[Originally published in the Toronto Star]
BANFF, ALBERTA — As part of the Banff Centre’s Open Space summer opera program (Opera in the 21st Century), Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre has ascended the mountain and come back with a captivating reimagining of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte.
Through the exploration of betrayal, infidelity, fame and love, A Little Too Cozy emerged over five weeks resulting in a three-day workshop performance at Banff Centre’s Eric Harvie Theatre on July 26.
The premise is simple: reform the Mozart/Da Ponte story as a reality TV game show featuring two pairs of Gen Y lovers who agree to marry each other without ever having met. They fraternize via text message and through a three-foot-thick “wall of love.” If all goes to plan, the contestants get hitched and win a $100,000 dream wedding. Of course, things never quite go to plan.
Led by Dr. Seuss-like character Donald L. Fonzo, the TV host, played brilliantly by a mustachioed and checkered suit-wearing Cairan Ryan, represents Cosi’s misogynist undertones. Like a puppet master, he pulls the strings and tempts the couples with infidelity.
Dora, one of two female contestants played by soprano Pascale Spinney, dreams of leaving the dating scene and moving to Moose Jaw. Her mannerisms are blithely urban and she yearns for the stability of matrimonial life.
Felicity (a.k.a. Fiordiligi), the other contestant played by soprano Shantelle Przybylo, proclaims that marriage means the end of a long string of “douchebags.” The audience chuckles in agreement.
“Usually it’s only a one- or two-week process to get the whole show together and put it on,” says Przybylo, “but here, we’ve had a whole five weeks, so that’s huge.”
Alberta soprano Caitlin Wood, who plays the cheeky “lady-hander” Despina, says, “People can be intimidated when they see a Mozart opera, but because this is such a contemporary setting, super funny and so appropriate with all these (reality) TV shows going on now, it will hopefully bring more people to opera.”
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This is the second stint at Banff for Against the Grain’s founders and indie-opera dream team Joel Ivany (stage director) and Topher Mokrzewski (music director). The first was #UncleJohn — an English-language adaptation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni — which cemented the relationship between the Banff Centre and ATG in 2014.
For a younger generation of operagoers, ATG seems to have found a way forward by adapting traditional operas without the financial perils associated with commissioning new operas. But they might as well be new.
“Our baseline is to do the highest quality work and, for whatever else, rules can be broken,” Mokrzewski says. It is these broken rules that make A Little Too Cozy most compelling.
With the audience playing along as a live studio audience, the production is self-referencing. TV cameras roll as stage hands are in full view, cueing the audience for applause.
The sports-coated male contestants, Fernando (tenor Aaron Sheppard) and Elmo (baritone Brent Calis), both exude an archetypal bravado. With regular hip thrusts toward his potential lover, who responds with an insulted smirk, Calis brings a hilarious physicality to the role.
“This isn’t set in a TV studio; this is a TV studio,” Ivany said. The distinction lies in the story birthing the concept. This is opera, looking back at itself through a game show.
While individually the leads can be weak at times, they shine in the ensemble numbers. The recitatives are wisely cut short and spoken dialogue is used throughout. The music is ably performed offstage by the Rolston String Quartet, with Mokrzewski improvising on the piano.
“There is something about Mozart,” Ivany said. “His music is just so accessible.”
He’s right. But what Ivany does with it is charming and visually impressive: reflecting our technology and media-obsessed experiences back at us. Where others have fallen for the trappings of reverence, ATG strives for relevance.
This is not to say there is no place for traditional opera in today’s media-driven world, but ATG dares to write the next chapter. And if A Little Too Cozy is any indication of what that might be, opera will be just fine.
Michael Vincent’s visit was sponsored in part by the Banff Centre.