Lyric Opera is back in the Mozart high life with a delightful “Così fan tutte”

Sun Feb 18, 2018 at 5:27 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Joshua Hopkins as Guglielmo and Marianne Crebassa as Dorabella in Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte' at Lyric Opera. Photo: Andrew Cioffi
Joshua Hopkins as Guglielmo and Marianne Crebassa as Dorabella in Mozart’s “Così fan tutte” at Lyric Opera. Photo: Andrew Cioffi

One entered the opera house Saturday night for opening night of Così fan tutte with more than a little trepidation.

Lyric Opera’s most recent Mozart outings have not served the composer well. Last season’s mundane staging of The Magic Flute seemed determined to take all of the magic out of Mozart’s Masonic fantasy. And the heinous 2015 Le nozze di Figaro, was arguably the worst Mozart show in Lyric history, a crash-and-burn debacle of crassness and camp vulgarity.

Thankfully, not to worry. Saturday’s delightful Così fan tutte was a success almost across the board, putting the company’s Mozart-da Ponte balance back squarely on the winning side. Indeed, with a largely excellent cast and a nicely judged balance of broad comedy and serious undertones, Lyric’s Così is the company’s finest Mozart production since Robert Falls’ imaginative 2014 staging of Don Giovanni.

Mozart’s third and final collaboration with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte is still the least often performed of their operas and, for many, remains the most problematic of the triptych.

Two soldiers Guglielmo and Ferrando make a bet with the old cynic Don Alfonso that their fiancées Fiordiligi and Dorabella are ever-faithful to them. Alfonso devises a ruse to prove his thesis that their lovers are as flighty and fickle as all women: the men pretend to go off to war and then return disguised (as bearded “Albanians”) to woo each other’s betrothed. But the joke takes an unexpected turn when the light-hearted mate-swapping charade proves all too effective, much to the soldiers’ dismay.

Così has received criticism almost from its 1790 premiere. Beethoven regarded it as “immoral” and for much of the 19th century the opera was presented in a Bowdlerized version, when it was presented at all. In our current era, it is not the sexual openness that offends some but the libretto’s sardonic attitude towards the female characters. In contemporary PC quarters where humorless indignation reigns, Così is invariably criticized as “sexist” and “insulting” –which is not only intellectually lazy but inaccurate since the men come off much worse than the women.

But Così fan tutte is not a PBS documentary on gender politics. It is a wild, often wickedly funny comedy centered on romantic relations between the sexes that often veers into  freewheeling farce worthy of the Marx Brothers. Yet while much of the score is suitably charming and effervescent, Mozart also provides music of striking emotional depth. For all its surface frivolity, there are deeper, darker elements in Così that explore the volatile passions, myriad joys and aching sadnesses inevitable in affairs of the human heart.

With six principal roles–and more duets, trios, quartets and ensembles than any other Mozart opera–Così requires a consistently inspired and cohesive cast and, for the most part, Lyric Opera delivers the vocal goods.

As Dorabella, Marianne Crebassa capitalizes big time on the promise of her company debut two seasons ago in the small role of Stephano in Romeo et Juliette. If her Dorabella was over the top at times, Crebassa’s vivid depiction of the more romantically impetuous sister was never boring, and just as winning dramatically as vocally. With her flexible singing and mahogany timbre, the willowy French mezzo brought emotional desperation to “Smanie implacabili” and was a captivating stage presence throughout–not least in lingerie, as she threw off a sassy “E amore un ladroncello.”

Andrew Stenson as Ferrando and Ana María Martínez as Fiordiligi in “Così fan tutte.” Photo: Cory Weaver

Also somewhat hyperactive in the opening minutes, Andrew Stenson likewise provided a characterful turn as Ferrando, alive to the comedy as well as the vocal opportunities. The American tenor served up the highlight of the evening with a beautifully sung “Un’aura amarosa,” rendered with heartfelt sincerity and gorgeous mezzo-voce head voice in the reprise. Stenson also put across Ferrando’s rage at Dorabella’s betrayal, investing “Tradito, schernito” with blistering bitterness.

Doing a 180 from the doomed violinist Tadeusz in Lyric’s The Passenger three seasons ago, the versatile Joshua Hopkins showed himself equally assured at Mozart comedy as Guglielmo. The Canadian baritone wielded his dark, weighty voice with surprising agility and was always on point with his character–lyrical in the charming duet “Il core vi dono”with Crebassa and bringing vehement intensity to his denunciation of women in “Donne mie, la fate a tanti!”

Always a fine actress, Ana María Martínez as Fiordiligi nicely balanced Crebassa’s flamboyant Dorabella with a credible older-sister maturity. She also charted Fiordiligi’s anxiety and conflicting emotions in Act 2 with dignified restraint.

