Over the years I have seen Così Fan Tutte many times, and this is the third production for which I have written a review (click here to see my previous reviews). I have seen it played as a light-hearted comedy. I have seen it played more darkly with Don Alfonso more of a villain playing with other people’s souls. I have seen Despina fully conniving with Don Alfonso’s schemes, and I have seen her taken in by the men’s disguises and hurt and shocked when she finds they are the original lovers testing their amorata’s faithfulness. I have enjoyed most of them, and I have been fascinated by the way a director could take a different perspective for the motives and actions of the characters and make it all fit together.
I have come to two general conclusions about the opera, both of which were reinforced by the SFOpera I attended last night, June 18, 2013. First, Così Fan Tutte is a small opera which plays best in a small theater with a small stage. There are six major characters and that’s it. Absolutely no bit parts. And second, I can really enjoy it only as a light-hearted farce. To the extent that the characters become real, I become so indignant with the two men for the way they treat their fiancées that I can’t concentrate on the beauty of the music.
Designer Robert Perdziola and Director Jose Maria Condemi did their best to overcome the large stage effect by the use of columns to divide the space (and incidentally provide great hiding places for over-hearing scenes) and judicious use of silent chorus members to unobtrusively fill some space. I found the latter a bit distracting in the opening scene, but mostly didn’t notice the details as I got more engrossed in the plot.
Meanwhile, Director Condemi was definitely emphasizing the comic aspects. The young lovers all did an excellent job of hamming it up in Act I. Very much stock figures in a farce.
I particularly liked the twitches and other antics of Philippe Sly (Guglielmo) and Francesco Demuro (Ferrando) after taking the mock poison.
The sisters Christel Lötzsch (Dorabella) and Ellie Dehn (Fiordiligi) are less extreme. Their excessive mooning over their fiancées is sufficiently ridiculous by adult standards, but is not all that unrealistic if you think of them as adolescent girls. Thanks to Costume Supervisor Jai Alltizer they appear to be adults, which helps.
A similar observation could be made about Marco Vinco (Don Alfonso). His general pomposity is both ridiculous and realistic, but when he relates to the Albanians, he is almost as silly as they are – of course, as Albanians they are his invention!
As an actress, there’s no question – Susannah Biller’s Despina stole the show. From my usual R1 seat I couldn’t see all of her fascinating facial expressions, but I didn’t need to. Her body language was equally expressive.
Condemi has moved the time up a couple of centuries and set the scene in a Mediterranean resort town in 1914. On the whole this has worked unobtrusively. A cute variation occurs in Act II when Fiordiligi and Ferrando strategically disappear to give Dorabella and Guglielmo some privacy. Instead of going for a walk in the garden, he invites her to take a cruise in the harbor.
Finally, saving the best for last, there is the music. As always, Chorus Director Ian Robertson has trained the chorus to perfection, and Conductor Nicola Luisotti controls orchestra and chorus with a firm hand. They are always in sync with each other and with every combination of singers. Each of the six soloists sing their arias beautifully, the most memorable being Ellie Dehn’s Per pieta in Act II, Scene 1. But it is in the ensembles; the duets (my favorite form), trios, etc., all the way to the sextets that Mozart really shines – and this production does full justice to his music.
I won’t go so far as to say that this is the best performance of Così fan tutte that I’ve ever seen, but it certainly isn’t the worst. As of today there are still four performances left:
June 21 (8:00p.m.), June 26 (7:30p.m.),
June 29 (8:00p.m.), July 1 (7:30p.m.), 2013.
A most pleasant way to celebrate the beginning of summer.
San Francisco Opera
301 Van Ness Avenue
San Francisco CA 94102
All photos by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera;
Cropping and arranging by Philip Hodge