November 18, 2009
Director Jim Sharman aims to mine the emotional depths of Mozart’s opera.
BORN into the world of travelling sideshows, Jim Sharman – the 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 Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte.
“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.”
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,” he says.
Early in its history, Cosi fan tutte was denounced 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 is a popular misconception to dismiss the opera as easy listening. “It’s a serious comedy driven by betrayal; not just the young women but the men as well,” he says. ”It’s confronting and, I think, emotionally subversive.”
Sharman 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 theatrical adventures in the ’70s.
The production, opening at the State Theatre tomorrow, was to have been his second collaboration with the OA’s late music director, Richard Hickox. Hickox had planned to join forces with Sharman after the success of their revival of Benjamin Britten’sDeath in Venice in 2006. They felt that the time was ripe for a popular and sophisticated interpretation of Cosi fan tutte.
Sharman began to recruit talented, open-minded practitioners and performers. His hand-picked creative team includes Belvoir Theatre’s new director, Ralph Myers (set), Gabriela Tylesova (costumes), Damien Cooper (lighting) and Joshua Consandine (choreographer).
They have conjured a fluid, minimalist, playful void – Myers likens his set to a loudhailer – to display a new generation of Mozart singers who, in Sharman’s view, promise to be the company’s great future singers. They include Sian Pendry, Hye Seoung Kwon and Tiffany Speight, alongside Henry Choo and Jose Carbo.
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 talk of a barbecue in the Japanese wedding and party scene in the performance. The ceremony, inspired by a video wedding in the Botanic Gardens, remains but the barbecue idea was jettisoned.
Baritone Carbo plays the world-weary manipulator Don Alfonso, who sets the masquerades in motion. “I see the character as more avuncular than arch and the way Jim is approaching the piece feels natural and organic,” he says. ”He is trusting and affords all the singers the freedom and scope to develop [a character].”
Cosi fan tutte opens at the State Theatre tomorrow.