WNO brings new school flavor to Mozart’s Così fan tutte “School for Lovers”

Illusion and reality in the 21st century are negotiable because one can create their daily version of self and reality by updating their statuses or uploading staged photos across the internet. The characters in Washington National Opera’s Così fan tutte did just that in their approach to illustrate the timeless concept of fidelity through a modern day setting. Director Jonathan Miller demands that the performers explore the concepts of fidelity, identity, disguise, and reconciliation in a playful romp through Mozart and da Ponte’s illustrious work.

Although modernized in stage direction, conductor Philippe Auguin kept the orchestra and singers faithful to the original score illuminating the lush string writing even from the beginning C major chord of the overture. To this taste, it was obvious to see and hear that Auguin smiled throughout the opera delighting in Mozart’s teasing in the score. The singers also seemed to take pleasure in the subtle dissonances in ensembles such as the Act I trio: Soave sia il vento – “May the wind be gentle.” It takes masterful and unpretentious singers such as these to knit their ensemble lines together so tenderly.

While da Ponte dramatically sets the performers to exaggerate their identities, Mozart musically balances the situation with depth and complexity. From the moment William Shimell takes the stage, he exudes the wisdom, cleverness, and mischievous nature in his voice that Mozart writes for Don Alfonso. Contrary to Don Alfonso, the two young lovers Ferrando, Joel Prieto, and Guglielmo, Teddy Tahi Rhodes, were both sweetly naïve and earnest. Prieto and Rhodes then brought down the house with their transition into the “foreign visitors” with long hair, bandanas, and biker gear leather and boots. In Un’aura amorosa – “A loving breath,” Ferrando communicates the duplicity of identity inherent in this opera. Prieto adroitly drifts between his new “dude” personality and the sweet, youthful scene 1 character both vocally and dramatically. The impeccable Elizabeth Futral as Fiordiligi also took the stage for the infamous Come scoglio like a boss, as one would say in this production. Renata Pokupié, Dorabella, and Christine Brandes, Despina, added stunning performances – with outstanding comedic timing — to this winning cast.

Like a magician or comic that uses sleight of hand and humor to unlock hidden truths and beliefs, Così uses disguise to prepare the audience for genuine self-discovery. Guglielmo and Ferrando first see their darlings with eyes of love and faithfulness then finally coming to observe them from the distance of their disguised characters. While Guglielmo and Ferrando have the benefit of understanding the artifice, Fiordiligi and Dorabella believe they are meeting strangers. Likewise, the audience may assume they are attending the same Così they have seen time and again. However, Miller disguises the usual production in modernization that provides for new understanding and outcomes. From viewing the girls initially playing with their iPhones to the humorous contemporary supertitles (“Most righteous babes” – “Where did they come from? – Manassas? Leesburg? Adams Morgan?” – “We’re just two dudes from Baltimore.”) the audience finds humorous representations of themselves in the story played out on stage. After a while they may come to realize even through the humor that these representations are not so laughable after all.

Perhaps one of the reasons audiences in the time of Mozart did not receive it with such praise as his other operas is because Così does not end with explicit reconciliation. The friends and lovers all betray each other. Even Don Alfonso betrays his partner in crime Despina. Mozart shows his maturity in this, his 15th opera, by avoiding the easy ending. For all its jocularity and situational comedy, Così presents some permanent obstacles to fidelity. Jonathan Miller’s production for Washington National Opera makes no attempts for quick resolution either. The musical and dramatic discussion of fidelity, identity, disguise, and reconciliation are just as relevant today as they were in Mozart’s time. Even without the clear conclusion, audiences will happily enjoy this “School for Lovers” which runs through March 15, 2012 at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

Photo by Scott Suchman