Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Warhorse Warriors: John Cox’ ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’ in San Francisco – July 2, 2005

March 5th, 2006

John Cox is rarely thought of as a “concept director”, creating productions that transform an opera into a time, place and context unimagined by the composer and librettist in order to put make some point, or perhaps only for shock and awe.

Cox, a former general director at Glyndebourne whose attentions are now concentrated on operatic productions, is probably best know for his mountings of Mozart’s operas and of the later operas of Richard Strauss, and for his collaborations with celebrity scenic designer and pop-culture artist David Hockney.

John Cox and the San Francisco Opera

Hockney-Cox productions of Mozart’s “Die Zauberfloete” and Stravinsky’s “Rake’s Progress” are owned by San Francisco Opera , the former produced there in 1987, 2000 and 2003, the latter – which originated at Glyndebourne – in 1982, 1988 and 1999.

[Below: John Cox, resized image of a photograph for Askonas Holt.]


San Francisco also has seen John Cox productions of Richard Strauss’ “Arabella” (1980) and “Capriccio” (1990) as vehicles for Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, and Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” (2002) for Deborah Voigt. Los Angeles has had the Hockney-Cox production of Strauss’ “Die Frau ohne Schatten”.

Cox also produced the San Francisco premiere of Verdi’s great French language masterpiece, “Don Carlos”, in 1986 for Neil Shicoff, Pilar Lorengar, Alan Titus, and Robert Lloyd.

In my opinion, the French version is superior to Verdi’s later version of the opera in Italian, called “Don Carlo”, although the latter still is frequently performed by many opera houses instead of the authentic French version – perhaps a concession to the paucity of singers who have mastered the work in French.

There may also be a bias towards performing the French language works that Italian composers produced for Paris only in their later translations into Italian. In recent years, thankfully, San Francisco Opera has produced Verdi’s “Don Carlos”, Donizetti’s “La Favorite” and Rossini’s “Guillaume Tell” in their original French.

Cox, in recent years, has been associated with the Chicago Lyric Opera, where the productions of “Capriccio” and “Ariadne auf Naxos” seen in San Francisco originated, as did a third Chicago production — Massenet’s “Thais” with Renee Fleming in the title role and Thomas Hampson as Athanael. Rumors, likely based in truth (but, even if not, which have become indestructible urban legends), had the new San Francisco Opera General Director Pamela “Animating Opera” Rosenberg in a fit of pique, canceling the contracts for “Thais” signed by her predecessor Lotfi Mansouri on the grounds that the opera did not fit what she wished to see in the repertory.

As the rumors go, the “Thais” cancellation imposed substantial contractual penalties on the opera (just at the time when the depths of the San Francisco Opera deficit were becoming known), and severely strained relations with Ms Fleming, an artist extremely popular with both San Francisco audiences and its opera board. (One imagines a board member asking the question of Ms Rosenberg: if Ms Fleming and Mr Hampson will sell out the house for “Thais” and we are contractually obligated to produce it, why exactly are we canceling it at high monetary cost to the San Francisco Opera, and incurring the anger of Renee Fleming?)

So, a Cox production that never appeared in San Francisco, according to the rumors, ended up contributing one of the early nails in Rosenberg’s general manager career coffin.

Since he had been scheduled to be at the opera house anyway as the would-be Athanael, Hampson did appear in the second cast of Rosenberg’s new production of “Barbiere di Siviglia”, but Nathan Gunn was accorded the honor of opening the new production of “Barbiere”.

Warriors in Opera’s Standard Repertory

At any rate, Cox personally had been considering the impact of war on individuals and their relationships with each other. As a creator of operatic productions, it was not unnatural to consider how these thoughts might illuminate one of his productions. He had drawn the assignment of creating a new production of “Cosi Fan Tutte” for the Opera of Monte Carlo, to be co-produced with the San Francisco Opera. In San Francisco, the Assistant Stage Director was the  former Adler fellow Jose Maria Condemi.

[Below: John Cox, staging a production of Richard Strauss’ “Arabella” in Sydney; resized image of a Sahian Hayes photograph for Opera Austraia.]


When one reflects on the standard repertory operas, one might be surprised at how few of the characters in these operas are engaged in military careers. We have Radames and Amonasro in Verdi’s “Aida”, Pollione in Bellini’s “Norma”, Lieutenant Pinkerton in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”, Belcore in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore”, Valentine in Gounod’s “Faust”, Don Jose in Bizet’s “Carmen”, Gerald and Frederic in Delibes’ “Lakme”, the title role in Berg’s “Wozzeck”, and a few others.

