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Actor does double duty as director of Pittsburgh Opera’s Mozart production

Mark Kanny
PTRTKCOSIFANTUTTI4110515
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Director and actor Sir Thomas Allen as Don Alfonso, left, and Sari Gruber as Despina in Pittsburgh Opera's production of Mozart's 'Cosi Fan Tutte' as photographed at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Oakland on Monday, Oct. 26, 2015. Sir Thomas Allen, the real life inspiration for the character 'Billy Elliot' of the play and movie of the same title, is both directing and acting in the opera.
PTRTKCOSIFANTUTTI1110515
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
The cast of the Pittsburgh Opera's production of Mozart's 'Cosi Fan Tutte' as photographed at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Oakland on Monday, Oct. 26, 2015. At top, director and actor Sir Thomas Allen as Don Alfonso and Sari Gruber as Despina. On the bottom row from left are Christopher Tiesi as Ferrando, Jennifer Holloway as Dorabella, Danielle Pastin as Fiordiligi and Hadleigh Adams as Guglielmo. The show runs from Nov. 7th to Nov. 15th, 2015 at the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts in Downtown.

The character pulling the strings in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s romantic comedy “Cosi fan tutte” is Don Alfonso, a cynical old man out to teach two young men a lesson about love.

The singer portraying Alfonso in Pittsburgh Opera’s production of “Cosi,” Sir Thomas Allen, faces the added challenge of personally pulling the strings from backstage because he’s also the show’s stage director.

Allen, whose life was the inspiration for the play and musical “Billy Elliot,” is a past master at performing Alfonso but has directed a fully staged production of “Cosi” only once before — at Boston Lyric Opera in March 2013.

Pittsburgh Opera will present “Cosi fan tutte” from Nov. 7 to 15 at the Benedum Center, Downtown.

Mozart wrote “Cosi” in late 1789 and early 1790, about two years before he died. It was his third and final collaboration with Lorenzo Da Ponte, who had written the libretti for “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni.”

The opera’s title alludes to the sentiment “if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”

The opera’s trajectory is set in the opening scene.

After Ferrando and Guglielmo brag about their girlfriends — the sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi — Alfonso doubts that any woman will be loyal and offers to prove it if the men will do exactly as he says.

After they foolishly agree, Alfonso’s plot is set in motion, starting with the men supposedly being called away to war. They return disguised as lovelorn foreigners, and the sisters’ maid Dorabella, after being bribed by Alfonso, helps his deception. The women resist romantic advances, even after the men pretend to take poison in despair over their rejection.

But, in the second act, first Dorabella gives in with relative ease, and then Fiordiligi with much more difficulty. The final turn in Alfonso’s lesson for lovers is to have the men return as themselves and reveal the women have been puppets, duped by everyone, including their maid.

The original ending of the opera, in which the pairing of lovers is restored almost as though nothing had happened, is frequently changed in our time.

“I don’t think about it now in the way I did four or five years ago,” Allen says. “And certainly not 40 years ago when everybody did the norm — you would go back to the status quo, restoration of the normal.”

Contemporary sensibilities call for a more realistic outcome.

“You could argue that people do live with the pain and remembrance of hurtful moments a lot. And there are different ways of presenting it,” Allen says. “Just as the relationships are evolving, Alfonso drops a bomb in the middle of peoples’ happy lives. They’ve got to live with the consequences of it and the consequences can be pretty shattering, I think.”

Allen’s thoughts about “Cosi” deepened when he began “directing” a concert performance, which he says was mainly a matter of being a traffic cop, and ripened when he directed a staged production. The burden he carries personally as stage director and performer is staggering.

“Wearing one hat in this piece is one thing, but wearing two, I feel like the Gerald Ford thing about walking and chewing gum. I feel I’m doing that a hundred times over,” he says.

“Without understanding my role very well from doing it for so many years, it would be impossible. One of the difficulties for a performer who is also directing is that, at a particular moment, my mind is rushing from idea to idea. Sometimes, I have to remember the idea we settled on, which is where my assistant comes in and is an enormous help.”

Nevertheless, Allen admits that his dual role in this production is largely fun.

“It has to be an understood and collaborative effort on all parties’ parts. It’s a privilege, too, because it’s not often a singer will have an insight or perspective on everybody, seeing the opera through a pair of eyes not one’s own, but everybody’s role. Trying to integrate the whole thing — that’s an unusual privilege or problem.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or [email protected].

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