become the key collaborator on this [production]. If the thinking between a director and conductor is simpatico then the results can be thrilling . . . The most fulfilling relationship for me was working on Voss with [the late conductor] Stuart Challender. I enjoyed his Australian-ness. Watching Simon in rehearsal reminds me of Stuart’s instinctive approach and unwavering control.

“There is a lineage there. Simone Young was an assistant to Stuart Challender and Simon worked as Simone’s assistant . . . He is eloquent and as passionate about making Cosi relevant to a new generation as I am. Mozart is a great seducer and the opera translates well to modernity . . . It is propelled by betrayal and [it] is closely related to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

As the tribe of singers, designers, musicians, production assistants and sundry OA personnel stream into the town hall, there is an air of anticipation at the final raw run of the opera before rehearsals move to the Opera House stage. The production has been dubbed “Aussie Cosi” by actor/video cameraman David Ford on YouTube. The show’s pulse and flavour is distinctly Australian, yet there are passing nods to 18th century conventions to avoid anything too kitsch. Early on there was vague mention of a barbecue complete with sausages in the Japanese wedding and party scene that happens upstage during the performance. The ceremony, inspired by a video wedding in the Botanic Gardens, remains but the barbecue idea was jettisoned.

A stage manager loudly declares that time is of the essence. “Today we want to do the whole opera without stopping if we can.” OA chief executive Adrian Collette murmurs, “Let’s rock ‘n’ roll,” as he settles in to watch the three-hour run, as does the company’s assistant music director Tony Legge. The much-admired baritone Jose Carbo plays the world-weary manipulator Don Alfonso, who sets the masquerades in motion. He is relaxed and eager to make a start. “I see the character as more avuncular than arch and the way Jim is approaching the piece feels natural and organic . . . He [Sharman] is trusting and affords all the singers the freedom and scope to develop [a character].”

Dressed in black, the director is almost childlike in his enthusiasm for his players. Hewett sits conducting alongside, his incisive and intuitive engagement with the singers ensuring a lively pace and sharp focus. “I was sceptical about doing it in English but I have come around to the immediacy of the approach and how Jim’s reading stays true and honest to the piece,” says Hewett. “It’s not a journey from innocence to corruption but looks to where the point of betrayal is. It’s an ashen-grey area . . . Mozart conjures sensuality and intensity through dramatic economy.

“Jim’s production offers a sense of realism yet also a suggestion of the theatrical curtain being parted to take the audience into an emotional dreamscape. Hopefully audiences will hear Cosi fan tutte differently in light of this production.”

Cosi fan tutte opens at the Opera House on Thursday.

All his own work

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A Little Bit of Magic stillCharles Sturt University graduate David Ford has won the Great Australian Story Challenge with his short film, A Little Bit of Magic. David graduated this year with a Bachelor of Arts (Television Production), and will now spend three months working with Australian Story at ABC TV. “I have a lot of respect for both the program and the ABC. I feel I have the capacity to make good stories, but it is also knowing how to work within a particular production environment. I don’t know where it will take me or what it will hold but it is looking optimistic.” A Little Bit of Magic tells the story of Cliff Armitage, who had an amazing career change since being involved in the gun control policy formation after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre. David says making the film was a challenge “because I was doing the lighting, sound and camera, as well as producing and directing and researching”. Last year David filmed a travelogue documentary about his time spent at an African AIDS orphanage, which airs in July on cable TV in Australia, and later in New Zealand and Indonesia.

Media Note: David Ford is available for interview. Contact CSU Media. The Great Australian Story (GAS) Challenge celebrates 10 years of Australian Story. The major prize is a three-month internship with Australian Story. A Little Bit of Magic will be screened during NSW Stateline program on ABC TV on Friday 2 June at 7.30pm. You can see the five finalists’ work at http://www.abc.net.au/austory/gas/

The Great Australian Story Challenge winners announced

29 May, 2006

Australian Story Banner

After a national search, Australian Story has today announced the two winners of the Great Australian Story (G.A.S.) Challenge.

The major prize of a three-month internship with Australian Story has been awarded to David Ford for his story ‘A Little Bit of Magic’ about the career change of one of the senior figures involved in the gun control policy formation after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre.

Following thousands of online votes, Lisa Maksimovic was chosen as the clear Viewers’ Choice winner for her story ‘Nick’s Gift’, about the fatal shark attack on 18-year old South Australian Nick Peterson. The Viewers’ Choice prize is a $200 ABC Shop gift voucher.

The G.A.S Challenge celebrated 10 years of Australian Story by encouraging the next generation of Australian Story producers and researchers to adopt the program’s personal approach to story telling that has been so well received.

You can still view the entries from the six finalists by clicking on the video links below.

A Little Bit of Magic still

Julianne Deeb – “A Shared Path” (Vic)
Kathleen Dyett – “For Love of Country” (ACT)
David Ford – “A Little Bit of Magic” (NSW)
Harriet Gollan – ” A Burning City Glows” (NSW)
Lisa Maksimovic – “Nick’s Gift” (SA)
Kelly Perks – “Random Acts of Kindness” (Qld)

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