Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2008

Let me state right up front that I know NOTHING about opera. While they have the same roots and opera is very theatrical, it is not theatre. There are big differences between what we now call opera and what Variety calls “Legit” theatre.

So why did you go to see Cosi fan Tutte and why are you writing about it now? Well, because I was curious, and because I was excited by the idea of seeing an opera performed in Hubbard Hall. I also wanted to see if an opera would FIT in Hubbard Hall!

Hubbard Hall is called an “opera house” and not so long ago most towns in this region had one. They were all-purpose public gathering places, usually on an upper floor with retail space on the street level. This allowed for additional income and, since hot air rises, helped heat the performance space. There are not too many of them standing anymore. Hubbard Hall (circa 1878) is the only one left in Washington County and is a perfect example of a rural opera house. The Troy Savings Bank Music Hall (circa 1870) and the Cohoes Music Hall (circa 1874) are perfect examples of an urban ones. If you want to see one on a very small scale, visit the Hancock (MA) Town Hall.

Benjie White, executive director of Hubbard Hall Projects, noted that theatre was a dirty word back in the Victorian era, whereas “opera” and “music” were considered wholesome and refined arts, so while these buildings were essentially theatres, they were called opera houses or music halls to make it possible for ladies to attend their offerings. (Only “loose women” went to the theatre!)

So while it is tempting to crow that opera has finally returned to the opera house, in fact Hubbard Hall was not really built to accommodate opera as we understand it today. We use the word opera to refer almost exclusively to Grand Opera, and we associate the art form with enormous halls (so large that “opera glasses” are required to see the stage) and lavish sets and costumes. The first production in Hubbard Hall was the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta H.M.S. Pinafore (probably a pirated version) and that is about the largest spectacle that the space can accommodate.

Cosi fan Tutte, which premiered in Vienna in 1790, has a very grand Mozart score but it is a little “chamber opera” by modern standards. Gilbert & Sullivan’s works are big in comparison. It is one of three operas Mozart wrote with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte – the other two being Le Nozze di Figaro (currently being presented by the Berkshire Opera Company at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, MA) and Don Giovanni. There are only six major roles and the chorus has been eliminated in this production. There is a 25-piece orchestra, which is large by my ‘legit” theatre standards, but modest by operatic ones. In other words, Cosi fan Tutte is a perfect fit in Hubbard Hall.

In order to be able to give you some idea of the quality of this production, I took along as my “date” a friend who speaks Italian, loves opera, and invests a lot of her time and energy traveling to attend performances. I can tell you that the music sounded good to me, that everyone and everything was on key, and that I had a lot of fun, but whether or not those three things added up to good opera I wasn’t at all sure.

So after the finale and the two standing ovations for the cast and orchestra, I turned to my friend and asked, “So, was that good opera?” And she replied, “That was WONDERFUL opera!” So there you have it from someone who knows.

As I suspected, one of things that made my friend rate this production as “wonderful” was the intimacy of the space. You just don’t get to see opera up close and personal like this. It is always big, big, big – big house, big sets, big voices. One of my fears was that big operatically trained voices would blow out everyone’s eardrums at close quarters, but even when the singers were literally close enough to touch the sound balance was good.

You never know where you are going to be sitting at Hubbard Hall – sometimes on the floor, sometimes on the stage, sometimes on risers. This time the audience is on the stage and on risers three-quarters round the performance area, which is on the floor in front of the overhang of the balcony. The balcony cannot be used for audience seating because it is not handicap accessible, but it is used here as performance space, representing the ladies’ private quarters.

The orchestra is on the floor tucked under the balcony behind the set, and so three TV screens behind the audience project conductor Richard Giarusso for the singers. This configuration not only allows for maximum seating and performance space, but contains the sound of the orchestra so that it isn’t overwhelming in the small space. And it means that you are watching Giarusso and the orchestra as you watch the show.

That is if you are not consumed by the supertitles, displayed here on the front edge of the balcony. I don’t know how I feel about sub- and supertitles. I know that they are ubiquitous in opera – when I went to Lake George Opera to see The Pirates of Penzance earlier this summer they were in use, and that is a piece written and performed in English – but I do find them distracting. However one of the big differences between opera and legit theatre is that in opera the performers are called singers and in the theatre they are called actors, even if they sing. Opera is all about the music – plot is highly incidental. The singer’s primary instrument is his/her voice. Actors are trained to use voice, face, and body to convey emotion and plot. I don’t think I could have figured out just from watching the singers here, the intricacies of what was going on. And I don’t speak a word of Italian. So I have to concede that supertitles were indeed a necessary evil.

The above is not a criticism of these performers’ abilities, but an observation on the different performance styles required by opera and theatre.

