Così fan tutte is one of Mozart’s less popular works and is revered more amongst the cognoscenti than general audiences. Despite its beautiful music, the story has always seemed thin to me, the plot hard to sustain convincingly for its length. Acclaimed director and designer Jonathan Miller has reset this classic tale of love and deception in modern times and, very specifically, in Washington D.C. The comic inventiveness, pointed cultural references, and riffs on current events he’s brought to the work create something so fresh that the whole evening becomes a romp, beguiling enough to win over the youngest and most reluctant of audiences for opera.
Jonathan Miller cut his teeth as a writer and performer with the wickedly comic group “Beyond the Fringe” that included Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett. This prolific Renaissance man (physician, humorist, and TV presenter) went on to become one of the most clever and admired of directors of opera and theatre. In this work, his brilliance lies in the fact that his concept is totally thought through, so much so that the whole story, taking place “yesterday afternoon in Washington,” never gets strained but keeps reinventing itself for three hours.
Miller has turned the work into a chamber opera of sorts, with an off-white single set. Gone are the cumbersome set changes from coffee house, to bedroom, to garden. A few pieces of furniture and swaths of drapery, such as you might find in Washington’s most minimalist abodes of the rich, set the backdrop for a contemporary world that supports the plot by numbing its inhabitants into boredom and reckless wagers. There’s a very low pile of futon and pillows upon which all the lovers flop periodically, symbolically demonstrating a somewhat spineless culture. The low contemporary line of this silly pile provides some particularly challenging postures in which to sing opera (a collapse of torsos.)
The singers rise to the occasion and never break the style Miller requires. There is not a hint of operatic “preparations” of the body. There are no stiff thumbs or rising into relevés to reach high notes. The singers oblige the director with contemporary body postures, including off-kilter slouches, hands in pockets for the men, sinuous dance and social gestures for the girls. Most especially, I found it refreshing not to have the singers stand at the end of arias and wait for their bows. But, sprightly, off they went into the next scene. It made for a seamless and fresh show dramatically.
It’s an old story oft told about fiancé swapping and friends’ wagers on the virtue of their women. In Così fan tutte, Ferrando and Guglielmo get all puffed up about their girlfriends’ allegiance and they are conned into a trial to test such loyalty. Both men demonstrate totally unrealistic expectations as they sing “Are they goddesses or women?… Women but such women!” Cynic in love, Don Alfonso, sets up a match in which all must learn several lessons in love. The lovers slip into their girlfriends’ apartment in desert fatigues with the made-up tale that they have been called to the front. As things begin to spiral out of control, the silliness of the “material girls” Fiordiligi and Dorabella turns to something dark and twisted. In our current culture, military farewells and relationship treachery are no laughing matter.
Don Alfonso discovers a willing accomplice (for a price!) in his game in the sisters’ opportunistic maid, Despina. The lovers return disguised, not as in the original as Albanians, but hilariously clad as heavy metal bad-boy icons, in black leather jackets and boots, shades, sporting long locks and multi-colored tattoos. Declassé as these figures are (the surtitles have fun with an aside that they perhaps hail from Manassas or Leesburg), the women are titillated. They hold out for a time. Dorabella succumbs first, swapping her tenor for the baritone. Fiordigli insists on her virtue, though whether it’s her own vanity or her greater virtue is a matter for interpretation.
By the end of the show, just before the final reunion, the three men sing “Women Are Like That”, hence the title of the show. The men have shown that they are also disturbingly deceptive and fickle and act out in ways totally uninhibited. The biting moral here is, “men are like that” also.
The singing “sisters” are stunning. Elizabeth Futral is a favorite American soprano and makes her debut in the role of Fiordiligi, a role that seems made for her sparkling voice and her ability to float as social butterfly in one moment then dive like a dragonfly dangerously close to the watery depths in the next. Croatian mezzo-soprano Renata Pokupic is more than a match with her sassy persona as Dorabella, supported by a beautiful rich sound. Their duets are light and airy the way I think Mozart plays best. Every non-verbal run, which Mozart loved to throw in, was justified dramatically by these girls who “just wanna have fun.”
The men are likewise outstanding. Spanish tenor Joel Prieto makes his WNO debut, singing the role of Dorabella’s fiancé, Ferrando. His sidekick, Guglielmo, is sung by Baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes, who hails from New Zealand. British Baritone William Shimell, who was critically acclaimed in London and other operatic venues for his portrayal as the cool and manipulative Don Alfonso, creates a totally memorable character as the more cynical elder, who rules in the game of love. He carries himself with minimalist, icy movements. He reminded me of all-too familiar suave diplomat from the old world, who’s retired in D.C. and has nothing better to do than amuse himself by stirring up mischief.
Shimell is matched well by his relationship with the maid, Despina, sung and acted ably by Christine Brandes. She’s a totally contemporary chick, who enters carrying Starbucks lattes in the familiar cardboard carrier to her mistresses then proceeds to skim off the froth for herself. While Don Alfonso schemes out of boredom, Despina gets involved out of greed. There’s nothing more recognizable than these two motivations in Washington society.
Conductor Philippe Auguin makes the choice of adamantly adhering to Mozart’s dynamics in his score. The singers sing lightly for much of the evening, occasionally even dangerously so, especially when they are upstage of the balloon curtain. But it became a delightful aural experience as aria solos became duets, became trios, and then on up to sextets, moving as ribbons of sound weaving in and out of each other. It seemed as if the singers were always listening to one another. No one singer tried to overpower another as sometimes happens with operatic stars. Then when a singer stepped out for a big emotional moment, such as Futral’s “Come scoglio” and “Per piéta”, she cuts loose and is dramatically and powerfully supported by the orchestra. In another moment, tenor Prieto is brought to his knees and sings “Un’aura amorosa”, letting the music of this heartfelt aria guide him. At its conclusion, he wanders offstage, a broken man.
No one phrases vocal lines so effortlessly for a singer as Mozart. His orchestrations are subtle and never announce with a lot of fanfare. Auguin got the balance opening night just right between orchestra and singers. I only occasionally lamented that the size of the hall necessitated amplifying the harpsichord.
There is so much fun in the production, that there is little to criticize. The Chorus is written to be minimal and made even more so by Miller’s staging. Members came on to create clever cameos but mostly sing offstage, and, when standing around, seemed to be working in a different physical style than the soloists. Some people might take issue with the Seattle Opera’s contribution to the surtitles by Jonathan Dean, which boldly updated the translations from the Italian into a mash, and drew our attention to them in ways that were occasionally distracting. But they tickled my funny bone.
This production connects to a contemporary audience. It’s one of the most sparkling evenings of opera I have ever seen.
Così fan tutte
Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart . Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte
Directed and Designed by Jonathan Miller
Based on Miller’s original staging from London’s Royal Opera House
Conducted by Philippe Auguin
Produced by Washington National Opera
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running Time: 3 hours 15 minutes with one 20-minute intermission