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The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Così fan tutte takes a marvelous turn toward experiment and innovation. Set in a 1950s fairground closely modeled on the amusement parks of Coney Island’s golden era, it has all the spectacle, showmanship, and carney camp of a three-ring circus. The Met hired real circus performers for the production, including sword swallowers, a fire-breather, and a contortionist. Their presence provides entertaining diversions whenever the action of Mozart and Da Ponte’s opera buffa slows down, and also brings together groups of performers who would otherwise never share the stage (this may be your only chance to see Leo the Human Gumby listed in a Met playbill). It’s a wonderful blend of high and low that’s perfect for audiences new to opera and for the more adventurous cognoscenti alike.
For those who are new to this work, the plot is delightful. Sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella are engaged to soldiers Guglielmo and Ferrando, respectively. The diabolical Don Alfonso bets the young men that their sweethearts will be unfaithful to them, then has them pretend to go off to war; they return in disguise to try to seduce each other’s fiancée. What could possibly go wrong?
After some initial resistance, the ladies compromise their principles, deciding that a little fun won’t hurt. They each fall in love with their “new” man, and a double wedding is staged, at which point Guglielmo and Ferrando reveal their true identities. In the end, all indiscretions are forgiven, and everyone ends up back with their original partners, having accepted the foregoing events as inevitable vicissitudes in their relationships. It’s the kind of romantic comedy that only the 18th century could produce. Today’s audiences who expect prudery from an opera this old may be surprised by its lax attitude toward infidelity, and yet Così goes to great lengths to affirm the value of marriage, all the while adhering to undeniably dated misogyny (no mention is made of the men’s deception and infidelity requiring forgiveness).
The set design, by Tom Pye, has some beautifully simple elements. When Fiordiligi sings of her remorse over being unfaithful, she is suspended above the stage in a single Ferris wheel car making a slow circle. In the background we see a large model of the Ferris wheel with one car illuminated to show Fiordiligi’s progress on the ride. The lighting and use of a model reminded us of the sophisticated stagecraft of Robert LePage in 887.
Another simple but clever stage design element is the set of the Skyline Motel, with rotating walls that allow the singers to move between the interior and exterior of their respective rooms. The effect creates something like a Marx Brothers version of opera buffa, with characters by turns escaping from and eavesdropping on each other. Director Phelim McDermott’s whip-smart blocking and staging keeps the audience on its toes, using an economy of space without ever feeling cold or minimal.
Kelli O’Hara, as the mischievous maid Despina, is a delight to hear and see on the Met stage (her previous credits are mostly on Broadway). She and Christopher Maltman, as Don Alfonso, bring immense acting talent to their roles, which bind the show and help make the absurd plot seem logical. O’Hara’s theatrical chops seem to be particularly infectious; the entire cast takes a cue from her and goes beyond the traditional park-and-bark operatic style.
Also of note is the pairing of Amanda Majeski (Fiordiligi) and Serena Malfi (Dorabella). Their voices blend perfectly to convey their shared struggle over whether to remain faithful to their fiancés or give in to their passions. They each have terrific moments — Majeski on the mesmerizing Ferris wheel, Malfi on a swirling teacup ride. Ben Bliss, as Ferrando, gives a performance that rivals O’Hara’s. He conveys his character’s many sides: seductive, repulsive, and tragically heartbroken through a superb combination of staging, acting, and singing. Adam Plachetka’s Guglielmo provides comic relief mixed with swaggering, vulnerable masculinity.
At every turn, the production has a homespun, “let’s put on a show” quality that’s perfect for its fairground setting. That said, it never fails to dazzle; we were reminded of Dolly Parton’s famous quip, “It costs a lot to look this cheap.” Even the way the overture is staged — a magic act with a seemingly endless sideshow cast popping out of a small trunk — is characteristic of the production’s roller-coaster ride of low tech and high concept. Much work behind the scenes must have gone into this charming, accessible production, which will make a valuable addition to the Met’s repertory.
In conjunction with the production is a show of paintings by Brian Calvin at the Arnold and Marie Schwarz Gallery Met. On first inspection, the combination of Calvin’s art and Così fan tutte‘s set design is a perfect fit. Calvin’s acrylic paintings of similarly stylized women address ideas of personal and public identity and convey the duplicity of the opera’s characters. A perfect example is “Duet (II)” (2018), a work that evokes Picasso’s “Girl Before a Mirror” (1932). But on closer examination, the clean work of this California-based artist is somewhat mismatched with the New York grit of the production’s Coney Island elements. Calvin’s work brings to mind the paintings of Alex Katz, but whereas Katz’s work combines sexual tension with the veneer of proper appearances, Calvin’s paintings lack the tension of either Katz’s work or of what happens on the Met stage. The gallery show, unlike the opera production, misses an opportunity to feature artists with ties to Coney Island and its carney traditions.
Così fan tutte continues at the Metropolitan Opera (30 Lincoln Center Plaza, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through April 19.
(Video credit: Così fan tutte: “Eccovi il medico, signore belle!” An excerpt from the Act I finale, as seen in the final dress rehearsal. Production: Phelim McDermott. Conductor: David Robertson. 2017–18 season.)