The plot of Cosi fan Tutte is considerably less ridiculous than many operas, musicals, and plays I could name. Director Dianna Heldman has moved the time of the action from the Mozart’s 18th century to about 1910, but kept the setting in Naples. Ferrando (Brian Tanner) and Guglielmo (Richard Mazzaferro) are soldiers betrothed respectively to Fiordilgi (Roza Tulyaganova) and Donnabella (Kara Cornell) , who are sisters. Don Alfonso (Ivan Amaro), described as an old philosopher, bets the soldiers that their fiancées will not be faithful to them if tested. The soldiers take him up on the bet, and announce to their ladies that their regiment has been called to battle. After a tearful farewell, Ferrando and Guglielmo reappear in disguise as Albanians and woe each others’ intended. Don Alfonso takes the sisters’ maid, Despina (Alexina Jones) into his confidence so that she will not give away the plot, and she agrees to help him win the bet.

Because Donnabella and Fiordiligi are apparently stupid as rocks and unable to recognize each other’s fiancés in disguise, they fall for the ruse and marry their Albanian lovers, who of course reveal their true identities, much to the women’s horror. But the marriages were not binding since the notary was merely Despina in disguise, and Don Alfonso encourages everyone to move forward, forgiving the past, and to be more realistic in the future about the nature and limits of human love.

Heldman also allows us to wonder a bit in the final tableaux just how cozy these two marriages will be, since it is clear that each sister finds both men attractive.

It was Jones, a coloratura soprano who moved to White Creek four years ago with her husband Jason Dolmetsch, who dreamed of staging an opera at Hubbard Hall. Dolmetsch and Jones had appeared in productions with The Theatre Company at Hubbard Hall and so were familiar with the space and the workings of the organization. When Jones approached White and the Hubbard Hall Projects’ board, they said, “If you want to do an opera, do an opera.” So the Hubbard Hall Opera Theatre (HHOT) was born.

Of course it was not easy. Jones put in a lot of hard work and was fortunate to acquire Giarusso and Heldman, along with White and the board, as collaborators early on. Auditions in New York City brought out 65 singers, and Jones, Heldman, and Giarusso were able to find this superb cast – I will not quote all their credentials here but I encourage you to read your program carefully – who were in turn willing to work for small salaries in exchange for the opportunity to perform this work in such an intimate and unique space. Giarusso, a Williams college graduate who has lived and worked in western Massachusetts for many years, recruited an orchestra made up primarily of local professionals, who were again excited to be part of this experience.

But that “can do” attitude of the Hubbard Hall Projects board and administration continues to be what makes the Hall such an exciting and impressive community arts organization. My opera-loving friend said she thought the singers in Cosi fan Tutte were better than some she had heard at Tanglewood this past season. Tanglewood is all about Tanglewood. Hubbard Hall is all about art and artists and community. I attended the opening night of Cosi fan Tutte with a full house of the usual eclectic mix of folks that I always see at the Hall. They are not there to be seen but to see and experience whatever is on offer – opera, theatre, chamber music, folk music, cabaret – and they delight in its quality and availability.

As gas prices rise and Americans focus more on returning to our roots of self-sufficiency, I think we will see live entertainment return to the 19th century model of bringing art to the people, rather than the people to the art, for which venues like Hubbard Hall were built. We are already seeing that with the restoration of late-19th and early-20th-century houses throughout the region, forming a new “circuit” through which packaged entertainment travels – the Warner Theatre in Torrington, CT; the Mahaiwe in Great Barrington; the Colonial in Pittsfield; the Paramount in Rutland, VT; the Palace in Albany; Proctors in Schenectady; and the Colonial in Keene, NH - just to name the ones I list on GailSez. I don’t think we will return to the days when every town had its own “opera house” but I think more communities will start encouraging and creating their own artists, as Hubbard Hall does, and that people will come to depend more on their regional entertainment “hubs” which may then begin to host locally grown productions and acts, as well as national tours.

So even if you, like me, aren’t really an opera person, I encourage you to take the trip to Cambridge, NY, to see this HHOT premiere production. If you have youngsters in your family who like classical music, this would be an excellent and intimate introduction to the glories of opera – something that they will never forget and which may just inspire the next generation of Alexina Joneses who boldly step forward and say, “What this town needs is an opera company.”

Hubbard Hall Opera Theatre’s production of Cosi fan Tutte runs through June 1 at Hubbard Hall, 25 East Main Street in Cambridge, NY, with performances on August 15, 16, 21 and 23 at 8 p.m., and August 24 at 2 p.m. the show runs three hours with one intermission and is suitable for classical music lovers of all ages. Tickets are $25 for Hubbard Hall members, $30 for non-members and $20 for students. For information and reservations, call 518-677-2495.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008

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