When this Metropolitan Opera production was new, two years ago, I was taken with director Phelim McDermott’s physical production – set in Brooklyn’s Coney Island in the 1950s – along with Tom Pye’s playful, brightly colored sets. The pre-sexual-revolution ‘50s seemed a good substitute for the south of Italy in the 18th century – certainly a more sly and giggly period than the cynical #MeToo time we now live in. The women are “horrified” at the men’s request for a kiss after they’ve known one another so briefly; instant “hook-ups” came later. And the playland sets – a tunnel of love, swan boats, twirling teacups, a fortune-teller, with ferris wheel and roller-coaster in the background – felt accurate and charming, as do Laura Hopkins’ James Dean, Elvis Presley era costumes. The gals are in sweater sets and plaid skirts or crinolines, the men, out of uniform after their first return, sport high pompadours, and torturously tight jeans and leather jackets, the better to strut their stuff. The women stay at a motel where Despina is the maid and the doors keep opening and closing with boys and girls coming and going – it’s more Marx Brothers than Mozart, but fun.

Gerald Finley (Don Alfonso), Ben Bliss (Ferrando) and Nicole Car (Fiordiligi) © Jonathan Tichler | Met Opera
Gerald Finley (Don Alfonso), Ben Bliss (Ferrando) and Nicole Car (Fiordiligi)
© Jonathan Tichler | Met Opera

McDermott’s addition of a gaggle of side-show characters – sword swallowers, bearded lady, fire-eaters, contortionists, a giant, little people – offers eye-candy but eventually distracts. One could argue for its sheer entertainment value but it all would have been better cut in half.

But there’s so much more to Così. Mozart and da Ponte’s work is one filled with cynicism, cruelty and stupidity – the guys’ initial bet that they can seduce one another’s girlfriends is such a lose-lose situation, that it continues to amaze, rather than amuse. Of course, librettist and composer keep us wildly entertained, but Così is not a ribald comedy. In the words of the final chorus, “Happy is the man who looks on the bright side of everything… What only makes others weep gives him cause to laugh.” In other words, he’s either morally unconscious or a real wretch. While singing this in McDermott's direction, our characters kiss and cuddle complete strangers or some of the side-show people before going back to their original partners. Are they wiser? Who knows?

Luca Pisaroni (Guglielmo) and Serena Malfi (Dorabella) © Jonathan Tichler | Met Opera
Luca Pisaroni (Guglielmo) and Serena Malfi (Dorabella)
© Jonathan Tichler | Met Opera

Hands down, the musical performance is the finest I've ever heard live. In the expert hands of Harry Bicket, gooey sentiment was avoided but there was never a chill: Even "Soave sia il vento" was taken quickly, but it had the requisite stillness to hypnotise. Arias like "Come scoglio" and "Tradito, schernito" were led with a type of clenched teeth fury, with Despina's flirtier "Una donna a quindici anni" wicked enough to make the sisters blush and Dorabella's "Smanie, implacabili" a type of manic self-pity event. And Guglielmo's flip-out during the wedding scene, despite too much extra stage action, was underlined musically to great effect.

Nicole Car's girlish/womanly demeanor was just right for Fiordiligi. Her tone may not have a particularly individual stamp, but her singing – all of it – was just about perfect: all registers, accurate, easy coloratura, dark low notes and a gleam at the very full top. "Per pietà" was properly still, even as sung from an ascending hot-air balloon. Serena Malfi, left over from the 2018 cast, was for more impressive this season. Her Dorabella was vividly drawn, nervously funny, and handsomely sung. Heidi Stober avoided soubrette cutesiness as Despina in mannerism and voice, and it was a delight to experience.

<i>Così fan tutte</i> © Richard Termine | Met Opera
Così fan tutte
© Richard Termine | Met Opera

The men were just as fine. Ben Bliss is an elegant singer and his Ferrando proved smooth as silk in "Un aura amorosa" and biting in "Tradito..." Spotless coloratura in the Act 1 finale ensemble and fine "poseur" acting completed the picture. Bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni made a stunning Guglielmo, his tone big and centered, his sexy-guy attitude right on. It was easy to identify with his rage and disappointment during the mock wedding, at which point he becomes the opera's moral center. And the fine artist Gerald Finley, whose stage impersonations range from Iago to Papageno, was a devious and cold Don Alfonso who managed to get away with wearing, at different points, a yellow zoot suit and a red-sequined one.

Ben Bliss (Ferrando), Nicole Car (Fiordiligi), Serena Malfi (Dorabella), Luca Pisaroni (Guglielmo) © Richard Termine | Met Opera
Ben Bliss (Ferrando), Nicole Car (Fiordiligi), Serena Malfi (Dorabella), Luca Pisaroni (Guglielmo)
© Richard Termine | Met Opera

Please realize that this is the review of a person who knows the opera well; the fact that it can – and has for generations – remain effective as frothy entertainment speaks for its brilliant construction. Not everyone looks for a subtext, or needs one. And with a performance like this, complaints fall by the wayside.

****1