Yet, the situations in which these good soldiers and seamen find themselves onstage, have not inspired credible commentary on the negative role of war in human history. (If anything, Valentine and his comrades really buy into the idea of war being glorious.)

One repertory opera, Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino”, actually has a battle scene which does inspire activity by the concept directors (See my reviews at: Zurich and San Francisco: A Tale of Two “Forzas”), but since the outcomes of the activities of the principals in those battles are governed by kharma or its Western counterpart “destiny”, concept directors are hard-pressed to come up with anything that does not appear ridiculous. (Concept Director Aeschlimann’s 16th century Italian mercernaries dressed in 21st century desert “camo” with gas masks proves the point.)

The Warriors Ferrando and Guglielmo

Cox, in what surely must have astonished almost everyone with a journeyman’s knowledge of opera, did find two operatic characters around whom a personal statement on the impact of war might be developed — Ferrando and Guglielmo in Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte”. The two friends are soldiers – that we know from the opera’s libretto, expertly constructed by Lorenzo da Ponte – and, as part of a bet that is to test their sweethearts’ fidelity, they permit themselves to engage in a fake “mobilization”.

Since the objects of their affections, the sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi, do not know the boys are not really going to war – at least not then — the sisters’ expressions of concern, sung to some of Mozart’s most beautiful music, seem genuinely heartfelt.

Cox, in what is surely one of the more inspired feats of imagination by an operatic producer, moved the time and place (which neither Mozart or da Ponte had fixed, since the only geographic reference in the libretto is that the sisters are from “Ferrara”) to a hotel resort on the Cote d’Azur during World War I. The resort contains a small casino, presided over by Don Alfonso, providing a bit of backstory to his interest in entering into a bet with the soldier boys.

[Below: Don Alfonso (Richard Stilwell), center, arranges a “mobilization” of the two soldiers with whom he has bet, who say farewell to their respective betrothed, at left Fiordiligi (Alexandra Deshorties) and Guglielmo (here, Hanno Mueller-Brachmann) and at right Ferrando (Paul Groves) and Dorabella (here, Kathleen Rohrer); edited image, based on a photograph for the San Francisco Opera.

The sisters are both nurses, succoring wounded soldiers. They are touched by the enormity of the Great War’s horror. Thus, we can imagine that in the farewell to their soldier lovers, there is a feeling of terror. And, perhaps, the sisters have reached a point of such pessimism about the low prospects of any soldiers returning, that when they are courted by “Albanians” – guess who in disguise? – they focus their attention and affection on the men at hand.

[Below: an “Albanian sailor” (Nathan Gunn) melts the heart of Ferrando’s fiancee Dorabella (here, Kathleen Rohrer); edited image, based on a photograph for the San Francisco Opera.]

Thus Cox is able to introduce and even sustain an antiwar message in a vehicle that would seem impossible to carry it. But for those who simply wished to attend an eye-catching, beautifully sung performance of a Mozart comic opera, without having to think about matters of war, Cox has no intention of leaving them unsatisfied. The Mediterranean resort turned hospital was visually stunning, a realistic image of the blue sea and pastel interiors.

Cox’ vision was expertly realized by his frequent collaborator, set designer Robert Perdziola,who himself has a list of San Francisco Opera credits. Perdziola, in addition to collaborations with Cox, designed the sets for the 1990 San Francisco Opera production of Puccini’s “Suor Angelica” and the 1998 production of Monteverdi’s “L’incoronazione di Poppea” as well as costumes for other performances.

The cast included four first rank young artists – Alexandra Deshorties (Fiordiligi), Claudia Mahnke (Dorabella), Paul Groves (Ferrando) and Nathan Gunn (Guglielmo) and two veterans, Frederica von Stade (Despina) and Richard Stilwell (Don Alfonso), who respectively had been the Dorabella and Guglielmo in the 1973 revival of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1970 San Francisco Opera “Cosi Fan Tutte” production.

[Below: Despina (Frederica von Stade, center) suggests that Dorabella (here, Kathleen Rohrer) and Fiordiligi (Alexandra Deshorties) have some fun, since their fiancees are going to be off to war; edited image, based on a photograph for the San Francisco Opera.]

Three great imaginations – Mozart, da Ponte, and Cox — came together to produce an evening of wonders. One’s appreciation for the genius of “Cosi fan Tutte” is enhanced by seeing it through another facet of its prism. One’s appreciation for Cox, who clearly loves the works he interprets, is increased also.

For my observance of the 50th anniversary of my first performance of “Cosi fan Tutte”, see the web-page: Cosi Fan Tutte – October 25, 1956

Tags: 2005-2016: William's Reviews