Mozart's opera "Cosi fan tutte" - oft translated as "women are like that" - is the tale of two young men who test their girlfriends' fidelity. (Editor's note: have you ever heard of an instance in literature or theater in which this is a good idea? I can't think of one.)
John Tessier as Ferrando, Dorabella's lover, Jennifer Holloway as Dorabella, Matthew Worth as Guglielmo, Fiordiligi's lover and Jacquelyn Wagner as Fiordiligi in The Minnesota Opera production of Così fan tutte
Photo by Michal Daniel
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Attitudes shift, even in the world of opera. Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" ("All Women Are Like That"), which puts forth the notion that women can be just as unfaithful as men and that eternal fidelity may not be the natural state for any of us, was considered a "shocking and licentious work" during the moralistic 19th century. Today, the work seems realistic, witty and wise, a mix of tears and laughter, at once the broadest and most subtle of Mozart's operas. In fact, it wouldn't be totally out of place to think of "Cosi" as an operatic version of "Sex and the City," the city in this case being Naples.
...Peter Rothstein, whose staging of "Cosi" opened Minnesota Opera's 49th season at the Ordway Center this past weekend -- his first effort for this company -- gets [the] balance just right most of the time. He treats the opera with respect. He dispenses with the customary sight-gags and pratfalls that give comic opera a bad name, letting the humor instead grow out of character. The Act 2 scene, for instance, where the two couples are nervously getting acquainted, as if on a first date, is one among several droll additions that Rothstein comes up with. A bonus in the comedy department comes from Angela Mortellaro, who gives us a foxy -- rather than the usual earthy -- version of Despina, the maid, displaying expert comic timing and a sweet soprano voice.
Jennifer Holloway as Dorabella, Daniel Mobbs as Don Alfonso, a philosopher and Jacquelyn Wagner as Fiordiligi in The Minnesota Opera production of Così fan tutte
Photo by Michal Daniel
...Perhaps you'll enter St. Paul's Ordway Center expecting a work not quite up to the level of Mozart's other two collaborations with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte - "The Marriage of Figaro" and "Don Giovanni" - but this production makes a compelling case for the inclusion of "Cosi fan tutte" in the masterpiece category. Yes, there's an uneven pace to the opera, the zephyr-like first act giving way to a more melancholy mood in the second. But it's when the characters fall into sad reflection on the nature of love that the work becomes all the more transporting.
Not that there isn't a great deal of brilliantly executed music in the first half, especially some intricately layered quintets and quartets. But the second-act arias offer everyone a chance to step into the spotlight and show off some impressive pipes. There's touching tenderness in tenor John Tessier's solos, strength and suppleness in those of baritone Matthew Worth, each drawing sympathy for the scoundrel-ish soldiers.
Jacquelyn Wagner as Fiordiligi, Angela Mortellaro as the sisters' maid and Jennifer Holloway as Dorabella, in The Minnesota Opera production of Così fan tutte
Photo by Michal Daniel
It sounds like formulaic farce, and at first it's just that. But the depth and sublimity of Mozart's music transform this brittle folderol, which some critics find unworthy of the composer, into an emotion-charged probe of the human (not just the feminine) heart. What begins as a game becomes, in Act 2, an agonizing reality in which characters and spectators are uncontrollably caught up. And if the ending is ambiguous, this much is clear: in "Così," passion trumps reason. Humankind is like that, as Mozart well knew.
Director Peter Rothstein shapes the production, the company's first "Cosi" in 20 years, with a sage hand. Breathing life into his characters, he adroitly manages the work's progression from slapstick to seriousness. Making imaginative use of Alexander Dodge's elegant, flexible set, he's especially attentive to the machinations of Don Alfonso, the philosopher, whose watchful presence drives the drama. And with the meteorological event that he conjures at the very end of the opera, Rothstein adds an ironic twist that Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte would have savored.
...Rothstein's earth-air-fire-water symbolism feels a bit studied, and his AstroTurf floor gets old. But quibbles aside, this "Così" is a vividly theatrical, sumptuously sung realization of an elusive masterpiece.
Cosi fan tutte runs through October 2 at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts.
Have you seen "Cosi fan tutte?" If so, what did you think? Share your review in the comments section.