Yet vocally, Martínez proved the most uneven of the principals. Even in her prime, Martínez’s soprano was not a creamy or alluring instrument and her voice has thinned out and acquired a reedy quality. Still she largely met the vocal challenges gamely with a stoic and determined “Come scoglio,” albeit with caution in the high coloratura. Less satisfying was her surfacey “Per pietà, ben mio,” where the soprano’s generalized expression barely hinted at Fiordiligi’s guilt-wracked heartbreak. (Jonathan Boen’s obbligato horn playing, however, was glorious.) 

Elena Tsallagova as Despina and Alessandro Corbelli as Don Alfonso in "Cosi fan tutte." Photo: Cory Weaver
Elena Tsallagova as Despina and Alessandro Corbelli as Don Alfonso in “Così fan tutte.” Photo: Cory Weaver

In a nice change from his usual bel canto buffo roles, Alessandro Corbelli proved a superb Don Alfonso. While one misses a true bass in this role to anchor the ensembles, the veteran Italian baritone–natty in formal tails–provided his own rewards with a deliciously underplayed take on the wily old cynic.

Elena Tsallagova was ideal as the sisters’ maid, Despina, making a most impressive U.S. opera debut. The Russian soprano brought an aptly spunky persona to Alfonso’s skeptical co-conspirator, was hilarious in her masquerades as doctor and notary without being hammy, and tossed off her two arias with easy technique, bright top notes and a boatload of personality.

The well-traveled John Cox production, from San Francisco Opera, remains functional, colorful and effective. The staging gracefully repositions the action to Monte Carlo around the time of World War I and fluently moves the scenes from casino, to the sisters’ well-appointed room and a strikingly lit night on the coast. Robert Perdziola’s sets are attractive and eye-catching with army and navy getups for the men as well as Red Cross uniforms and extravagant period gowns for the sisters.

The tricky balancing of broad comedy and serious emotions in Così is always a challenge to stage but was met by revival director Bruno Ravella as deftly as I’ve ever seen. Some of the singers seemed overcaffeinated in the opening minutes but the performance found its groove once the boys returned in their goofy disguises. Ravella allowed the characters their darker moments in Act 2, nicely underlining the lasting damage that the men’s casual bet has caused. Ravella’s handling of the problematic final scene felt just right, sounding a somber note of ambivalence without being preachy or heavy-handed.

In his Lyric Opera debut, James Gaffigan proved a mixed bag in the pit, as he often does in the concert hall. The Overture didn’t bode well with little wit or vivacity in the bubbling winds. Afterward, Gaffigan led with a competent hand if too often an unduly heavy one. Details of polish and balancing were often left unaddressed and the pokey tempo for the Act I finale was lacking in fizz and vitality.

In their brief appearances, the Lyric Opera Chorus provided characteristic excellence under the direction of chorus master Michael Black.

Così fan tutte runs through March 16.; 312-827-5600.

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “Lyric Opera is back in the Mozart high life with a delightful “Così fan tutte””

  1. Posted Feb 27, 2018 at 12:29 am by Richard Boyum

    I must second that this is an excellent and well-rounded Cosi. There was clarity of voice and production that really put this in the “now I know what this opera means” category.

    Let me say that the production had a major problem. Only one half of the vertical stage dimension was used. There was a set proscenium that opened on to the bottom half of the Lyric permanent proscenium and covered the upper half. This apparently was designed only for the swells sitting on the orchestra level but not for the proletariat in the upper balcony. We were looking at a small window from a distance. We never saw anything of the back or top of the set and during the 3 1/2 hour performance this became one-dimensional and monotonous. It was like looking at a small TV from across a large room.

    Kudos to a very fine cast.

  2. Posted Mar 09, 2018 at 10:21 am by Sandy Smith

    Opera repertoire is not especially woman-friendly but…staging an opera concerned with the gas-lighting and smearing of women on International Womens’ Day? Sensitivity going forward, maybe?

  3. Posted Mar 28, 2018 at 4:56 pm by lj

    I found the production attractive, and usually that is not my priority. Corbelli was excellent, projecting both character and vocal sound throughout the hall.

    I hate to sound like a spoil sport. I found the other singers more on the level of an opera associate program than a first rate opera stage. I was sufficiently disappointed to consider alternatives to my annual visit to Chicago to see opera live. The fact that Lyric promoted the excitement of opera on its promo by playing a recording of Corelli was an example.

    We have many fine singers today, but I don’t know of anyone on this level of thrill. An article on opera in the NYT had clips of Cosi with Christa Ludwig. This tells the truth. For really great singing look back, not at this time.

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