On November 21, 2021, the San Francisco Opera presented Michael Cavanagh’s new production of “Così fan tutte”, which rocked with energy, happiness, verve and abundance.
Production worked on all fronts. The set designed by Erhard Rom showed the so-called Wolfridge Country Club with fitness center, ballroom, Badmitten Court and swimming pool in the 1930s, unfolding lively and countless comical scenes. As long as we didn’t see the plot as something else than the comical focal point, we leaned back and enjoyed the silky smooth scene changes and moods.
Constance Hoffman costumes increased the pleasure with aesthetics, color, design, complementarity, duplication and even hats made in San Francisco’s own hat shop and fabrics in a variety of sizes that were exceptional and added to the sense of humor. Not only seeing “matches” in singing characters and identical vocal lines reinforced the satirical traits of the production and underlined the fun.
With every movement, from the golden treadmills in the fitness center to the swimming pool to the pool game, the ensemble ran riot and without chaos. Everything was “as it should be” and the character types determined the day. For Mozart, the goal was to satirize types rather than create character. So the guests came in a deluge of bathing suits, fencing outfits and evening dresses from the 1930s. All along we have enjoyed a wide range of 18th century values in parody.
So when we were asked what women were like and concluded that men were like that too, we took everything “cum granis salis” and laughed at them as we did at ourselves, all the real humor. It was as good a musical comedy as we get on an opera stage, with shades of San Francisco’s 1970 production of “Hair” at the Geary Theater: While we strive to be an individual, we end up like everyone else.
Music for the maestro
The music was superbly presented by Mozart. The Hungarian conductor Henri Nánási brought an energetic and lively style to the brilliant score. Trios, quartets and quintets, duets, choir ensembles – it was a musical festival. In the past, critics viewed “Così Fan Tutte” as a problematic opera, except for the score. It was clear that Nánási offered a suitable platform from which the singers could present their goods. And what goods they offered.
Soprano Nicole Cabell sang a rich, shiny and glamorous Fiordiligi on her role debut. In fact, through the arias she and her sister Dorabella sung by the extraordinary mezzo-soprano Irene Rogers, we heard two individuals rather than the deliberate stereotypes we had experienced up to that point.
Cabell’s “Soave il Vento” was strong and ornate. Not only did she display a gallant upper register that illustrated her emotional shifting nature, but she also displayed the flamboyant top-to-bottom shifts with absolute mastery. Some of its lowest notes suffered a little from indistinct clarity, but their top notes came out with strength and high color. She was never afraid to adapt her voice, her body or her face to the text and its extravagant statements and that made for beauty, humor and joy.
Irene Roberts, who also made her role debut, was on a par with Cabell in terms of skills and communicative power. Physically flexible on stage and pouting, flirtatious, shy, she contrasted exceptionally well with Cabell’s more statuesque personality.
Her “Come Scoglio” was plentiful, the tone jumps from high to low, from low to high showed her mastery of the music in abundance and conveyed emotional vibrations. Together with Cabell, she more than communicated her own individuality. With her she doubled the liveliness and wit, and together they kept their timing strict. The two differences immediately communicated by illustrating “a portrait of feminine nature” that took us into view. From badmitten antics to show their “mood”, to costume changes directly on stage, they were confident and adaptable, humorous and musically in pace without missing a beat.
Their male counterparts were paired the same overall. Tenor Ben Bliss, who sings Ferrando, and baritone John Brancy, who sings Guglielmo, were a suitable counterpart. Both their acting and their voices played off each other, as did that of their fiancée with shrewdness. Fast, funny, flexible and adaptable, her romantic and smart pants jokes kept the plot moving and surprised every step of the way. When Ferrando fell, Guglielmo jumped on a bench; when one of them hid under a towel in despair, the other cocked his head and danced around happily like a blow.
Bliss’ voice had a kind of Irish tenor sound, round and reserved. Drom inside a shell-like purity, the vocal line pearly and appealing. His “Un Aura amorosa” was memorable in its shiny round sound and its passionate attraction. Here, too, Mozart’s talent for dazzling melodies came to the fore and made opera more than just its teasing storyline. We were alone with the soloist and he sang with all his heart.
Brancy’s Guglielmo conveyed a nice baritone sound, although it initially found it difficult to project. Up until the middle of the first act, part of his music stayed “in the spotlight”, so to speak, instead of being outside and instead of being echoed in the audience, he sounded distant. But as the opera unfolded he became dramatic, agile, fluid, fun, flexible, his character was a bit of the underdog and took his place on an equal footing with his buddy.
Despina, played by Nicole Heaston, was a gem. She played her myriads of disguises along with her main character with “Elan”. From doctor to notary, from golf cart specialist, in argyle and golf hat and then to black robe as a notary, she was charged with tension on the stage. Sometimes it hardly seemed like she was singing, the whole parade of emotions and jokes moving so sinuously and smoothly. Her voice was fluid and shiny and flexible. Her presence was a focal point the entire time, from her calmness on her chaise longue reading a romance to her scolding her female protégés and teaching them the ways of love and seduction. She was a suitable mentor.
As a quasi-speculative philosopher, Don Alfonso, sung by the Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto, was a worthy screenwriter. He set the tone of questioning the quality of women’s fidelity and played his part with flying colors. He ignited his gaiters and then kept the action going, his song letting the action flow at all times. Did we like him for that? Barely. Even when he lit the fire in Despina, he was a comic book film, if not a charmer. As a performer, he set up the stage, sang his role with flying colors, and did the work.
As the perfect symbol of the wit and the rudeness of the 18th, the finishing touches were given outside of the war memorial opera house and independently of it, two little musicians aged seven and nine who played Bach and Mozart, one on her little cello and the other on her great violin. The audience, in high spirits from inside, was led down the stairs with music, art and hope and into their normal life.
What could not inspire Mozart?