The BSO’s semi-staging of Così fan tutte last Saturday night at the Koussevitsky Shed placed six fine singing-actors in front of the Andris Nelsons and the orchestra with a few chairs and minimal costumes. James Darrah, the director of the show, also created the supertitles to make his artistic points.
The last of Mozart’s three operas composed in collaboration with his most brilliant librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, is the only one not based on an earlier literary work. It’s perhaps the easiest of the three to stage, having a cast of singers plus a small chorus). DaPonte, who concluded his life as an Italian professor at Columbia University, filled his libretto with wit, sparking some of Mozart’s most delicious music, though other parts of the texts express profound feelings, which similarly ring immortal responses from the composer.
Despite a reasonable early success and rumors that the Emperor himself had suggested the basic plot, after a scandalous occurrence in the court, Così fan tutte did not initially enjoy a great success, as had The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. Certainly, as the 19th century turned from court festivities to romanticism and expressive intensity, a plot in which two pairs of lovers switch partners—and do not obviously return to their original choice at the end—can be taken as immoral rather than funny. Certainly Beethoven, who loved Mozart’s music, considered the opera all but pornographic. As a result, it largely dropped out of sight for about a century. Only when Glyndebourne staged it in 1935 did it begin to return to the well-accepted repertory of Mozart opera with a plot that could generally be taken as comic.
Of the several well-known sources of plots in which lovers switch, the one most familiar to English speakers is surely A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But supernatural forces act as agents for the romantic—the magic tincture of a wild flower that the king of the fairies, Oberon, directs Puck to put in the eyes of contending lovers as they sleep—an assignment that Puck gets wrong. Later, when Oberon fixes the mix-up, they immediately return to their original lovers.
In Salieri’s libretto, the exchange of sweethearts comes as the result of a bet that the old cynic Don Alfonso sets up because he is irritated or amused by the extravagant praise that the two men claim about their sweethearts’ fidelity. “Women’s fabled constancy is just like the Arabian phoenix: everyone insists that it exist, but who has ever seen one?” To make his point, he sets up a text. The men will pretend to be called up to war and return in disguise to court the other’s sweetheart. Confident of winning the bet, the men agree—only to find that, after a period of stern refusal, both women fall for their new suitors and even sign a wedding contract, when their “real” sweethearts return from the brief, non-existent war.
At this point, the problem arises: Who will marry whom? Don Alfonso suggests it doesn’t matter, because “così fan tutte”: All women do it. Most productions take the traditional approach of reconnecting the lovers in their original orientation. But Mozart’s music so greatly intensifies the mood of the lovers in their new arrangement that a “modern” switch of partners seems quite possible, though the change of feeling seems to take place in perhaps a single day.
For the most part, the BSO’’s production decisions worked just fine, though the “disguised” lovers who are supposed to be Albanians made no change except for the addition of grease-pencil twirly mustaches. And the maid Despina, a cocky playful wench, whom Don Alfonso bribes into being his accomplice, didnot re-costume or change make-up when she appeared as the renowned Dr. Mesmer, called in to extract the (phony) poison from the desperate Albanians with a giant magnet, or again as the notary arranging the (phony) wedding contracts. Her unchanging dress called for a willing suspension of disbelief , though this worked reasonably well because supertitles clarify what might otherwise be murky events to viewers unfamiliar with the plot.
The two ladies, Fiordiligi and Dorabella matched well vocally and delightfully distinguished themselves from one another dramatically; soprano Nicole Cabell demonstrated the melodrama of her character particularly in the aria Come scoglio, where Mozart gave her a spectacular quasi-Baroque rage aria with overdone extremes of vocal range to invite the audience to conclude “the lady doth protest too much.” Indeed, she holds out longer than her sister, but eventually succumbs. Kate Lindsey played the warmer mezzo-soprano role with great flair (and some balletic high kicks) as Dorabella, who is readier to be wood by a different man. Chinese soprano Meigui Zhang, making her BSO debut, played Despina with a playfully pert rendition of the cheerful maid who urges the sisters to enjoy life while their boyfriends are gone be finding someone new. She was equally delightful as the follower of Dr. Mesmer (proponent of “animal magnetism” and a friend of Mozart’s); traditional performances have her carrying a large magnet, with which to extract the supposed poison that the “Albanians” pretend to take since the women refuse to accept their proffered love. But here she uses (rather strangely) a BSO music stand! But, then, the container for the “poison” had been green Tanglewood cups.
The three male singers proved equally satisfying. The Samoan tenor Amitai Pati (who sang Don Ottavio in the BSO’s Don Giovanni last summer) made a fine Ferrando, becomming distraught when his buddy won over his Dorabella with surprising suddenness. The baritone Elliot Madore (a former Tanglewood music center Fellow in 2009 and 2010 who sang at Tanglewood again in 2018) the rather cocky Guglielmo, who had to report (with crocodile tears) to Ferrando that his Dorabella has succumbed to his blandishments. Don Alfonso, whose cynical view of women sets the whole plot in motion, was sung by Patrick Carfizzi, whose bass-baritone voice projected his bet and his manner of winning it, whether suborning Despina, urging the young men to play their parts without giving anything away, or consoling the ladies on the (temporary) loss of their partners.
The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, James Burton, director, sang at three points: Sending the soldiers off to “war” and welcoming them back at the end, and singing celebratory phrases for the “weddings” that seem to be at hand.
Hearing Così fan tutte with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, well shaped by Andris Nelsons, well-played, and well-sung came across as particularly pleasant summer fun. If he had seen the shed, Mozart would have endorsed the relatively large orchestra; at the end, the very happy crowd testified to the fact that projection in the Shed and the Tanglewood lawn worked well.