The Metropolitan Opera’s ambitious new production of “Così fan tutte” transports Mozart’s 18th century parlor intrigue to a neon-lit amusement park circa 1950. That’s time traveling on a spool of cotton candy.
Credit British actor-director Phelim McDermott, 54, for abandoning teacups and doilies for tattooed carnies and an onstage Ferris wheel. McDermott is co-founder of Improbable, Britain’s highly inventive theatrical company and heir to Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble. In every Improbable production, boundaries are crossed, liberties taken and conventions reconsidered.
At 11 a.m. Saturday in the Vallecito Room at Fort Lewis College, the new “Così” will be transmitted live from the Met’s stage.
Composed in 1789 and first performed in Vienna on Jan. 26, 1790, “Così” has also been called Mozart’s most perfect opera. To gain that high praise, story, music and libretto must come together as a seamless whole and speak of its time. It’s a comic masterpiece that accomplishes all that while appearing to be just a bit of fluff.
Today’s “Così fan tutte,” meaning “all women are like that” or “never trust a woman,” begins with two sets of lovers, well-born sisters and their well-positioned future husbands. All lovey-dovey, they plan conventional engagements and promise eternal fidelity. In the original 18th-century production, the young men are officers in the Italian army who also brag to their buddies about their pure fiancées.
In the new Met production, the girls are swoony teenagers and the guys are slicked up rock ’n’ rollers out on a double date at an amusement park. Enter a cynical carny, Don Alfonso. He’s bored with the boys’ braggadocio and lures them into a bet with a prank attached. Don Alphonso wagers that the girls are fickle, and if wooed by other guys, they would succumb. Laughing, the boys take the bet.
To set the ruse, Don Alfonso tells the girls their boyfriends have been called away unexpectedly. The boys then disguise themselves, switch partners and indulge in deception.
The phony charm offensive works. The girls fall for their new dates – right up to revised marriage arrangements and an awkward finale.
The Met’s young cast sparkles with talent. The sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, will be sung by Amanda Majeski and Serena Malfi. Their scheming boyfriends Ferrando and Guglielmo will be portrayed by Ben Bliss and Adam Plachetka. The inimitable Christopher Maltman sings the role of Don Alphonso. And the surprise addition to the cast is the wonderful Broadway star Kelli O’Hara as Despina, the smart-aleck maid.
McDermott brought in set designer Tom Pye to create a Coney Island atmosphere along with a trove of real carnival workers including a snake charmer, fire-eater and contortionists. Can a bearded lady be far behind?
With “Così fan tutte,” Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte intended to satirize a popular genre known as opera seria. Like today’s sappy films with Hollywood endings, it specialized in rosy conclusions, no matter how implausible. Instead, Mozart and Da Ponte’s convoluted romp ends in some delicious ambiguity. Everyone seems to have been duped.
Will the Met’s Coney Island astringent add another twist? Judge for yourself.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theater Critics Association.