On Thursday night at Faneuil Hall, the North End Music and Performing Arts Center (NEMPAC) presented a fun and enchanting production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Given as part of their annual Opera Project, the project seeks to “support the New England community of singers, artists, directors and musicians” with performance opportunities. The production is wonderful for its pragmatic nature. In Brent Wilson’s sparse staging (a table, a lounge chair or two and curtained panels) the production brought a simple joie de vivre that appropriately supported the plot.
Indeed, Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto is a timeless comedy of intrigue and wife swapping. As the primary instigator of the action, Bass-Baritone Seth Grondin’s Don Alfonso is a not so much an old letch as he is a slick, cigar chewing, scotch drinking man of the world. His acting was well wrought and his baritone confident and clear. When he convinces the two assured and naïve officers to bet against their own lovers’ constancy, he does so with a smile and a knowing twinkle in his eye. The two sailors, Ferrando (tenor Jason Connell) and Guglielmo (Bariton Tyler Anthony Wolowicz) are told as part of the terms of the bet that they must do as Don Alfonso says for a day. The day begins for them with a confident spring in their step as the Don has them pretend they have been ordered away to war by the government. They are to return immediately, but in disguise as flamboyant Albanians, and to begin courting each other’s lover. Jason Connell’s Ferrando is positively sweet and his tenor clear and articulate in the first act “Un’aura amorosa,” the innocence of which provides a manifest foil to his character’s later anger at his fiancé Dorabella’s (soprano Caitlin Felsman) later inconstancy with Guglielmo.
Dorabella, for her part, is played very well by soprano Caitlin Felsman. Although Mozart and da Ponte did not give much development to her character (her perspective throughout most of the opera is one of a woman ‘who would like to, but shouldn’t’) Felsman brought life and comedic interest to her character through humorous shocked glances and awkward interest. In particular, her duet, “Il core vi dono,” with Guglielmo, now in Albanian disguise and singing with a deeper, less delicate and more powerful voice than her own Ferrando, provides a plausible account of her sudden inconstancy.
Indeed, one of the primary ironies of this opera, when done right, is that when the men do swap fiances, the new coupling makes for better matches. Wolowicz’s Guglielmo, after all, is nearly as dim-witted and awkward as Dorabella. Any moral difficulties he might have had with seducing his friend’s lover are soon dispersed by his pride in the accomplishment. All of the honor and the dignity belong to the other two, Ferrando and Fiordiligi.
In character development, Ferrando’s transformation from confidence to anger is mirrored by Fiordiligi’s transformation from righteous anger to tormented surrender at Ferrando’s seduction. Her voice in the big bravura arias was almost too big, making the very hall ring, but her coloratura was articulate and precise. Ultimately, as Don Alfonso’s accomplice, Bethany Worrell’s Despina stole the show. Her crisp voice was light; a perfect reflection of her character’s simple, but common, sense. Her hilarious accents as the notary and the doctor were indeed “worth all the gold in Peru.”
Tiffany Chang gave a warm and thoughtful rendering of the score. Mark McNeil’s accompaniment in the recitatives was intelligent and musical although I thought the piano sounded strange in place of a harpsichord. Brent Wilson’s direction was admirable too; the blocking in particular, was handled well.
Indeed, the only real problems with the production, its period (1940s) and the mise en scene effort at a “film noir” style, mostly went unnoticed. On the back of the stage at Faneiul Hall, G.P.A. Healy’s painting Webster Replying to Senator Hayne depicts a life-sized portrait of Senator Webster in a large gold frame with the words “Liberty and Union Now and Forever” embossed in a great font at the bottom. It is such an overt statement of 19th-century patriotism that Grant’s 1940’s production simply got lost. In a setting such as Faneuil Hall it seems that one might complement the history, satirize it, or at least appreciate it, but it is just too loud to compete with or ignore.
Thankfully, also lost was the “film noir” aesthetic that was sought by the production. Noir is simply inappropriate for Mozart’s comedy. Perhaps when read through modern eyes, there is a dark element to Don Alfonso’s cynical read of a woman’s character, but Cosi fan tutte is not nearly dark enough to accommodate an aesthetic so thoroughly influenced by the German expressionist film style.
In all, the production is remarkably fun (as it should be) and will be playing again on Sunday, June 30th in a community outreach program at 4:00 p.m. in the Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park.