backstage (2006-47)

Libido and Libretto

Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte is still relevant after two centuries of bawdiness

by  Kevin Crowe

Music, even in situations of the greatest horror, should never be painful to the ear but should flatter and charm it, and thereby always remain music …. When I am, as it were, completely myself, all alone, and of good cheer, say, traveling in a carriage, walking after a good meal, during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly. Whence and how they come, I know not; nor can I force them. Those ideas that please me, I retain in my memory, and I am accustom, to hum them to myself. If I continue in this way, it soon occurs to me how I may turn this or that morsel to account, so as to make a good dish of it, agreeable to the rules of counterpoint, to the peculiarities of the various instruments. All this fires my soul ….

“This is the 250th anniversary of [Mozart’s] birth,” says Carroll Freeman, director of the UT Opera Theatre and the Knoxville Opera Studio. “Mozart’s music is almost flawless in its form, and there’s a transparency and a complexity at the same time…. It doesn’t sound as Romantic, because it’s from an earlier era. [Romantics] are used to sweeping, film-score-like operas.” Lorenzo Da Ponte, the famous Italian librettist who also penned the libretto for The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni , supplied the lyrics.

“It’s a little square because of its form: set number, little dialogue singing; set number, little dialogue singing,” Freeman says. “It’s also very repetitive. Mozart would take four lines of Da Ponte’s libretto and write something that would last for eight minutes.”

To celebrate 250 years of Mozart, UT’s opera company will present Così Fan Tutte , which is alternately known as “School for Lovers.”

“‘School for Lovers,’ come on, that’s a universal challenge,” Freeman continues. “People are still writing books on love—it’ll never end. It can be any time.

“I chose the alternate title to make it seem a little more present. We’re not doing it in Italian. I think that sometimes audiences in the United States are put off if it’s a title they don’t recognize or if they think it’s going to be something they can’t understand. So, I thought [‘School for Lovers’] was appropriate.

Così Fan Tutte doesn’t translate well for my taste. Così means ‘Thus’; Fan mean ‘do’; and Tutte means ‘all,’ and it’s in the feminine-plural ending. ‘Thus do all,’ or ‘So they all do it.’ ‘All women are like that’ is kind of the American translation.”

Under Freeman’s direction, Mozart’s opera leaves the 18th-century coast of Naples for Knoxville, where two ignoble Army Reservists named Nathaniel and Joe, Jr. replace Mozart’s Ferrando and Guglielmo. The two reservists boast that their girlfriends, Angelina and Gabriela, are not only incredibly beautiful, they’re also unflinchingly faithful. This boast catches the attention of the grizzled chiropractor, Dr. Foster, who says that no woman is faithful—the good doctor goes so far as to make a bet with the two star-crossed lovers. The men then divine an intricate plan to test the faithfulness of their girlfriends.

Believing that their boyfriends have been called to fight in Iraq, Angelina and Gabriela are then tempted by two burly bikers, who are really just Nathaniel and Joe, Jr. in disguise.

And the trap is set. As a plot device, it’s a tad stilted and slightly hackneyed, but it’s opera. Theatrics rule.

“I’ve probably directed [ Così Fan Tutte ] six times, in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and, you know, just around,” Freeman says. “I think, in some ways, there is a preconceived notion as to what a Mozart opera will be physically and stylistically, in terms of the theatrics.”

Still, he’s always willing to experiment with the music and the setting, squeezing out new interpretations of the original plot with the same staid methodology that you’d find in a chemistry lab.

“Because of the curiosity of exotic things in Europe during Mozart’s time,” Freeman goes on, “they’d have fairs and Chinese and Turks and Kimonos and Japanese things.” In its original form, the two male suitors in School for Lovers disguise themselves as Albanians. There’s even an aria in which they sing in praise of how big and hairy and well-kempt their facial hair is, which translates perfectly when Freeman’s bruising bikers are on stage.

The UT Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of James Fellenbaum, will handle the Mozart. We hear that, due to space restrictions, the harpsichordist will be set up in one of the balcony booths.

“The Bijou is a small venue, and for me, the benefits of the acoustics are that you’re so close, so intimate, that it sounds more natural,” Freeman explains. “It doesn’t sound enhanced. So, you’re getting the real thing. Plus, the intimacy allows you to see more details, in the actor’s face and whatnot.”

UT’s Opera Theatre has been performing in the Bijou for nearly six years, which is probably one reason the school has been able to bring in talent from around the country. “Our relationship with Knoxville Opera is really intriguing to young talent, too,” Freeman says. And that relationship allows them to perform successful experiments, fueled by nothing other than raw operatic talent.

“I think the traditional version is a little lame, because we don’t have any appreciation for 18th Century Naples,” Freeman goes on. “Two heiresses who have an estate and are engaged to two soldiers? It’s a little too white-powder-wig for me.”

Who: UT Opera Theatre presents Mozart’s School for Lovers