Review: COSI FAN TUTTE at Opera Theatre Of Saint Louis

The production runs through June 23.

By: Jun. 06, 2023
Review: COSI FAN TUTTE at Opera Theatre Of Saint Louis

It’s a cherished classic.  It’s an enigma.  It’s Mozart’s Così fan tutte.  The Opera Theatre of Saint Louis production of this gem opened June fourth.  It is both a triumph and an outrage. 

Musically it is sublime perfection.  None of the many operas I’ve seen at OTSL have been more swooningly gorgeous.  (Well, perhaps Handel’s Richard the Lionheart some years ago comes close.)  Such voices!   Such deft beauty from the orchestra!  Mozart would faint with pride.

But the staging?  I have never seen a production in which an opera was so egregiously crucified upon the cross of “concept”. 

Così fan tutte” translates as “thus do all women”, and it’s a little socio-sexual experiment conducted by a cynical old philosopher to educate two naïve young officers in the ways of women.  His lesson is “don’t expect fidelity”.  I was reminded of a similar experiment in Marivaux’s La Dispute, where he sets out to determine which sex invented infidelity.  (Young Liars did a brilliant production of it a few years back.)

In Così fan tutte the officers (Guglielmo and Ferrando) are in love with two sisters, (Fiordiligi and Dorabella).   Don Alonzo, the philosopher, bets the gentleman that their sweethearts, when left alone, will be unfaithful to them within just twenty-four hours.  The lads are to falsely tell their lovers that they’ve been called to active duty.  But then they are to return in disguise, each to woo the other’s girl.  (Well, if Superman can change clothes and not be recognized . . . )

So, if the seduction is successful they lose (the bet)!   Or win (their buddy’s  girl)?  Why not just not try very hard and thus win the money and keep your girl?  Ah, well . . .

Now Mozart himself (and librettist Da Ponte) are to blame for some confusion in this tale.  Is it opera buffa?  Is it dramma giocoso?  What is to be taken seriously and what is comic jest?  Mozart was careful to use certain musical keys to represent honest sentiment and other keys to represent insincerity or deception.  There is much “musical irony” where honest feelings are sung to dubious music, or where falsehoods are sung to most sincere music.

After much pressure both girls succumb.  Finally, the trick is revealed and each lover leaves “with the gal he came in with”.  How can such an ending be a “happy ending”?  

But let that be.

Review: COSI FAN TUTTE at Opera Theatre Of Saint Louis
Murella Parton (Fiordiligi)
Megan Moore (Dorabella)

The voices in this cast are simply glorious.  Murella Parton, as Fiordiligi, is quite astonishing!  Hers is a voice of crystal and lace.  She has a delicacy of musical articulation that is  perfect for Mozart’s intricacies and subtleties.  And yet such easy power!  This role offers Ms. Parton many opportunities to flourish her gift.  Come!  Listen to this amazing young talent!

Review: COSI FAN TUTTE at Opera Theatre Of Saint Louis
Angel Romero (Ferrando)
John Chest (Guglielmo)

And tenor Angel Romero, who sings Ferrando!  His is another stunningly beautiful voice.  He sings his “Breath of Love” aria as if pouring out his very soul to the moon.  So pure, so sweet!

Don Chest makes a stalwart and commanding Guglielmo, and Megan Moore gives Dorabella a lovely vulnerability.  Both are superb vocal talents, though their roles offer not quite such show-stopping moments in the musical spotlight.  

Hugh Russell sang a beautiful Noah in OTSL’s Grapes of Wrath six years ago.  Here he brings power and authority to the role of Don Alonzo.Review: COSI FAN TUTTE at Opera Theatre Of Saint Louis

And a very bright spot in the evening is provided by Vanessa Becerra as Despina, the very clever chambermaid whom Alonzo recruits to assist in the gambit.   She does hilarious vaudeville schticks when disguised as a Latin-spouting doctor with a Mesmeric magnet—and as a notably nasal notary.  (Mozart’s family were, by the way, friends of the famous Dr. Mesmer.)

Jeri Lynn Johnson conducts the fine orchestra, and this lady very clearly, very deeply knows her Mozart.  Under her baton the orchestra gives a quite flawless performance.

So—it’s all musically wonderful!

Seán Curran provides the charming choreography.

But the concept! 

Stage director Tara Branham chooses to transplant the story from 18th century Italy to England during World War II—to emphasize the pain of lovers separated by war.  Set designer Steven Kemp gives us a beautiful spacious stately home, with high arched windows, a spiral staircase, statuary over the doors, and a wall of books.  This is quickly commandeered by the army—first as a recruiting center and then as an army hospital.  The girls become nurses.  When their beaux return the boys are disguised not as Da Ponte’s ludicrous Albanians but as American sailors. 

There are so many things wrong with this transposition:

  • The war.  In Mozart’s time Naples had been at peace for fifty years.   The war the boys are “called away to” is totally fake.  Even had it been real the audience might have viewed it as a “toy soldier war”.  England under Nazi attack was something entirely different.  A whole nation was desperately and totally  committed to the cause of defense.  It was not the time or place for goofy cynical jokes.  (For insight into romantic relations during this war you may consult almost any song by Vera Lynn.)
  • Don Alonzo.  Here he is presented not as an idle old philosopher, but as an army general—on duty during the Battle of Britain!  As such he’s burdened with authority and responsibility.  To waste his time puppet-mastering his cynical little trick is the grossest dereliction of duty.
  • Despina.  She appears here as the Head Nurse (in officer’s uniform).  Yet every syllable that comes out of Despina’s mouth is the speech not of such an authoritative figure but of the classic Clever Servant.  Mozart’s Despina has spent her life scrambling to survive on the lowest social rung.  Morality, she has learned, is for those who can afford it.  She has earned her amorality—and our admiration.
  • The half-hearted adaptation.  To bring Così up to the 20th century requires more than just throwing in a “Howdy, Ma’am!” and a shovelful of movie-star names.  The lyrics are full of the elegant and antique diction and vocabulary and mythical references of the 18th century.  Even some emotions are expressed in antique (or especially Italian) terms:  would a modern Yankee sailor really say, “I will tear her heart from her wicked bosom”?   And why weren’t the names Anglicized?  Was there ever a General Alonzo in the British army?  And Guglielmo?  And Ferrando?  And what Brit would be expected to even be able to pronounce “Fiordiligi”?
  • The costumes.  The war years were a dowdy era.  Nurses’ uniforms were rather boxy.  These ladies—with such voices—deserve more beauty—some satin and brocade and lace.  And poor Ferrando appears at first in a deeply unattractive bowling shirt.

But I rant.

Go, listen to Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s musically wonderful Così fan tutte.  Just close your eyes and you’ll be in heaven.

(Photos by Eric Woolsey)



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From This Author - Steve Callahan

A native Kansan I have a BA (Math and Theatre) and MA (Theatre). I was working on a PhD in Theatre when IBM sniffed my math background and lured me away with money enough to feed my (then two) childre... Steve Callahan">(read more about this author)


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