by SOPHIE KERMAN
With Così Fan Tutte, opening on Saturday for a five-day run, the Minnesota Opera throws down a gauntlet to anyone who thinks opera is stodgy, irrelevant or boring. Can you sit through Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart‘s 1790 opera without cracking a smile – or bursting out in an explosion of giggles as two grown men roll around on the floor? I know that I couldn’t, not even after a long, tiring day of work. Beyond all the technical expertise of the production, the Minnesota Opera proves that opera is still worth watching thanks to its sheer ability to make us laugh.
Of course, technical ability doesn’t hurt anything. Even when saving their voices on preview night, the six-person cast all displayed stunning vocal talent as well as the ability to animate a piece in a language and a musical style that most contemporary viewers are unfamiliar with. The orchestra, conducted by Christopher Franklin, is vibrant and dramatic. And the plot – utterly dated and blatantly sexist – still entertains thanks to Peter Rothstein‘s smart stage direction. (It’s obvious that Rothstein’s background is in musical theater, since he does not shy away from physical comedy.)
Così tells the story of officers Ferrando (John Tessier) and Guglielmo (Matthew Worth), who decide to test their lovers’ fidelity by disguising themselves as Albanians and seducing the other man’s girlfriend. While the ladies in question – Fiordiligi (Jacquelyn Wagner) and her sister Dorabella (Jennifer Holloway) – initially fight to stay faithful, both are eventually won over through a series of tricks and schemes. (Come to think of it, maybe this plot isn’t as dated as I thought: couldn’t you see this as the next Judd Apatow movie?)
The fact that all four actors are young and attractive is a nice change from your typical opera, where no one is really fooled by a blond wig or a slimming costume. And if the pairs of lovers seemed interchangeable from my seat at the front of the mezzanine, I have to assume it was done on purpose – and in fact, the characters’ similar mannerisms and costumes (beautifully done by Alejo Vietti) supported the premise that all these four young, good-looking people really want is some grown-up fun.
The philosopher Don Alfonso (Daniel Mobbs) and ladies’ maid Despina (Angela Mortellaro), the two masterminds behind this test of fidelity, are often thought of as supporting roles; here, though, they pick up some of the funniest moments of the evening. The production’s greatest strength is in those moments, where a chorus is repeated not simply because the music says so, but because Don Alfonso needs to make his point or Despina wants to mock her mistresses just a little bit more. Because the characters are played honestly and staged theatrically, the opera never goes on in that self-indulgent way that operas sometimes do.
The set, cleverly designed by Alexander Dodge, is also in keeping with the production’s straightforwardness and sense of humor. Characters observe the action on a suspended walkway, a pleasantly-lopsided apple tree rolls to different locations on a small cart, and an oversized moon and an undersized ship add a quirky element to the set’s classic architecture.
And a brief note about the ending: in the libretto, Christopher Franklin told us on preview night, it is very ambiguous which woman is meant to end up with which man. This production’s truly ingenious exploitation of the open-ended libretto makes for an ending that is both comic and touching, proving the opera’s final point that happiness can come from looking at the bright side of life.
The Minnesota Opera’s commitment to quality opera that appeals to modern audiences works on many levels, from its smart staging of classics to its choice to put on at least one contemporary or under-appreciated work each season (this November, it will be a world premiere by American composer Kevin Puts). They also let viewers in on their creative process through short YouTube videos, providing a way for opera newbies to access a needlessly intimidating genre:
Whether you know you love opera or you have never seen one before in your life, the MN Opera’s take on “Così” provides a strong argument for turning off your small-screen sitcoms and going out to see a romantic comedy that continues to stand the test of time.