“Solving” Così fan Tutte

The Met has a new production of Mozart’s Così fan Tutte, a radiant if troubling work that revolves around two pairs of lovers engaged in a test of fidelity, in which the men, with increasing intensity (either comic or melodramatic depending on the direction) try to woo one anothers’ fiancées.

Director Phelim McDermott has set it in a 1950s Coney Island amusement park, complete with sideshow performers, and an appealing cast with ardent young lovers, and the established star baritone Christopher Maltman as Don Alfonso (sometimes played as an aging and cynical character part, but here a much more nuanced and better sung performance).  Best of all was Broadway star Kelli O’Hara as the saucy maid, Despina, who with Don Alfonso, is the motor which makes the entire funny cruel game work. Her singing was exemplary and as others have pointed out, she inhabited the role physically and vocally. Not always something you see on an opera stage. She was compelling every minute.

I caught the rebroadcast of the Met in HD airing  tonight and came away thinking that although Cosi remains a challenge–depending on your take on the joke it’s either bleakly misogynistic, or a deeply cynical about any kind of romantic love–this production resolved more of the problems in theme, philosophy and staging than others I’ve seen. (And since it’s one of my favorite operas musically I’ve seen it a lot.)

The best thing thing was a dazzling way of handling the scene changes with motel room doors that become interiors as they spun around. Really ingenious and in keeping with the ever changing sense of the principals’ relationships.

The carnival setting worked too-solving the last scene in which the the men come back as themselves via a magical chest (also playing a role in the opening gesture in the opera). And the vexing question of whether the opera ends in the original configuration of lovers or reflects the results of the game (generally thought to be unresolved in the score and libretto) was resolved in a manner both convincing and droll.

The sideshow performers were natural parts of it somehow–humanity in all its variety being one of both Mozart’s and McDermott’s preoccupation. And the subtle point that in this opera–as in so many–everybody is lying to everybody else at some point was underlined. Only the sideshow performers were honest–well and truly themselves with no artifice except their art itself. It was a point that it’s easy to see Mozart smiling at.

It will likely show up on PBS or in theaters in HD repeats this summer. If you are an opera fan, worth taking a look.

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