This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 10, 2008 - Twenty-six years ago, Opera Theatre of St. Louis mounted a new production of a Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart favorite, "Cosi fan tutte." This opera is often presented as something of a joke about the duplicity of women, but according to the vision of the polymathic genius Jonathan Miller, who was stage director, and the extraordinary musicality of the late Calvin Simmons, who was conductor, the 1982 "Cosi" emerged as something considerably more than another misogynistic romp. It was, in fact, no joke at all: Similar to the Enlightenment gem "Una cosa rara," currently on stage, "Cosi" was a luminous revelation of an Age of Reason inquiry into the nature of human beings.
Its beauty and its enduring relevance marked anyone fortunate enough to have been in the opera house for a performance of the Miller "Cosi." It was, for this listener, an occasion of revelation, one I cherish and shall never forget.
Miller and Simmons were responsible for much of the brilliance of that incandescent production. Since the fifth century B.C.E., when philosophers began to argue about whatever quality it is that elevates something from the status of the really-quite-good to capital A art, we have tried very hard to establish a system of judgment that produces answers about all that. I'm confident what sent that "Cosi" into the stratosphere was not the conductor, not the stage director, not the brilliant lighting and decor, but the work of those who really matter: the members of the cast, including Ashley Putnam; Patricia McCaffery; the late, great Jerry Hadley; Thomas Hampson; and Ruth Golden.
"Una cosa rara," by Vicente Martin y Soler, is no "Cosi fan tutte" by a long shot. Nevertheless, it is an opera of genuine respectability, distinguished by exquisite music throughout. Like "Cosi," the show romps merrily along, and after endless running hither and slamming all available doors, it ends happily and quite satisfactorily. There is intrigue, there are lies and attempted seduction and ribald behavior. But in the same Enlightenment tradition as "Cosi," "Una cosa rara" puts the human condition under an artistic lens and reveals that condition to be, at once, morally wanting and capable of honesty and nobility. We find in this opera that the honest and noble amongst us are not those who rule, but she who tends the sheep, no big surprise then or now.
The production is strengthened greatly by the brilliant libretto contributed by a star in the constellation of Washington University in St. Louis, Hugh Macdonald. The decor is visually fascinating, a cross between a nightmare photograph by Cindy Sherman and a Miami Beach hotel lobby by Morris Lapidus. The costumes are goofy, vividly colorful and altogether imaginative.
All this creates a marvelous volley between the 18th century and 2008. Part of the marvel is due to Macdonald's awesome, on-message libretto; part by the juxtapositions of old and new in the costumes and scenery; part by a healthy and effective transfusion of camp. (Queen Isabella, for example, performs a variation of a theme called Early Bette Midler.)
But what brings all this together is the ebullience and youthful vigor of the cast. At the risk of belaboring the point, youth and vigor are given requirements at Opera Theatre, along with conscious decisions to take risks not only with vocal artists but also with directors, designers, conductors and repertory. These are the foundation of this company's recognized greatness. The latter - repertory - is especially important to consider. For while there has always been room on this stage for warhorses, what matters - what sets Opera Theatre apart and above - is its sense of adventure, a commitment to commissioning new operas and for breaking into the treasury and reviving rarely performed ones such as this work of Martin y Soler.
This balance of the old and the new, this muscular commitment to tradition and to audacity, this encouragement and celebration of young singers, all form a rare thing and a noble one too.
And at the radiant opening Sunday of "Una cosa rara," a magical tradition continued purposefully, magically on its way.Una Cosa Rara
Dramma giocosa in two acts by Vicente Martin y Soler
Libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte from the comedy “La Luna de la Sierra” by Luiz Velez de Guevara
English translation by Hugh Macdonald, Avis Blewitt Professor of Music, Washington University in St. Louis
Conductor – Corrado Rovaris
Stage Director – Chas Rader-Shieber
Set Designer – David Zinn
Costume Designer – Clint Ramos
Choreographer – Kristina Martinez
Lighting Designer – Mark McCullough
Wigs and Makeup Designer – Tom Watson
Chorus Master – Sandra Horst
English Diction Specialist – Erie Mills
Repetiteur – Liora Maurer
Assistant Stage Director – Jen Nicoll
Stage Manager Assistant – Kimberly S. Prescott
Stage Manager – Carol B. Brian
Intern Assistant Stage Manager – Catherine Ong Kemp
Corrado, Valet to the Queen – Paul Appleby
Isabella, Queen of Spain – Mary Wilson
Giovanni, Prince of Spain – Alek Shrader
Lilla, A shepherdess – Maureen McKay
Tita, A farmer – Matthew Burns
Ghita, Tita’s fiancée – Kiera Duffy
Lisargo, The Mayor – David Kravitz
Lubino A shepherd – Keith Phares