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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 19, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 03
Così fan tutte a problematic opera for our times
Arts & Entertainment
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Così fan tutte a problematic opera for our times

by Sharon Cumberland - SGN Contributing Writer

SEATTLE OPERA
COSÌ FAN TUTTE
WOLFGANG MOZART
LORENZO DA PONTE
MARION OLIVER MCCAW HALL
January 13 (Opening Night Cast)
(Also, 1/24 & 1/27)


Seattle Opera is advertising its current production of Così fan tutte as 'Mozart's Opera About Sex.' True enough, but all of Mozart's operas are about sex, as the pre-opening night lecturer (University of Washington's Stephen Rumph) pointed out. Consider the famous seducer of Don Giovanni who has 1,003 conquests in Spain alone; the bored aristocrat who tries to seduce Figaro's fiancée in The Marriage of Figaro, Tammino and Tamina in The Magic Flute who walk through fire in an attempt to find happiness; or Abduction from the Seraglio in which two lovers try to steal their girlfriends from the Pasha's harem º and so on, throughout many of Mozart's twenty-two operas.

And Così fan tutte - the second in the trio of collaborations between Mozart and the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte - is no different in its focus on sex, but different in scale. The cast is small, the chorus all but invisible, and the somewhat claustrophobic focus is on a pair of lovers whose lives are re-routed by a cynical older man who wants to prove that women are incapable of fidelity. The music is fabulous, of course - did Mozart ever write a wrong note? - and Englishman Paul Daniel made his conducting debut at Seattle Opera to the cheers of his appreciative opening night audience. The sets are minimalist but gorgeous - pastel drapes, with heaps of pillows on the floor into which the lovers dive, roll, collapse, and fling one another - as well as stylish, contemporary costumes that strike the perfect note of elegance and humor. It's sexy, all right - especially since the entire cast is either beautiful or handsome. The girls wear chic high heels and have flowing locks down to their waists. The boys look great in suits, jeans, and bomber jackets. Even the cynical Don Alfonso, a slightly older man, has power-suited elegance and a badass shaved head.

This modernized production originated in London at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. It was devised and designed by Jonathan Miller, the Renaissance man whose re-thinking of everything from Shakespeare to Alice in Wonderland has revolutionized theater over the past fifty years. By bringing Mozart's eighteenth-century opera into the present Miller demonstrated the idea that things never change: girls are fickle and as changeable as the moon. Da Ponte's title, Così fan tutte translates as 'All women are like that.' He and Mozart considered this opera a comedy and it does, indeed, have many funny moments. We never find out why Don Alfonso is so convinced that women are faithless, but he bets two young men, Ferrando and Gugliemo, that their 'promesi sposi' or fiancées - a pair of lively sisters - will betray them if given the opportunity. The boys protest but accept the bet and agree to participate in Don Alfonso's scheme to trick the girls into believing their lovers are being conscripted, when in fact they disguise themselves as 'Albanians' and return to woo their lovers into betraying their vows. The comedy thickens when each of the sisters falls for the other's fiancée.

The staging is clever and the audience laughed all the way through, but the story itself is as barbed as fishhook in a cactus on a fence in Montana. The only way a mean-spirited story can have a happy ending is if everyone forgives and forgets, and in Da Ponte's original libretto, that's what happens. But really - how can you forget that your sister had sex with your future husband? Or that you threw your fiancée over in less than a day? In this modern version the lovers can't forget.

The first time I saw this production at Seattle Opera in 2006, the ending was ambiguous - did they forgive each other? Did they switch partners? Did they go back to their original lovers? The curtain came down on the four standing in a square gaping back and forth at each other in unresolved confusion. I was disappointed in that ending and hoped for a change in this revival - and stage director Harry Fehr gave us that change. No spoilers, but the ending is no longer ambiguous (though it may not be the Disney ending we were hoping for).

This story of lovers who are set-up for failure may not have been a barrel of laughs even in Mozart's time, as an essay on the Covent Garden website explains: 'Unlike the other two Da Ponte operas [Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro], Così's reception has always been more complex, with the opera variously considered immoral, unfinished, cruel or simply odd since its 1790 premiere, but it's now finally accepted as one of Mozart's masterpieces.' I buy that last statement - it contains passages that are truly among Mozart's most beautiful compositions. But I'm not sure it's Da Ponte's masterpiece. The idea of testing a lover's faithfulness is an ancient literary theme - Shakespeare's Cymbeline, for instance, or, going back to medieval times, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But the lovers in those stories were faithful, and the legends extol virtue and constancy rather than betrayal of trust. Though Da Ponte's libretto is cynical and even cruel, in the twenty-first century (and with a pussy-grabbing president in the White House) Così is a very modern story, and looks perfectly natural in this updated presentation.

Yet in spite of the edgy plot and somewhat uncomfortable ending, this production has many charms, one of which is that the two sisters at the center of the story, Flordiligi and Dorabella, were performed on opening night by two real-life sisters, Marina and Ginger Costa-Jackson. What are the chances that there would be two beautiful young opera singers in the same family - one a soprano and one a mezzo-soprano - who could take on these very challenging roles with such aplomb? Their real-life sisterhood added depth to an already complex story. The Costa-Jackson sisters not only sang with soaring confidence, but their interactions - teasing, pouting, holding hands, commiserating - had a natural conviction that was quite moving. The two men, Finnish tenor Tuommas Katajala making his Seattle Opera debut as Ferrando and baritone Craig Verm sang with passionate conviction, whether defending their fiancées, pretending to be 'Albanians,' or reeling with despair and anxiety. Kevin Burdette as the sly and despicable Don Alfonso was deceptively charming, like the devil with a particularly juicy apple on offer.

I applaud Seattle Opera for bringing this superlative production of Mozart's opera to the stage, but I left wondering if Così fan tutte is right for our historical moment. This Saturday is the Womxn's March 2.0, which I hope will be as impactful as the last march almost a year ago, when a massive number of women showed up in Seattle and across the globe to protest the appalling fact that a self-confessed sex abuser won the White House with lies and skullduggery against a female candidate. One reason that men like Donald Trump get away with their crimes is because so many people - some types of men and some women with what critic bell hooks describes as 'colonized minds' - believe that women are unreliable, changeable, flighty, easily led astray, and not to be trusted unless they conform to a masculinist world view. Da Ponte did not tell us Così fan tutte - Everyone is like that - but only that tutte - all women - are like that. I know, and you know, that it's one of those old lies that needs to be put to rest for the world to move forward.

I hope everyone reading this will see Seattle Opera's Così fan tutte and then tell me if they think it's time to give this opera a rest or if I am being an over-zealous feminist who would suppress a great work of art because of a political moment. (You can contact me via the SGN at sgn2@sgn.org) It's a tough call - like the last scene of the opera.

Così fan tutte is playing at McCaw Hall through January 27.

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