Princeton Festival offers a nontraditional take on Mozart’s comic opera ‘Così fan tutte’

cosi fan tutte review


Alexis Peart, left, and Aubry Ballarò co-starred in The Princeton Festival’s “Così fan tutte.”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s comic opera “Così fan tutte” is 234 years old and has been problematic for most of that time.

But like all good comedies, it aims to entertain.

James Marvel — who directed a new production for The Princeton Festival, June 14-18 — was willing to put aside traditions and formalities to achieve comedic high jinks. Music director Rossen Milanov added pep and brio to the score with brisk and stylish conducting, and a strong vocal ensemble of six young singers elevated Mozart’s most critical scenes.

The comic opera was part of Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s summer performing arts series, June 7-22, which stages music in various genres with an emphasis on lighter, festive fare. The sold-out performance I attended on June 16 was held at an open-air performance pavilion on the grounds of Morven Museum & Garden in Princeton.

Mozart’s 18th century tale of sex and cynicism opens with a simple and straightforward premise: Two soldiers, disguised as Albanians, make a bet on whether they can seduce each other’s fiancées. It is little wonder why the plot has been criticized as misogynistic. Then there is the title, which translates from Italian as “All women are like that,” with “that” meaning “unfaithful.”


Benjamin Taylor, left, and David Walton in “Così fan tutte.”

For these reasons, “Così” is the least popular and most misunderstood opera of Mozart’s golden da Ponte trilogy, written with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, which also includes “The Marriage of Figaro” (1786) and “Don Giovanni” (1787).

While “Così” was well received at its 1790 Vienna premiere, by the early 19th century, the tide had turned. Both Wagner and Beethoven said it was beneath Mozart’s genius. Da Ponte’s libretto was criticized for being frivolous and immoral. The fiancée-swapping was perceived as distasteful and crass.

Not up for debate is the music, which is both lyrical and sublime. The score is characteristic of late Mozart (he died one year after the premiere) and shows breathtaking restraint, delicacy and balance.

The exact nature of the humor is ambiguous and sits somewhere between the sentimental drama of “opera seria” and the traditional buffoonery of “opera buffa.” The full spectrum is explored as the characters stumble in and out of love.

The young soldiers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, are challenged by their cynical friend, philosopher Don Alfonso, to test the fidelity of their fiancées, sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi. Disguised, the soldiers attempt to seduce each other’s partners and, with the help of the maid Despina, the sisters eventually succumb. The deception is revealed at a double wedding and ultimately ends with reconciliation.

This is Marvel’s second consecutive year directing an opera for the festival. His “Così” took a similar comedic approach to last year’s production, Rossini’s “Barber of Seville,” which was packed with laugh-out-loud moments.

There were shadows of Mozart’s humor, which was eccentric, a bit punk and not always in the best taste. As with “Barber,” there was slapstick and dizzying displays of physicality. By the end of the opera, most singers had climbed atop a piece of furniture to show off their dance moves.


Zulimar López-Hernández and Jeremy Harr in “Così fan tutte.”

Fun, modern tweaks even roped in the continuo. In the “Oh! che bella giornata” recitative, the couples, finally free from the watchful eyes of Despina and Don Alfonso, struggle to make conversation. To fill the awkward silence, the continuo played the “Think!” countdown music from “Jeopardy!”

Scenography by Blair Mielnik updated 18th century Naples to a vaguely modern era, set in a pink penthouse overlooking the sea. Passions between the couples were heightened by Paul Kilsdonk’s pink, flushed lighting.

Fashion and props mixed freely from Rococo to disco. Highly stylized costumes by Marie Miller played up silliness with Dorabella and Fiordiligi dressed like Little Bo Peep cosplayers and big hair by wig and makeup designer Carissa Thorlakson. To keep track of the role-switching between couples, Miller smartly color-coordinated Fiordiligi and Guglielmo, and Dorabella and Ferrando, in matching blues and pinks.

While conductors often seek lyrical interpretations to maximize contrasts between da Ponte’s text and Mozart’s score, Milanov, conducting a reduced ensemble of about 30 musicians, took Marvel’s approach, alternating grace for peppiness and verve. Though it recalibrated the mood and thematic dissonances, the efficient clip had a nice kick and flow, and kept momentum tight, as did the traditional cuts, and an omitted chorus.

