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REVIEW: Così fan tutte Hits New York (Skylark Opera Theatre)

KrisAnne Weiss, Laurent Kuehnl, Luke Williams, Tess Altiveros, and Justin Spenner in Skylark Opera Theatre’s production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Photo by Matt Bellin.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte’s opera Così fan tutte has been getting a lot of programming love in Minnesota of late. Last week, Fargo Moorhead Opera staged the opera; this summer, Mill City Summer Opera will do the same in Minneapolis. And there’s Skylark Opera Theatre’s current production, which opened last Thursday at the Historic Mounds Theatre in St. Paul, MN.

Along with this sudden surge of interest in programming the opera comes an interest in rescuing it, so to speak. Since its premiere in Vienna in 1790, critics have questioned the appeal of an opera whose central narrative involves two men agreeing to seduce each others’ fiancées under false pretenses. It’s not that the music isn’t well-loved, but that taking the opera’s story seriously has always made a portion of the audience uncomfortable. Amongst the three Mozart-Da Ponte operas, Così would be the one singing an aria about being abandoned and unloved…except that it still happens to be the 13th most-performed opera in the world. (The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni clocked in at #9 and #10 last season.)

Alfonso (Luke Williams) seeks to enlist Despina (Siena Forest) in his clever plan. Photo by Matt Bellin.

Intentions aside, it’s unlikely that anything short of a wholesale rewrite would resolve concerns about Così‘s story – much of which, it turns out, seems to have been intentionally written in to convolute the plot and titillate audiences. Skylark Opera Theatre’s modern day staging won’t change any fundamental thoughts about the opera, except that, instead of sympathizing with the women, you might conclude that everyone in the dramatis personae is a terrible person. That’s more dragging things into the mud than a cleansing redemption, but what did you expect? The watchword for Così fan tutte has always been “see it because the music’s beautiful, accept that the story would be a terrible guide for real life, and move on”.

Some notable changes have been made to Skylark’s Così. The opera is presented in English translation, with spoken dialogue instead of sung recitative, and the action transported to New Rochelle, New York. The overall mood is that of a farce, the singing is done with piano accompaniment, and the action spills off the stage down a long ramp that stretches through the house. As with many of Skylark’s productions in recent years, this means that no seat will be very far from the actors for long, which is a real treat during some of the duets. In terms of props, costumes, etc., this is a minimalist production, with the primary set being the ramp and some oddly scattered, overturned pieces of furniture. The chorus has been dispensed with.

The true couples in this opera, one might argue, are not the inconstant lovers but those held by bonds of family and friendship. KrisAnne Weiss and Tess Altiveros play sisters Dorabella and Fiordigli, who at least at the start of the opera are quite smitten with fiancés Guglielmo (Justin Spenner) and Ferrando (Laurent Kuehnl). One bet with Don Alfonso (Luke Williams) and some proddings from Despina (Siena Forest) later, wigs are donned and the plot is afoot, to the sound of Music Director Nathan Cicero on the piano.

There are a lot of arias in Così, but the ensemble pieces are really where it’s at, musically – no fewer than 8 duets, 7 trios, plus a seemingly innumerable array of quartets, quintets, and sextets, in varying styles. The English translation being used is terrible, but the quality of the music shines through. The Act I finale “Eccovi il medico signore belle”, in particular, is quite lovely to hear, bringing together the whole vocally talented cast.

Dorabella (KrisAnne Weiss) and Fiordiligi (Tess Altiveros) sing of their lovers. Photo by Matt Bellin.

Whenever a period piece is pulled to the present – and especially when new dialogue is added – it’s helpful to consider the question “Is the whole more than the sum of its parts?” With stripped-down productions, this is especially pertinent. Some of the more bizarre props and costume elements draw laughs from the crowd, while sacrificing consistency of tone and messing with the suspension of disbelief. Classic visual gags like an upside-down magazine pull you into the constructed stage world because they reinforce the characters’ limited perceptivity, while the odd grope pulls you out because of its conspicuousness and clash with the rest of the tone. That brings us to the chief weakness in Così: Ultimately, you have to sell the audience on the singing, because someone’s sure to get distracted at one point or another. So how was the singing?

That quality was never in doubt.

Basil Considine