Fine cast explores the dark shadows in Boston Lyric’s “Così fan tutte”
There are comedies, there are tragedies, there are romances—and there is Così fan tutte. The reason why this last of Mozart’s collaborations with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte lacks the popularity of the other two, Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, is simply that Così fan tutte is an uncomfortable opera. A successful performance that fully explores the work is a troubling one, and should haunt the audience long after the curtain falls. Boston Lyric Opera’s performance Friday night at the Shubert Theatre was a powerful success. The comedy sparkled and Mozart’s music soared, while the drama and its commentary on human nature were faithfully unfolded.
The premise of Così fan tutte is simple: Guglielmo and Ferrando are two soldiers, engaged to sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, respectively. At the goading of the old cynic Don Alfonso, the two men agree to make the wager that their girlfriends will remain faithful no matter what Don Alfonso has them do (provided that his machinations last only a day). Guglielmo and Ferrando pretend to be summoned to war—and then return disguised as dashing Albanians, who woo the sisters. Guided by Don Alfonso, the women’s maid Despina, and perhaps fate, the sisters succumb to the newcomers’ advances. At the end, all is revealed, all is ostensibly forgiven, and the duo of lovers must face the future.
Boston Lyric has again assembled an excellent ensemble cast. Not only the voices, but the physical qualities and temperament of the four young lovers serve their roles. Sandra Piques Eddy brought movie-star looks to an extroverted and playful Dorabella. Her eventual seducer, Matthew Worth’s Guglielmo, has a matching physique and playfulness that made their pairing seem inevitable. Both were vocally impeccable. Worth’s baritone is open and incisive, and Eddy’s mezzo is strong and colorful, stirring palpable excitement with her act I mock-heroic aria Smanie implacabili.
The other two lovers, Ferrando and Fiordiligi, bear the brunt of the opera’s emotional development. Paul Appleby’s Ferrando was the most subdued of the lovers, possibly because he was under the weather during this performance. But this quietness enabled him to convey the sensitivity and honesty key to his character. After the superficial bravura of Fiordiligi and Dorabella, Appleby’s beautiful reading of Un aura amorosa with his warm, sensitive tenor suddenly brought heart to the proceedings. Fiordiligi, though, suffers even more than Ferrando, and for her Mozart wrote the opera’s most taxing vocal music. Caroline Worra’s soprano surmounts these demands—almost. She sings with conviction, aplomb, and a formidable technical arsenal; I only wished for more color and more dramatic timbre for Fiordiligi’s outbursts.
Phyllis Pancella’s Despina and Sir Thomas Allen’s Don Alfonso round out the ensemble in the parts of older cynics who collaborate to wreak havoc on the four lovers. There is something eerie in the sheer mastery of Pancella and Allen’s performances. Perhaps the roles are less taxing, but the ease of their performances seem to be another victory over the idealism of the four lovers. Pancella was particularly good in the comic elements, coloring her fine soprano to suit each of Despina’s guises, which included a German doctor and a vaguely Bostonian lawyer. Sir Thomas Allen’s performance in a signature role was notable for its understatement, seeming naturally inhabited more than acted.
Allen was also the stage director for Friday night’s performance. There was an unusual amount of lying down by the principals, but otherwise the direction was present but Unobtrusive, letting the performance unfold on its own terms. David Angus’s conducting ranged from solid to wonderfully sensitive, especially in his handling of woodwinds. The chorus sang from one of the balconies, allowing our attention to remain focused on the principals on stage. The mis-en-scene consisted of minimalist but evocative sets on a sandy Neapolitan beach (the real sand was a nice touch).
One element of the production that could be considered intrusive is that it was sung in English, attended by intermittent supertitles and occasional lapses into Italian. Those lapses into Italian made the English seem even more awkward, with strained rhymes and odd stresses. But they also provided a useful foil, showing us that the translated libretto forces the drama uncomfortably close to home—which, for this production, was the point.
Così fan tutte plays at the Shubert Theatre on March 20 and 22 at 7:30 pm, and March 17 and 24 at 3 pm.
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