Kansas City boasts the country’s National World War 1 museum, so it seemed particularly fitting that James Alexander’s production of Mozart and Da Ponte’s Così fan tutte, which opened in the Kauffman Center tonight, down the road from the memorials, should harken back to the era of the Great War. It is true that war only exists in the work as a ruse to remove the males for the sake of the prank. Even still, there were a few nudges towards showing how women’s roles in society were changing even then – a woman auxiliary smoking a cigarette, and the female leads, stepping away from their gilded existence, to spend time as Red Cross nurses. Change or not as the case may be – despite the starched uniforms and the unlikely rolls of bandages, they still sported high heels – most impractical for field hospital scenarios. For the rest, the action was depicted in the sun-soaked setting of the pre-War Riviera – esplanades, parasols, sea-bathing, the marina at dusk, all the trappings of the Belle Époque leisurely classes – all pleasing and uncontroversial choices for this idiosyncratic Mozartian comedy.

Daniela Mack (Dorabella), Patrick Carfizzi (Don Alfonso) and Rebecca Farley (Fiordiligi)
© Elise Bakketun

Daniela Mack as Dorabella and Rebecca Farley as Fiordiligi made for a strong sisterhood. Posh airheads in Act 1, their voices melded together pleasingly: Farley’s elegant ease in the middle to upper range (less strong at the lower end), and the caramel smoothness of Mack’s mezzo. Mack’s portrayal was, besides, capital theatre, played entirely for laughs. Her solo as the phoney ‘tragic’ heroine was ticklish: full of canned emotion, even as she sang, darkly, of ‘implacable torments’. Mascara dripping, clicking fingers to her maid to provide the velvet cushion so that she could fall ‘spontaneously’ to her knees, she was the paragon of self-indulgent first world problems.

The whole production indeed brought out nicely the way the characters staged themselves, and perhaps that’s as good a way of playing this problematic opera as any. The lovers are always playing parts, even when they think they are being authentic. We were thus never far from parody and self-parody, from the men, assessing their own attractiveness, to Fiordiligi, virtuously elevated on a footstool for her “Come scoglio”, pushing away temptation by the force of her voice. The metaphor of staging was further emphasised with curious moments of Brechtian alienation, when the characters were separated from the sets by the black house curtain, and sang under focused spotlights. Not sure it was my favourite ploy, but one got the point.

John Viscardi (Guglielmo), Alasdair Kent (Ferrando), Maureen McKay (Despina), Patrick Carfizzi
© Elise Bakketun

Patrick Carfizzi’s baritone was warm and full as the despicable Don Alfonso, which it should be given that he is, in many ways, the main character: the instigator of the whole silly plot. Maureen McKay was a stagey, knockabout Despina, with an angular voice: she got to slap Alfonso’s face at the end, which was satisfying. Alasdair Kent (Ferrando) and John Viscardi (Gugliemo) played the part of nincompoops – “two dear fools” as they call each other – with skittish energy. I would have wanted to hear more vocal muscularity from Viscardi, but his aria “Donne mie, le fate a tanti” was attractive, not least because, the auditorium lights suddenly illuminated, he addressed his misogynist cynicism to the females in the audience. Kent set himself apart with his lyrical "Un'aura amorosa” in Act 1: a sweet, light voice, growing into its maturity.

John Viscardi (Guglielmo) and Daniela Mack (Dorabella)
© Elise Bakketun

As Jane Glover, tonight’s conductor, noted, it is primarily an ensemble opera, and the voices, although none of them giving an outstanding stand-alone performance, worked well together in those busy, fractious, tumultuous and occasionally lyrical duets, trios and sextets. Farley and Kent meshed together with emotional authenticity in their love duet, making the sentimental take on the ending at least plausible. In Alexander’s interpretation, Fioridligi and Ferrando unite, leaving the eternally vain Dorabella and Gugliemo alone; it is, in its way, problematic, but then all endings to Così tend to be. Can you get back to the status quo ante bellum, now that lovers and beloveds have all fallen from their pedestals? The libretto enjoining us to find peace and use reason is clearly pretty glib. If it’s a farce, it is a distinctly uncomfortable one. Glover led the orchestra at a decently sprightly pace. There were some moments of flagging momentum, but mostly, it was an enjoyable and amusing interpretation.