I hear that both you and your friend are getting married to wealthy and pretty ladies from Washington DC?

Joel Prieto, Elizabeth Futral, Renata Pokupic, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, and Christine Brandes in Cosi fan © Scott Suchman for WNO
Joel Prieto, Elizabeth Futral, Renata Pokupic, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, and Christine Brandes in Cosi fan
© Scott Suchman for WNO

My heartiest congratulations, gentlemen! As my early wedding gift, allow me to offer you some marriage wisdom: when your beloved betray you, remember to forgive them and keep living happily ever after.

Don’t believe in betrayal? Well, then, allow me to prove my point.

Oblige me, and inform your betrothed that you have been summoned to war. Don’t stay to dry their tears. Bid them a hasty farewell and return the same day disguised as… shall we say, two hairy and abundantly tattooed bikers from Baltimore? Woo each other’s fiancée, and watch them fall right into your arms.

Such are all women, always have been and always will be, won’t they? asks Mozart.

Yes, they will! answers stage director and designer Jonathan Miller in his contemporary interpretation of Mozart’s timeless tale of love and deception, Così fan tutte that opened with Washington National Opera Friday night.

Not a huge fan of opera modernization, I have to admit that it is hardly possible to pick an opera with a more time- and place-adjustable plot than Così fan tutte. In the age of shifted priorities and questionable values, this opera sounds a lot more contemporary than it used to back in the 1790, when it premiered in Vienna.

Fashions change, but relationship patterns do not. People in the Washington DC of 2012 are as susceptible to the powers of love, jealousy and deception as they were in Naples of the 18th century.

In his attempt to modernize Mozart’s opera and make it more appealing to younger audiences, Miller presented his cast with a true artistic challenge. Due to the absence of any visual help in the staging – be it the scenery (the stage looked white and pure) or the costumes, which seemed to have been delivered from the nearest Georgetown boutique – it was solely up to the artists to put on comic action, make the opera look and sound ultra-modern, and, at the same time, preserve its most important and valuable element – the feel of Mozart.

The artists did not disappoint. An adorably cocky Guglielmo sung by baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes and a flirty Dorabella from Renata Pokupic made a perfect vocal match. These fun-loving and easygoing love birds created a great contrast to a more romantically inclined couple: Joel Prieto’s sublime Ferrando and his courageous partner in disguise Fioridilgi, masterfully portrayed by the WNO favorite Elizabeth Futral.

It was thanks to the deep and complex performance of this soprano, that it became clear why Mozart had called his opera “a lot of fun and a little serious.” Fun and playful as she was in the beginning of the opera, Futral’s heroine gradually transformed into a wise and emotionally mature woman. Not a novice to drama, this soprano filled her showcase aria “Per pietà, ben mio, perdona” with emotional depth and genuine pain, showing us how the human soul gets purified through suffering and sincere remorse.

The dramatic triumph of the evening belonged to British baritone William Shimell, whose cynical yet sophisticated (and just a tad charming) Don Alfonso won the audience over with his charisma and vocal elegance. Much in the key of Mozart’s opera, Shimell’s character became the Mozart in disguise, whose mission was to teach his audience a lesson of love and wisdom.

His “Così fan tutte” recitative was performed with the refined diction, taste and flair of a classical comedy actor and served as a perfect emotional epilogue to the opera.

All in all, the Friday night performance proved that whatever epoch Mozart’s operas are projected to, and how ripped of romance some modern productions may first seem, true artists will preserve that Mozart feel, because just like his wisdom, Mozart’s music is always relevant and modern.

I hear that you, gentlemen, changed your minds about marrying your fiancés? Nonsense – young men who have the world at their feet should know better than that.

Love conquers all, my friends, and where there is true love, there will be happiness in marriage. Just remember that no matter what country and century we live in, we are humans. We love. We slip. We forgive. We get back on our feet and we march right on.

But who am I to give you advice on happiness and marriage? I am only an opera critic after all. You’ll be much better off learning from the great composer who told us centuries ago: such is human nature. Always has been. Always will be.

***11