All bets are off if you set an already ambiguously plotted opera in a part of the universe devoted to fantasy, magic, and sheer playfulness. I, for one, have never found the nastily plotted Così fan tutte funny. A pair of dumb, gullible guys bet a cynical older man that they can seduce one another’s girlfriends, and when they succeed, they are, of course miserable, but then all is forgiven and all returns to business as usual. Mozart and da Ponte do not specifically say that the newly formed duos stay together or that the original pairings return to the status quo.

Serena Malfi (Dorabella) and Amanda Majeski (Fiordiligi) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Serena Malfi (Dorabella) and Amanda Majeski (Fiordiligi)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

But the most poignant and effective performance of this opera I’ve ever seen was from Drottningholm, Sweden, wherein the quartet go their own ways, clearly bitter and after this dreadful experiment, as fed up with themselves as they are with their mates. (We see them arriving at and leaving the theatre in their regular, 20th-century street clothes: they are not metaphors.) It makes sense that way; unless they’re nitwits or wacky swingers, they are not going to forgive and forget. 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. The women keep telling the men “no” and the men ignore them; the women eventually give in. Beethoven despised Così and most critics and many composers of the 19th century found it distasteful and heartless. And for an audience in 2018, unscrupulous men tricking women who are either too foolish or too easily swayed, it is a bit upsetting.

<i>Così fan tutte</i> on Coney Island © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Così fan tutte on Coney Island
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

There’s much to be said for Phelim McDermott’s new Met production (on Tom Pye’s sets) set in Brooklyn’s Coney Island in the late 1950s. It’s brilliantly vivid looking, with a Fortune Teller, Roller-coaster, swan boats for a Lover’s Ride, swirling teacups, a Frankfurter stand, and motel rooms where the girls are staying and where Despina works. The gals are in sweater sets and plaid skirts, the men, after their first return, are dressed like the cast of Grease, with some very funny strutting, high pompadours, and torturously tight jeans and leather jackets (credit Laura Hopkins). That’s fine – it’s all properly tawdry and jolly. But there’s also a collection of sideshow characters who are almost egregiously omnipresent – starting in front of a spangly gold curtain during the overture and essentially taking all attention away from the music. The sword swallowers, bearded lady, fire-eaters, contortionists, giant, little people, tumblers et al, were surely fun to look at as they popped out of a trunk opened by Don Alfonso, but each appearance during the four minute overture was met by laughter and applause – as one would expect – and almost no music was audible.

Serena Malfi (Dorabella) and Adam Plachetka (Guglielmo) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Serena Malfi (Dorabella) and Adam Plachetka (Guglielmo)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

The distractions continued but were entertaining enough until, disgracefully, the serene, exquisite, second act serenade with chorus “Secondate, aurette amiche,” wound up peopled with the sideshow folk galavanting. Funny moments with the fake doctor, lots of movement with motel doors opening and closing, and then a finale in which after everyone on stage, our four included, has a brief make-out session with a stranger, the two original couples reunite. And so, it was just a midsummer night’s folly.

What about the music? Well, Conductor David Robertson led a good, sturdy, workaday show that moved along nicely. The codas to every aria and scene were drowned out by applause, so who knows about sensitivity at the close of “Un aura amorosa”? But it didn’t matter. The singing was good enough, with no virtuoso or “special” performances: Broadway star Kelli O’Hara was recruited to sing Despina (which may have added to the practically full house) and she was very good, her voice and antics encompassing the role well.

Christopher Maltman (Don Alfonso) and Kelli O'Hara (Despina) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Christopher Maltman (Don Alfonso) and Kelli O'Hara (Despina)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

Christopher Maltman’s Alfonso, in mustard yellow suit, was very loud and very snide. Amanda Majeski’s soprano handled all of Fiordiligi’s notes and temperament, but I wonder if she might have made more of an effect in “Per pietà” had she not been suspended from the flies in a moving hot air balloon. Serena Malfi had a healthy sound as Dorabella and she was nicely flighty. Ben Bliss impressed as Ferrando even if, like all the others, he never altered his dynamics. Adam Plachetka’s Guglielmo varied between being blustery and crude and quite touching in his vitriolic wedding scene.

The audience had fun. I despised most of the distractions and disrespect for the music itself. And in the end, moral issues and any sort of philosophical wonderings were nil. Maybe Così fan tutte translates as "None of it matters".

***11