Vocally, “Così” is Mozart’s strongest ensemble opera. Singing is collaborative and relies on trios up to sextets. Vocal writing calls for six main singers whose voices blend well. Here they did, nimbly and amply, with genuine camaraderie. Tonalities were full-bodied and strident, which brought an invigorating sense of well-being to the usually gentle and sentimental winds of the “Soave il Vento” trio.

Soprano Aubry Ballarò’s Fiordiligi showed off deep lyric color with unflagging flexibility, from a resolute and decisive Act I “Come Scoglio” to a powerful and sincere Act II “Per pietà, ben mio, perdona.”

Dorabella only really needs a clear and expressive voice, but mezzo Alexis Peart brought more than just that to the role. She was impulsive and fresh, while rising to the tessitura challenges (the work was written for a soprano but is routinely sung by a mezzo.)


From left, Benjamin Taylor, David Walton and Jeremy Harr in “Così fan tutte.”

Baritone Benjamin Taylor’s dusky, lean timbre added texture to the ensemble. His naturalistic and persuasive Guglielmo sang with a smiling tone. His rough edges and inflated ego (hip thrusting through his showy “Non siate ritrosi” aria) contrasted well with the romantic Ferrando, sung by David Walton, an elegant, lyric tenor with graceful and striking Italianate color and suppleness. His gravity and sincerity elevated the opera’s most vulnerable moments. During his “Un’aura amorosa” aria that attests to the power of love, he removed his wig and moustache in a symbolic gesture.

By design, Mozart’s characters are one-dimensional. They go through a full range of emotions, but don’t change. Marvel seemed to want to fill those gaps but didn’t always stick to the literature.

The sisters were sassy, hedonistic and greedy for the excesses of social media and shopping, coping with their fiancés’ sudden absence through retail therapy. During the “A Guarda, sorella” duet, they gazed lovingly at their cellphones as they described the beauty of their fiancés via their portraits, then took selfies.

Dorabella’s “Smanie implacabili” aria laments Ferrando’s absence by raging at Fate. Marvel dialed it up by having her try to kill herself — via a noose, a sword and a vial of pills — all of which were snatched away by Despina before she finally administered a syringe of tranquillizer.

Ferrando and Guglielmo are well bred and cultivated, but here they were rowdy frat bros who drank the arsenic through a funnel and hose, and chest-bumped in greeting. During the overture, they were seduced by hookers.

A major plot point, which disguises them as coarse and provincial Albanian lotharios, was handled with sensitivity and humor. In the “Alla bella Despinetta” sextet, instead of Despina wondering if the disguised fiancés were “Turks or Wallachians,” her subtitles asked if they were from Trenton or Seaside. Costumes and mannerisms were vaguely reminiscent of the Festrunk Brothers (a.k.a “two wild and crazy guys”) from the ’70s “Saturday Night Live” sketch with Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin.

Typical of da Ponte, there is an opera buffa couple, and in “Così” it is Despina (Zulimar López-Hernández) and Don Alfonso (Jeremy Harr).


From left, Zulimar López-Hernández, Benjamin Taylor, David Walton and Jeremy Harr in “Così fan tutte.”

López-Hernández, in combat boots and lace tights, was a confident, cunning soubrette with wide vocal color and expressivity. She had strong comedic range, disguised as a doctor and a notary. She was not like the ambiguous, Cupid-like figure of da Ponte’s libretto who shoots arrows at lovers and walks away from the mess, and instead showed great remorse, shame and guilt during the finale.

Dressed in early-20th century business garb, Harr sang in a polished bass — agile and warm — as Don Alfonso.

As with the two other operas of the Mozart-da Ponte trilogy, “Così” includes subtle themes that challenge Age of Enlightenment ideals and morality. The enigmatic and cynical philosopher is not cruel or meddling. Rather, he is the authoritative avatar of Enlightenment, and stays pragmatic and grounded to contrast the inflated conceits of the couples. Here he was on similar melodramatic footing, and was also a bit mocking and mean-spirited.

A big theme in “Così” is that sometimes you can’t help but fall in love with the wrong person. You tolerate their flaws, but there is also beauty in their imperfections. While Marvel’s “Così” didn’t always go along with Mozart’s spirit, you couldn’t help but fall in love with it.

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