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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 19, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 03
Così fan tutte at Seattle Opera mines the work's complexity
Arts & Entertainment
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Così fan tutte at Seattle Opera mines the work's complexity

by Alice Bloch - SGN Contributing Writer

SEATTLE OPERA
COSÌ FAN TUTTE
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
LORENZO DA PONTE
MARION OLIVER MCCAW HALL
January 14 (First Sunday Matinee Cast)
(Also, 1/20 & 1/26)


Aidan Lang, now in his fourth season as General Director of Seattle Opera, has instituted a number of changes; one of the most obvious is the elimination of the 'Gold and Silver' casting system. Because opera singers perform without amplification, those who are cast in large, difficult roles cannot sing two days in a row. Therefore, Seattle Opera employs two casts to sing at alternate performances. Beginning in the 1980s, singers in the 'Gold' cast were those with greater experience and popularity. They sang for opening night and for the KING-FM radio broadcast, and tickets to their performances were more expensive than those to the performances of the 'Silver' cast.

Before last season, Lang announced that the two casts would now be of equal caliber, and to reinforce that promise, he changed this season's schedule so that the second cast would sing in the radio broadcast performance. He also changed the pricing structure to a more equitable one.

After attending performances of both casts in the past several productions, I'm here to say that Lang is keeping his promise. In fact, I found the Sunday matinee performance of Così fan tutte superior to that of opening night (reviewed by Sharon Cumberland, also in this week's paper). Specifically, soprano Marjukka Tepponen and mezzo-soprano Hanna Hipp, as the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, sang more beautifully and were more convincing as sisters than the much-touted actual sisters (Marina and Ginger Costa-Jackson) who played these roles on opening night.

Attending a performance of Così fan tutte is always an uncomfortable experience, because of the tension between Mozart's heart-melting, gorgeous music and Da Ponte's cynical, misogynistic libretto. (For more on the cruelty and misogyny of the libretto, see Sharon Cumberland's review.) This opera is categorized as a comedy, but I see it as a tragicomedy. Guglielmo and Ferrando, each other's best friends, who are engaged to the two sisters, make a bet with their mentor Don Alfonso, who claims the women will be unfaithful within 24 hours. Alfonso's sadistic plan is for the two buddies to pretend to be sent off to war. The buddies are then to return in disguise and attempt to seduce the women. Alfonso enlists the help of the women's worldly servant, Despina, but doesn't tell her the identity of the new suitors.

Act 1 is mostly fun and games, but in Act 2, everyone gets hurt except Don Alfonso. Nobody dies, but everyone is betrayed by everyone else, and the disillusionment and distress of the four lovers are enormously painful to witness.

Jonathan Miller designed and directed this modern-day production for Seattle Opera in 2006, and it has been updated and revitalized by revival director Harry Fehr. The young men's disguises now turn them into hipsters from Portland, with a man bun, tattoo sleeves, the works. Fehr's direction ratchets up the action and fills Act 1 with slapstick and frenetic movement. The result is an even more uncomfortable experience for the audience than usual - and that's a good thing. We're constantly aware of the bitter heartbreak awaiting the four lovers after all their preening and posing, their checking their phones and taking selfies and admiring themselves in the mirror.

Fiordiligi is the most challenging role in this opera, because it demands the ability to jump to the extremes of a huge vocal range. Most sopranos who attempt this role end up sounding harsh and unpleasant, but Tepponen maintained her lustrous tone in every part of her range. She delivered the goods, both vocally and emotionally.

Ben Bliss shone in the nearly as difficult role of Ferrando. His sweet tenor voice sounded lovely and carried well even when he was lying on a pile of pillows during his toughest aria.

Hipp and Michael Adams (Guglielmo) also sang flawlessly and showed their considerable acting skills throughout.

In the crucial but somewhat smaller roles of Don Alfonso and Despina, Kevin Burdette and Laura Tatulescu (who sing these roles in all performances) nearly stole the show. Tatulescu was perfect as the spunky, resentful servant who also turns up disguised as a doctor and a notary. Burdette was a marvel: suave, graceful, and charming, he almost made the audience like the deplorable Don Alfonso, thereby adding another layer of discomfort and complexity. I look forward to Tatulescu's and Burdette's performances in Beatrice and Benedict, the next Seattle Opera offering.

Conductor Paul Daniel kept the fine orchestra going at a breezy pace and earned a well-deserved ovation after intermission. The woodwinds and strings sounded spectacular; special praise is due principal flutist Demarre McGill, oboist Ben Hausmann, clarinetist Emil Khudyev, and bassoonist Paul Rafanelli for their outstanding solo work.

Jonathan Dean outdid himself with apt, colloquial English captions. My favorite: when the men first show up in disguise as wild and crazy hipsters, Guglielmo greets Despina with a line translated as 'What's shaking, righteous queen?'

A lot's shaking at McCaw Hall this month, and I'm glad I didn't miss it.

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