It was a glass-smashing, balloon-popping, bearskin-wearing, strip-out-of-your-swimsuit-onstage kind of afternoon at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater for the opening of New York City Opera’s second production of the 2012 season, Mozart’s Così fan tutte.

Sara Jakubiak (Fiordiligi), Philip Cutlip (Guglielmo), Jennifer Holloway (Dorabella), Allan Clayton © Carol Rosegg
Sara Jakubiak (Fiordiligi), Philip Cutlip (Guglielmo), Jennifer Holloway (Dorabella), Allan Clayton
© Carol Rosegg

Even for people who’ve seen this opera before, I’ll bet they’ve never seen a Così like this one. Credit director Christopher Alden for creating a show then smashing the mold to smithereens, just like the champagne flute hurled upstage during Act II by Despina. Alden envisions his shows in ways you don’t expect and can’t predict. Unless, of course, you’ve seen one of his shows before. Then, expectations of bodies writhing across the stage, two people sharing one costume, limp and lifeless performers who hang around onstage, and sight references to oral sex, are commonplace.

Though the music was all Mozart, expertly rendered, the shape, the tenor, the texture of this Così was all Alden. Where da Ponte’s libretto grates against contemporary sensibilities, Alden lampoons it. You experience afresh the lunacy of the storyline through a lens that Alden and his design team creates for us. What is the silly storyline? Two men decided to test the fidelity of the sisters they plan to marry by pretending to leave town and then reappearing wearing mustaches—a disguise that allows them to pass themselves off as Albanians.

Perhaps the most useful thing you can bring to an opera directed by Christopher Alden is an open mind. Don’t expect period costumes. Don’t expect to see a light, bright color palette used in the stage design just because it’s a frothy comic opera. Alden’s show is deliberately drab—think shades of tan, olive, and sepia. Even the greenery that’s supposed to suggest a park setting isn’t green. The only greenery in the opera occurs during the poison scene—the most hilarious and outrageous scene in this Così. After consuming the arsenic, the “Albanians,” now donning woolen bunny-ear caps, turn shamrock green thanks to the stage lighting. The sick bunnies writhe on the floor in the most comical poses until the sisters take pity on them and stroke their big bunny ears which have become erogenous zones.

Lest it sound like I am describing a free-for-all, while the action is zany, the staging is precision itself. Alden creates tableaus, and any performer who works with him signs on for his style of show. His staging manipulates the singers’ bodies like putty or, alternately, choreographs them with the precision of a Swiss timepiece. In Alden operas, the singers’ bodies are not their own. They are like chess pieces, to be arranged and posed and draped just so—for theatrical effect—and yet, they are singing Mozart the whole time. Winningly, I might add.

The other thing that needs to be mentioned is that Alden pays scrupulous attention to the libretto, which results in some fantastical and over-the-top directorial choices. For instance, if the stage direction says “ruefully”, characters in Alden operas carry that emotion to the nth degree. Selected lines can also result in complete character transformations, such as with the docile Despina, who becomes a Mata Hari-esque bear tamer complete with crop, and with Don Alfonso, her dancing bear on a short leash.

Since the success of any Così rests with its ensemble cast, each principal deserves mention: soprano Sara Jakubiak as Fiordiligi; mezzo-soprano Jennifer Holloway as Dorabella; soprano Marie Lenormand as Despina, who had a remarkable introduction into the opera, beginning as a bag lady hanging at the back of the set; tenor Allan Clayton as Ferrando; baritone Philip Cutlip as Guglielmo; and baritone Rodney Gilfry as Don Alfonso triumphed individually and soared collectively.

Had the show ended after Act I, the single strongest act in opera I’ve seen in the last three New York seasons, I’d say this Così was the best production ever. But unfortunately, the second act didn’t top the first. While I ate up the bunny ears in Act I, the bearskin gag in Act II seemed forced. The sight gags just weren’t as entertaining and the staging not quite as clever. With little help from customary sight cues (Dorabella in the red dress; Fiordiligi, the pink), it was taxing to remember which woman goes with which man. Their apparel was too similar, and I just gave up. The standout performance in Act II was Lenormand, who ruled Despina as Alden envisioned the role.

After three-and-a-half-hours of shenanigans, it’s no wonder the players feigned giving up on the libretto, too. By the end of Act II, they refused to carry the machinations the script calls for, perhaps on principle—they’d reached their silliness quotient—or from sheer exhaustion. For instance, what’s supposed to happen is that the “Albanians” are forced into hiding when the sisters think that Ferrando and Guglielmo are returning from serving their regiment. Confessions are made by the sisters to their fiancés, forgiveness is begged, and all’s well that ends well. What happens in the Alden production, by contrast, is that worn-out cast members slouch on a park bench and pass a bottle of champagne back and forth while singing about all these things happening.

However, the voices never faltered. Nor did the orchestra under the baton of Christian Curnyn, who culled unflagging beauty, texture, and oopmh from his players. The balance of orchestral musicians to singers was ideal in that venue—a perfect partnership for this show.

New York City Opera’s Così may be a lot like those you’ve heard before but nothing like any you’ve ever seen before, or will ever see again. All Così performances are not the same. In the 536-seat theater, an intimate setting by Lincoln Center standards, it’s made-to-order springtime fare. Light in spots. Mud-luciously sardonic in others. Cruelly clever as the cruelest month. The quirkiest Così you’ll ever catch. So, hurry and catch it.