SF Opera's Così fan Tutte
November 24, 2021
* Notes *
Così fan tutte (Act I pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver), the second installment of the Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy directed by Michael Cavanagh, opened at San Francisco Opera last weekend. The second performance was Tuesday night, there was lots of pretty singing, Maestro Henrik Nánási kept the orchestra going at a brisk pace, and the production gave us lots to think about.
The set, an 18th century manor house in Le nozze di Figaro, looks largely the same, though it is now a country club in the 1930s. There are a few projections on the scrim during the overture and at the beginning of Act II, but they are minimal, mostly silhouettes of the various characters or details about the world we are about to enter. Later we see water and trees on three panels of the graph paper facade of the building as the scenes are changed.
Don Alfonso is the general manager of the Wolfbridge Country Club and Despina is a maid there, the rest of the characters are apparently guests for a week of fencing and drawing classes, dancing, badminton, and swimming in late spring. All this lends itself to opulent scenes, the one by the pool garnered applause. There are a lot of sight gags throughout, as when we find ourselves in a prettily appointed space with posters depicting lithe, active women declaring this is "how to keep youth and beauty" while the female guests do calisthenics, and promptly help themselves to cocktails and cigarettes.
The production is certainly more interesting than the Le nozze di Figaro from October 2019, though it is clearly in the same world. Part of this is perhaps because Così fan tutte is a more problematic piece, misogyny is in the very title itself. Each of the lovers is shown to be rather childish, there is much melodrama and silliness. One twist in this portrayal is that Despina discovers that the "Albanians" are Ferrando and Guglielmo in disguise in right before the Act II duet "Fra gli amplessi." The cunning maid shares her discovery with the sisters as the men sing "Così fan tutte," and it means that Dorabella and Fiordiligi are well aware they are having a sham wedding in the last scene, giving it a very different tone than in a more straightforward rendering of this piece. It is all a lot more ambiguous and heartbreaking.
The orchestra was crisp, the woodwinds and brass sounded particularly fine. Nánási occasionally had the musicians ahead of the singers, he definitely kept things moving. The chorus was powerful and together.
The principals are all very nicely cast. Soprano Nicole Cabell (Fiordiligi) and mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts (Dorabella) sounded like sisters, their voices have similar qualities. Cabell's voice has very lovely and dark low notes, while Roberts has a metallic incisiveness. Cabell navigated the vocal leaps of the Act I aria "Come scoglio" with brilliant ease, and sang an emotional "Fra gli amplessi," her Act II duet with Ferrando. Speaking of which, tenor Ben Bliss had a dazzling San Francisco Opera debut as Ferrando, his voice is sweet and open, sounding wonderful in this same duet and throughout the evening. His Act II aria "Tradito, schernito" was simply beautiful. Baritone John Brancy held his own as Guglielmo, sounding sturdy and warm.
It is always a joy to hear bass Ferruccio Furlanetto, the role of Don Alfonso seems tailor-made for him. His resonances are striking and he moves well, I loved his little victory dance in Act II Scene 2, after Guglielmo reveals that Dorabella has betrayed Ferrando. Best of all though was soprano Nicole Heaston as Despina. Not only is her voice completely smooth and clear, she is genuinely hilarious. She disguises herself as a golfing doctor (pictured with Furlanetto, photograph by Cory Weaver) and putting on a very funny accent that was completely obvious even if you don't know a word of Italian.
* Tattling *
There was some occasional light talking around me in Row P of the Orchestra Level and one "ding" from the center section in the first scene of Act II as Fiordiligi sang. Before this someone just behind me loudly remarked that something onstage was "so stupid," I guess it was Guglielmo's feigning illness. It wasn't obvious to me why this needed to be stated, given that the whole plot is pretty darned absurd.
I watched the livestream of the opening Sunday matinée performance of Così with my 4-year old and 7-year old children, it was pretty good and only had a couple technical problems. I had hoped my older child would have been fully-vaccinated so he could attend in person, but sadly that won't happen until next month, so it was excellent to have this option. He was very excited about the doctor scene described above, especially the magnets, and about "È amore un ladroncello," Dorabella's Act II aria, which he's heard about a thousand times because he was obsessed with Cecilia Bartoli's Mozart Arias recording when he was a toddler.