Fri, Jan 06, 2006 - Page 13 News List

Mozart returns with 'Cinderella masterpiece'

This year is the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth and Taipei is already celebrating, with 'Cosi fan Tutte'

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

A dress rehearsal of Cosi fan Tutte went well and the opera is to be staged tonight.

If you look up Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in an appropriate work of reference you will probably find some 15 completed operas listed, many written when he was very young. Classical music lovers have quickly reduced this number to five frequently performed compositions, and of these Cosi fan Tutte pro-bably ranks fourth for most listeners.

Written late in Mozart's short life, it is considered an undisputed masterpiece, but a connoisseur's piece nonetheless. It lacks the range, both musical and emotional, of Figaro, Don Giovanni or The Magic Flute, and was neglected for the first 100 years after the composer's death (its first performance in the US was not until 1921, 18 years after the first New York performance of Parsifal). If it has now regained its rightful place in the repertory, it nonetheless remains the "Cinderella" of Mozart's undisputed mature operatic masterpieces.

Furthermore, its subject-matter has often caused raised eyebrows. It concerns two pairs of lovers, with the two men, in response to a bet, testing the faithfulness of the two sisters who are their girlfriends. The men pretend to go away to war, but return disguised as Albanians. Each one then tries to seduce the other one's lover. They effectively succeed, leading to the opera's title which in essence means "all women are the same" (i.e. not to be trusted). You don't have to be a feminist to find this cynical and sexist and see the opera's supposedly happy reversion to the original status quo as "a hasty, shifty compromise, intended to be unsatisfactory" (as the critic Peter Conrad described it).

The music, however, is very fine throughout, though even this remains too lacking in famous set-pieces for some tastes. Cosi fan Tutte is thus in many ways a problem opera -- enigmatic and a qualified success for some, an exquisite masterpiece reserved for true Mozart aficionados, with genuine pain and highly intelligent irony behind its surface polish, for others.

Those in charge of this weekend's production certainly side with the enthusiasts. Cosi is the second opera to be produced in Taipei of the three Mozart wrote with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. All three are using the same line-up of director, conductor and soloists.

"This is the most sophisticated of the three and for a theater director it's great stuff," said director Stan Lai (賴聲川). Lai's many celebrated stage productions include the seven-and-a-half-hour epic A Dream Like a Dream, and the first of the current Mozart opera set, the very successful Don Giovanni of April 2004.

"Cosi is the most difficult of the three Mozart/da Ponte operas," said conductor Chien Wen-pin (簡文彬), "and the most technically intricate." He will complete the trio in June with The Marriage of Figaro, again with Lai directing.

This weekend's performances will be set in 1920s Shanghai. When the opera begins the two men, wearing traditional Chinese costumes, will be smoking opium, while the girls are getting a massage. When the men supposedly go off to war, they will do so waving Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) flags. And when they return, instead of the original's Albanians, they will be dressed as Westernized Chinese, wearing business suits and sporting beards.

This particular tactic is well-suited to the production's aim of mirroring contemporary Taiwan because it carries with it the implication that girls can be carried away, if not by actual Westerners, then at least by fellow Taiwanese displaying all the modish indicators of Westernized modernity.

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