What is it about Mozart’s Così fan tutte that inspires the zaniest interpretations? While the music is lovely, replete with all those lush trios, quartets, and quintets that operagoers live for, the storyline is silly if not downright insipid.
Two officers test their fiancées’ fidelity by pretending to go to war and returning in disguise in order to woo the women, attempting to make them stray, and the women do falter. However, all is forgiven when Don Alfonso reminds the soldiers that “all women are the same”. The men clap each other on the back, consoling themselves that men cannot depend on women because of their inherent flawed nature, that they might as well love them anyway in spite of their flaws, and (most) everyone lives happily ever after in this version.
It is this dopey (pun intended) and (if we’re being honest) chauvinistic premise that strains credulity today. So, if companies want to perform Mozart’s glorious music, they must find a way to make the story go down easier by coming up with a gimmick. Stage director Nic Muni set his version in the 1960s when hippies first arrived on the establishment scene. Tenor Jonas Hacker as Ferrando and baritone Michael Adams as Guglielmo go to war as NROTC Marine Officers and return to town disguised as long-haired, tie-dyed freaks only interested in – what else – pot smoking and free love. The ensnare the Vassar coeds they’re betrothed to, mezzo-soprano Julia Dawson as Dorabella and soprano Melinda Whittington as Fiordiligi, dragging them down into the Age of Aquarius, and everyone gets comfortably numb, man.
While the flower-power scene makes for a good sight gag now and again, and the liberties taken with the libretto entertained (for instance, when have you even seen “karmic sonnets” and “cosmic rays” in subtitles for an opera written in 1790, not 1970?), the gags all became wearisome by the end of the three-hour show. More importantly, there was some very serious talent on stage, essentially trapped in what became a too-silly showcase.
As Fiordiligi, Melinda Whittington was an utter treat, whether dressed up like Jackie Kennedy or down like a flower child. She could sing the appliqués off anyone’s faded jeans and wowed the audience time and time again. Fiordiligi is given abundant vocal opportunities to shine in both acts, and she capitalized on every one. Her voice had beauty, power, range, and never faltered.
From her first appearance on stage in her little cat-eye glasses, Julia Dawson delighted as the fickle Dorabella. She’s a gifted actress and a joy to watch on stage. Any time she and Whittington sang together, it was like listening to an angelic serenade.
As Despina the housemaid, Armenian soprano Anush Avetisyan proved her worth and mettle as a comic actress and singer. While her antics and outfits regaled, she also is one very talented singer. Her first act aria “In uomini, in soldati, sperare fedeltà” was a showstopper.
The men performed nearly as solidly. Jonas Hacker warmed into his voice by Act II. In fact, all the Act II arias soared. Michael Adams was rock solid from beginning to end. His second act aria “Donne mie, la fate a tanti” was resplendent. Right on, bro!
The director’s notes suggested that librettist Da Ponte wrote himself into this opera as the character Don Alfonso. I’ve seen Alfonso played as a goad and a puppetmaster, maneuvering the scene, sometimes pushing the players around against their will and better judgment. Bass-baritone Daniel Noyola got the tone just right, neither seeming too sinister or too patronizing. His rich baritone-edged bass was integral to the success of the voices combining in trio or quintet.
The orchestra under the direction of Christofer Macatsoris was just about perfect this time. They showed a commendable restraint, lifting up the vocalists but not overpowering them. The only fault I can report on is that the recorded harpsichord accompaniment did jar the listener, even though it was only heard underneath recitative. But perhaps they had no other recourse. Mozart without harpsichord is like a bong without weed.
While it’s too late to catch this Così, there are numerous other AVA productions on tap through May of 2014. So, there’s no need to be bummed. The prospect of seeing the stars of this show in future roles is totally out of sight.
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