Così Fan Tutte
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Heather Barfield Cole, Fri., Jan. 16, 2004
CosÌ Fan Tutte
Bass Concert Hall, through Jan. 17
Running Time: 3 hrs., 30 min.
Mozart's penchant for dirty comedy and frivolity is offered up in Austin Lyric Opera's production of Così Fan Tutte. Ferrando is in love with Dorabella, Guglielmo loves Fiordiligi, and their older friend Don Alfonso wagers the two men that all women have cheating hearts. To disprove Alfonso's theory, the younger men arrange a false departure for war and return disguised as Albanians who pursue the ladies' affection. When, after much coaxing, the women finally succumb to the persistent suitors, the outraged men want revenge, so Alfonso convinces the men to marry the women. At the moment the contracts are signed, the ship with returning soldiers enters the harbor. Desperate to hide their new husbands, the women are frantic. Finally, when the game has been played to its highest stake, the men remove their costumes. The joke is forgiven when all realize that love is about hope, optimism, and acceptance.
Instead of lavish 18th-century Europe, the production is set in 1913 San Diego at a Victorian-style beach hotel. A two-story balcony with a deck and tables stands before a backdrop of the sea. The atmosphere is reminiscent of boardwalk towns, with everything evoking seashore activities, from a lounging woman snoozing far upstage to families in turn-of-the-century striped swimming trunks busily moving on and off-stage. The dresses and big, feathered hats are gorgeous; the ladies are in perfect form, and the men are gallant and dapper.
There is no lack of musical talent and expertise on hand. Each performer has her or his moment to shine, whether it's Brenda Harris' richness and presence as Fiordiligi, Priti Ghandi's coquettish musings, or Francois Loup's pedagogic tomfoolery as Don Alfonso. But Ghandi and Harris portray their characters' love with superficiality and in caricature. They tremble and melodramatically display their sadness when the men leave. It was easy not to care about them.
Leon Major directs the entire production with a similar lack of depth, and mostly it proves a distraction to the flurries, rapid vocals, and punchy ensembles arranged by Mozart. Surely, this opera isn't just a farce. Is there a tiny morsel of earnest emotion? John McVeigh succeeds in providing one as his Ferrando realizes that his fiancée has eyes for another. But while he vents his frustration, his buddy fiddles with another prank: stealing his pitiful pal's cocktail while he's not looking. Here, the sly maneuverings of Malcolm MacKenzie's Guglielmo overshadow the stronger melodic focus. These diversions keep recurring, and although a few are cute in a giggle-inside way, many of them are forced and not needed. It doesn't help that Mozart overindulges in an opera that goes on and on. How much longer are they going to torture these poor ladies? They are tricked; good, now what?
If men lure their fiancées into infidelity on a bet, the story must be told with wit and sarcasm; otherwise, what a villainous, depressing, and mournful tale it is. The libretto of Così is enticing with its raunchy humor and covert sexual role-playing games. However, the passion is lacking in this production, which transforms Mozart's curious opera into something like a prime-time sitcom with a spectacular orchestra.