Lyric stages ‘Così fan tutte’ with a sophisticated ‘Downton Abbey’ flair
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If I told you that in this #MeToo moment the Lyric Opera of Chicago was going to put on a 1790 opera with a title asserting that all women are fickle, around a plot in which a dirty old man wagers with two young swains that their fiancées could be lured into unfaithfulness within 24 hours, you might call me crazy.
In fact, it’s an optimal time for Mozart’s compassionate comic opera “Così fan tutte” to be given, at least as the Lyric Opera of Chicago is presenting it, in John Cox’s classic staging. Cox moved the time from 1790 to 1914 and reset the action at a posh resort on the blazing blue Mediterranean Sea just prior to the onset of World War I.
Originated at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo and revived by director Bruno Ravella, the production brings to mind Noël Coward’s drawing room comedies of the interwar era. Or better yet, “Downton Abbey,” with its mix of fashionable young aristocrats who one cares about in spite of oneself, along with their cheeky domestic servants and cynical elders, all of them carefree and unaware that the great events of history are about to plow them under.
‘COSI FAN TUTTE’
When: Through March 16
Where: Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker
Run time: 3 hours and 25 minutes, with one intermission
The opera’s music is gorgeously seductive. So is this cast of four supremely confident innocents and the two brazen conspirators — one old, one young — who perpetrate their “all-in-good-fun” con, devising a fake reason for the men to be absent while the ladies’ affections are messed with. If you haven’t seen “Così fan tutte” before, prepare for the possibility that your own heart will be caught in its trap.
When Mozart wrote this music, he was still a young man in his mid-30s, though he had less than two years left to live, and still living recklessly, still enduring miserable consequences. The fickleness depicted by playwright Lorenzo Da Ponte — whose story centers on Fiordiligi and her sister Dorabella, the betrayed fiancées of Guglielmo and Ferrando — was a truth that Mozart knew.
You can tell the composer adored these supremely confident youths who follow their hearts and get seriously singed. This time it is an old man’s ruse, and a young maid’s doings, that teach the young lovers they’re not so smart. But Mozart’s music lets you know what’s in his own heart: that human nature makes fragile targets of us all, men and women alike.
Conductor James Gaffigan, in his Lyric Opera debut, led the company’s fine orchestra and chorus in a musical romp that was sophisticated, fun-filled (listen for the cuckolding horns) and pervasively beautiful. Puerto Rican soprano Ana María Martínez, a Lyric favorite, plays Fiordiligi, who prides herself on being strong as a rock (“Come scoglio”) when it comes to faithfulness. Fiordiligi holds out the longest, and Martínez is flat-out devastating as she engages the end of innocence when it befalls.
French mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa is the impressionable sister Dorabella, who cottons immediately to the idea that flirtation might be fun. Yet Crebassa’s falling-in-love scene with the sister’s rambunctious fiancé Guglielmo, played by Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins, seems like the real deal; this superb couple is so utterly enchanting in their playful intimacy that you, too, will forget yourself, if only for the few minutes they take to exchange their lockets.
Promising Korean-American Andrew Stenson, in the sky-high tenor role of Ferrando, is the more self-consciously principled of the two young men, and he takes his fiancée’s betrayal very hard. Stenson came up through the Lindemann training program at the Metropolitan Opera (much like the Lyric’s Ryan Center), and he’s ideal in voice and age for this part, even if his endearing aria of torment (“Tradito, schernito”) had a touch of opening-night jitters.
And if a con must be played, then let it be at the hands of the celebrated buffo baritone Alessandro Corbelli as sly Don Alfonso, always present in the moment with the vocal equivalent of a raised eyebrow or understated double-take to let you know he has been around, seen it all. In her U.S. debut, Russian soprano Elena Tsallagova was a stitch as Despina, the pert and alert accomplice in Don Alfonso’s con. When she wasn’t pouring chocolate with great longing, she was doubtless daydreaming about her ladies’ fine appetites for clothes.
Cox’s staging concept throws a startling wrench into the plot that’s worthy of this proud theater town: Having gone through all their agony and patched things up somewhat, the lovers are faced with the news at opera’s end that Ferrando and Guglielmo are being deployed to fight in WWI, for real. Not a soul looks confident of what a now authentic future may hold.
Nancy Malitz is a Chicago freelance writer.