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Review: COSÍ FAN TUTTE at The Kennedy Center

Washington National Opera's take on the 1790 rom-com is a delightful escape.

Review: COSÍ FAN TUTTE  at The Kennedy Center
[l-r] Andrey Zhilikhovsky (baritone), Ana Maria Martinez (soprano), Kang Wang (tenor) in Cosí fan tutte

As we observe the two-year anniversary of the Covid-19 pandemic and watch unfolding war crimes as Russia attacks the sovereign nation of Ukraine, the world feels overwhelmingly bleak. As much as I love the power theater has to reflect our world, at times like this, I really could just use an escape.

Thankfully, the Kennedy Center seems to be in agreement. The Washington National Opera's latest production is Mozart's battle-of-the-sexes comedy, Cosí fan tutte. The farce opens with two young soldiers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, praising their girlfriends, Dorabella and Fiordiligi (respectively), to the disbelief of their friend, Don Alfonso. Don Alfonso insists that all women are fickle by nature, and persuades the two young lovers to participate in a bet to prove it. The soldiers tell their loves that they have been called to war, then disguise themselves and are introduced as old friends as Don Alfonso's; they then set out to seduce each other's fiancée. When the women refuse them, they congratulate themselves, but Don Alfonso insists on upping the ante, creating more elaborate schemes until the women break. Once both women have declared love for these new suitors, the final act is set: a wedding that is "interrupted" by the soldiers' return.

Despite my love of classics, I'm always a bit anxious when going into an older story with this sort of set-up - even with updated adaptations, it's not uncommon for sexism to rear its ugly head and ruin all the fun. But between Mozart and Librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte's surprisingly balanced story (the men are just as easily manipulated as the women, and one of the schemers is Dorabella and Fiordiligi's lady's maid, Despina, who proves herself from the outset to be a woman of her own mind and ambitions), and Francesca Zambello (Artistic Director) and Director Alison Moritz's careful approach, this production manages to avoid those common pitfalls and just be refreshingly entertaining.

It helps that the cast is individually and wholistically charming. As Ferrando, Kang Wang's tenor carried the character's passion and mischief, and his voice blended beautifully with his soprano costars. Andrey Zhilikhovsky's facial expressions alone told the audience everything they needed to know about Guglielmo; while the entire cast excelled at the show's physical comedy, his performance was a standout. As the steel-spined Fiordiligi, Laura Wilde conveyed her character's heartbreak, rage, and internal struggles beautifully. Rihab Chaieb's Dorabella was portrayed as more readily romantic and mischievous of the two sisters, and watching her evolve from star-eyed lover to a woman with a better understanding of herself made her a compelling character to watch. Ferruccio Furlanetto's Don Alfonso, who sets the events in motion, relishes his chances to break the fourth wall and conspire with the audience, adding an extra layer to the entire performance. And, as Despina (and her many alter-egos in service of the experiment), Ana María Martínez wonderfully commanded attention in each of her scenes. It should also be noted that Cosí fan tutte was the WNO premiere for four of the six main cast members, who are all welcome additions to an already strong opera company.

Review: COSÍ FAN TUTTE  at The Kennedy Center
Laura Wilde (soprano) and Ferruccio Furlanetto (baritone) in Cosí fan tutte at WNO

The team also made the excellent decision to place the WNO Orchestra, led by the incredible Erina Yashima, directly on the stage with the cast. Tucked away behind Erhard Rom's clever set design, which allowed the orchestra to be seen and hidden behind an opaque screen as needed, the orchestra's presence onstage elevated the entire experience. S. Katy Tucker's projections allowed for the simple set to be both versatile and immersive, and the animations injected Monty-Python-esque humor to the entire production. Costume Designer Lynly A. Saunders deserves tremendous praise for her period costumes, and the particular details they included, most notably the miniatures Fiordiligi and Dorabella wear and the women's use of black veils and laces to indicate their dramatic preemptive mourning. I also was particularly in awe of Alexandra Pohanka's elaborate and stunning hairstyles. Rounding out the production are the supernumeraries (James Finley, Amirah Ismail, Odell Ruffin, and Elle Sullivan), who serve as both scene extras and the stage crew.

The Washington National Opera isn't completely disconnected from our reality; two members of the WNO Orchestra were born in Ukraine and have family members there, and a third also has family in the war-torn country. WNO General Director Timothy O'Leary opened the performance with the WNO Orchestra and Chorus playing the Ukrainian National Anthem, a touchingly poignant moment at the top of the evening. But Cosí fan tutte itself is a fun escape from the reality we live in, while also reminding us that life and love don't always look the way we think they will. And, sometimes, that's exactly what you need.

Cosí fan tutte is playing at the Kennedy Center through March 26th. Tickets and additional information can be found on the Kennedy Center website. Run time is approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one 25-minute intermission.

Photos Courtesy of Scott Suchman.

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From This Author - Rachael F. Goldberg

Rachael is a native New Yorker and life-long theatre devotee. She saw her first Broadway show, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” at age five, and has been hooked ever sinc... (read more about this author)

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