By Ian Rigg
The Lyric Opera’s lush production of Cosi Fan Tutte is the latest in a long line of sumptuous treats trying to reconcile problematic source material with a new life and perspective.
Set in the seaside casino and resort of Monte Carlo, the lovers and friends cavort and proclaim their affections. But there is trouble in paradise. While there is a battle on the horizon (set in 1914 at the onset of World War I), the production appears to posit a greater conflict still: the battle of the sexes.
(A troubling study of relationships on the brink of global conflict: timely 2018 Valentine’s Day fare, no?)
Director Bruno Ravella deftly helms the revival with a dynamo cast and crew.
Perhaps the day belongs to Robert Perdziola, who designed not only the production’s lavish set, but also its luscious costumes. Through grand columns and elegant evening gowns, he has lovingly rendered the balmy breeze of a 1914 grand hotel on the eve of war. Everything, from the blossom through a window to the lace of a lady’s negligee, from the lights adorning a marina to the shine of a soldier’s jackboot, have been crafted to the pinnacle of classic (and cheeky) chic. Perdziola has even allowed form to follow function, accommodating the graceful shifts in scenery, and the rapid costume changes to facilitate the capers.
Chris Maravich’s lighting design provides the perfect complement, delivering whatever mood is neaded: a seaside glow, a sun-bathed bedchamber, and the ambient light of lovers in turmoil by the shore.
The work behind the scenes is sparked to life by equally lush performances, sung with hilarity and heartbreak by Ana María Martínez (Fiordiligi), Marianne Crebassa (Dorabella), Andrew Stenson (Ferrando), and Joshua Hopkins (Guglielmo). Each of the four lovers receives ample opportunity for tomfoolery and hijinx, but also an aria to floor the audience with anguish. And when they harmonize with one another, it is sonic ambrosia.
Of particular delight is Elena Tsallagova as the impish and irreverent maid Despina, whose amorous pragmatism and improvised disguises lacerate the audience with stitching hysterics. But it is Alessandro Corbelli’s Don Alfonso who, with a rich profundo and wry wit, walks away with the bet, and perhaps the whole opera.
An opera that, playing in a year of reckoning for men’s egregious, baseless treatment of women for centuries, could certainly come off quite misogynist. And frankly, whatever spin is put on it, Mozart’s seminal work is based on some concerning material: the opera mines the men’s errant cruelty for laughs as they don false beards, push past the ladies’ protests, and even pretend to drink arsenic to test their lovers’ fidelity.
But at the same time, Ravella’s direction seems to indict the men’s gaslighting. Despina’s railing against society’s double standards is delivered with the casual éclat of a proverb. From a certain interpretation, Don Alfonso plays less as a cynic and agent of chaos than a misguided imp trying to take his friends off their dehumanizing pedestals. And when Ferrando, Guglielmo and Alfonso intone the titular phrase “Cosi Fan Tutte,” (“thus do all women”) it rings not with contempt, but understanding and resignation of their wrongdoing.
That romance must be measured with reason. That conflict, be it between warring nations or fiancées, is futile if we do not trust one another. Of course, these cads get their just comeuppance as they come to the novel realization that their wives are not objects to be possessed: that they deserve respect and love regardless of the strictures that a misogynist society imposes upon them.
And thus do all women.
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents “Cosi Fan Tutte” through March 16 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.