There's so much caution – understandable caution – in the arts these days that a production teeming with ambition, originality and drive is something of a shock. A production where not everything has to work perfectly for it to amaze, entertain and delight.
Welcome to Against the Grain's A Little Too Cozy, Mozart's Cosi fan tutte adapted as a reality-TV dating show, where two couples can win prizes if they agree to marry without ever having seen one another. But where there's a ratings-inspired twist.
Not everything is perfect with Cozy. It was a clever and daring idea to set the show in a real TV studio, Studio 42 within the CBC's Broadcast Centre. But it never occurred to TV-studio designers to pay much attention to acoustics. They figured everything would be miked. Consequently, some of the glorious natural sound that the Cozy singers were making got swallowed up in the cavernous open ceiling of Studio 42 and didn't penetrate to us, sadly. And even Joel Ivany's deliciously clever rewritten libretto for Cozy, so faithful to the spirit of the original, couldn't quite escape some of the goofiness of that original. The show could drag at times. And how lovely it would have been if the Against the Grain folks had had enough money to really exploit the production capability of a real TV studio – use bigger monitors, more cameras, more edited footage, a glitzier set.
However, although these are not quite quibbles, the sheer joyousness of creativity so nakedly and happily put on display by A Little Too Cozy, in every aspect, made it one of the most enjoyable evenings the opera world has spent in this town for a while. First and foremost was the basic idea of resetting Cosi fan tutte in a modern reality-TV setting, so that the abrupt reversals of plot and mood in the opera finally made some sense – as much sense as reality TV itself makes. That's more of a triumph than you may think – because the plot of Cosi has been denounced for almost 200 years as idiotic, beneath the excellence of Mozart's music. Finally, that wasn't the case.
And what a treat to hear a libretto so firmly and securely set in the vernacular of 21st-century life. Finally, we modern opera-goers got to feel like the original audiences to all the classics of the opera repertoire, or at least a lot of them. We heard a libretto that was written for us and our times – that was funny, clever, pointed, meaningful. So that you didn't have to study for a month to appreciate what you were about to see and hear. You just had to listen and enjoy and follow along.
But an opera must stand or fall, in the end, on its music and musical performances, and here Cozy presented an almost uniformly positive face, although, if truth be told, in keeping with the reality-show format, Team Dora, Felicity and Despina were a little ahead of team Elmo, Fernando and Donald L. Fonso. That is to say, the women were a bit better than the men. Aaron Sheppard had several wonderful, quiet moments as Fernando, one of the guys ready to wed his sight-unseen beloved, but wasn't quite as secure in the role as one might have liked. Clarence Frazer was an effective Elmo, his partner-in-crime, and improved as the evening progressed as did all the singers as they adjusted to the acoustical challenge Studio 42 presented. And Cairan Ryan was often just slimy enough as the TV host Don L. Fonzo, but could have been even more so.
However, the female members of the cast were superb. Rihab Chaieb, the only member of the cast not involved in the original production of Cozy last summer in Banff, was a fabulous addition, a woman who acted her role with as much panache as she sang it – and who sang it with a control throughout her range. Shantelle Przbylo was a wonderful Felicity, the one member of the cast who actually feels the intensity of the changes in her heart's desires, and who leads you to suspect that Cosi was not just a farcical romp for the sensitive Mozart. Przbylo's Act 2 aria, where she begs forgiveness from her lover for her soon-to-be-consummated betrayal, was as beautifully crafted and performed as any I've heard in any production of Cosi, ever. And Caitlin Wood's Despina, the TV handler of the two women contestants, almost stole the show. Wood was as fine an actress as she was a singer, and who made of her Despina an extremely full characterization.
Partly that was Joel Ivany's doing, because by giving Despina some power in his adaptation he strengthened her role in the proceedings. Despina is a maid in the original Cosi, and her attitudes are too often shaped by her class. Wood's Despina, without the class consciousness, was more powerful. And even though Mozart's full orchestration was reduced to a single piano and a string quartet, the music generally worked for Cozy, mainly because music director Topher Mokrzewski put so much energy and power into every note he played at the keyboard, he was almost able to conjure up a full orchestra.
A Little Too Cozy is not perfect, but it's still a delight. If you want an evening of fun, power, and a glimmering of an idea of why opera has been so potent an art form for 400 years, get yourself to the CBC's Broadcast Centre, buy a ticket, take the elevator to the 10th floor, sit in the studio 42 bleachers, and be prepared to enjoy yourself immensely, whether you know Cosi by heart or have never been to an opera before. You'll be entertained by a lively and ambitious production.