Mozart and da Ponte’s last collaboration, “Così fan tutte,” has got to be one of the most put-upon works in the standard opera repertoire. Its very title, usually translated as “Women Are Like That,” rings alarm bells of misogyny. For well over a century its plot, revolving around a cynical fiancée-swapping bet, was variously expurgated, hashed up and outright replaced. It wasn’t until well after the turn of the last century that the opera was recognized for both the musical masterpiece it is and the sharp take on human behavior it presents.
“Così” at its best requires certain ingredients. If “Falstaff” is a conductor’s opera, “Così” is most definitely a director’s opera. On its face the plot is broad comedy: Two soldiers (Ferrando and Guglielmo) engaged to two sisters (Dorabella and Fiordiligi) are suckered into a bet proposed by their cynical older friend (Don Alfonso) who maintains that the ladies, protestations by their lovers to the contrary, aren’t paragons but instead are just like all other women—they’ll stray, given the opportunity. At the cynical friend’s direction, the soldiers fake going off to war, and return in disguise to attempt to seduce each other’s fiancée. The cynical friend is aided and abetted by the ladies’ maid (Despina) who at various times masquerades as a quack doctor to bring the soldiers back to life after a mock suicide attempt, and as a notary to perform a marriage ceremony for the swapped couples. All is eventually revealed and reconciled, and the lovebirds return to their rightful partners.
But are they? The catch to “Così” is that da Ponte tells you one thing and Mozart seemingly tells you the opposite: Da Ponte’s take on the whole work is farcical, whereas Mozart provides a number of heart-stopping moments along the way. These include the lovers’ leave-taking quartet, the trio “Soave sia il vento” which seems suspended in time, Ferrando’s love-struck aria, “Un’ aura amorosa,” and most crucially, Fiordiligi’s “Per pietà.” Her aria is the opera’s big “Hey, wait a minute” moment, when things stop being funny—this is a woman in torment. It becomes even more complicated a bit later as Ferrando in disguise seduces Fiordiligi. On its surface this is payback for Guglielmo’s successful seduction of Dorabella, but is that all? We already know he’s a romantic, and the passionate music of the duet with Fiordiligi (“Fra gli amplessi”) logically leads you to think he may not just be acting. The ambiguity of “Così” and the cruelty of Don Alfonso’s mind games, set against some broad farce, demand a director who can handle a sensitive balancing act.
I’d like to say Phelim McDermott, director of the Metropolitan Opera’s new “Così” production, filled the bill entirely, but unfortunately he failed in certain details. Let’s get some controversy out of the way first: I loved his setting of the opera in 1950’s Coney Island, I think the side-show performers are a wonderful addition and I enjoyed the clever pantomime during the overture. All of this heightened the experience and in no way demeaned the opera as some critics have complained (What a bunch of stuffed shirts). However, where I thought he fell short was in not giving certain key moments the opportunity to land properly. This was most evident when Amanda Majeski as Fiordiligi sang “Per pieta” while floating up and down on a balloon ride. The seriousness of that moment should never be undercut. Similarly, the staging of her Act I aria, the satirical “Come scoglio,” while funny, was too frenetic; give the woman a chance to breathe!
The performances were a mixed bag. Of the four lovers, honors go to the gentlemen, Ben Bliss and Adam Plachetka, whose naval officers turned Danny Zuko lookalikes were well sung, as was Serena Malfi’s Dorabella. I was somewhat disappointed by Amanda Majeski who seemed overparted as Fiordiligi. In fairness, this is a killer role, both vocally and dramatically, and it takes a great deal of stage presence to get the character’s points across. One of the best opera performances I ever saw was “Così” at New York City Opera many years ago when the company’s Mozart operas were usually sung in English. The late Patricia Brooks, who began her career as an actress before switching to opera, was the Fiordiligi. I can still remember how she emoted during the recitative of “Per pieta” to set up the audience’s laughter, before her entire physical demeanor changed to signal the very real pain the character was experiencing. The audience instantly hushed, and she had them hanging on every note until she finished. I would have liked to have seen that kind of stage savvy at the Met last night, but it wasn’t to be.
Fortunately there was energy and presence to burn when Kelli O’Hara was on stage. There was a lot of interweb disparagement when she was announced as Despina last year, and I’m thrilled she’s proven the naysayers wrong. She projects well in the house, she rattled off Despina’s recitative like a pro and she seemed to be enjoying herself immensely (I particularly loved her dancing Texas justice of the peace at the end of Act II). She and Christopher Maltman, as Don Alfonso, played well together, and here’s hoping this isn’t the end of her performances at the Met.
“Così” will be this Saturday’s “Live in HD” telecast. It’s worth the excursion to Coney Island.