“Così fan tutte,” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s comedy about sex (sort of), is playing at Seattle Opera through January 27th. Blending bawdy humor and keen insight, “Così” overflows with some of the most ravishing music ever written by Mozart. It revolves around the subject of sexual infidelity.
They had me at “sort of.”
Seattle Opera (SO) presents a revival of its 2006 production of “Cosi fan tutte” (“All women do it”), conceived, designed, and directed by British director Jonathan Miller, one of the world’s leading opera directors.
Miller updates the setting of the Mozart opera from 18th century Naples to contemporary Seattle, with a simple set, extreme costumes, and speedy costume changes,
An Italian-language opera buffa in two acts by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, “Così fan tutte’s” libretto was written by Lorenzo Da Ponte. The plot: To quote SO’s Long Story Short, “an old skeptic, assisted by a sassy servant girl, teaches four naïve young people an important lesson about love.”
Meet Ferrando and Guglielmo, young soldiers: good-looking, full of themselves, and hard to tell apart. Ferrando (the tenor) is more the poet; Guglielmo (the baritone) relies more on physical sex appeal when it comes to attracting ladies.
An older friend of theirs, Don Alfonso, is a cynic who doesn’t believe in notions of “true love” or “soulmate.” Women, the old man argues, are all the same: never constant in their love, never loyal to their men. He wants to prove this to his young friends, and he goads them into a wager. Just because their fiancées mean well and are adorable, they aren’t necessarily faithful.
Enter sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella– young, beautiful, rich, and bored. Fiordiligi (soprano) is older and bossier than her little (mezzo soprano) sister Dorabella. Despina works for the two sisters. She has a hard-headed, practical approach when it comes to sex.
With Don Alfonso urging them on, the two young men tell their sweethearts that they must go to war. After the tearful farewells, Ferrando and Guglielmo reappear shortly disguised as a pair of biker dudes and set about seducing each other’s girls, with Despina daring the sisters to live a little.
Da Ponte invented the libretto for “Cosi” (He also wrote “Le nozze di Figaro” and “Don Giovanni.”), and was perhaps inspired by a real-life wager that had amused the gossipy population of 1780s Vienna and ticketed the fancy of Hapsburg Emperor Josef II. And Mozart’s own life paralleled the story. A few years before he married his wife Constanze Weber, he was engaged to her sister Aloysia.
“Cosi fan tutte” was first performed on January 26, 1790 at the Burgtheater in Vienna, Austria. The first performance was given only five times before the run was stopped by the death of the Emperor Joseph II and the resulting period of court mourning. It was performed twice in June 1790 (Mozart conducted the second performance.), twice in July, and once in August. After that, “Cosi” was not played in Vienna during Mozart’s lifetime.
The first British performance was in May 1811 at the King’s Theatre, London, but “Così fan tutte” was not performed in the U.S. until 1922, at the Metropolitan Opera
“Cosi fan tutte” contains some of the most dazzlingly beautiful music ever written by Mozart. One particularly notable moment is Fiordiligi’s show-stopping aria “Come scoglio” (in English, ‘Like a fortress’). Full of spectacular vocal fireworks, Fiordiligi declares with determination that she will remain faithful to her fiancé.
The glory of that aria actually evolved out of a prank. Although the role of Fiordilig had been created for librettist da Ponte’s mistress, Adriana Ferrarese del Bene, Mozart disliked the arrogant prima donna. Knowing her idiosyncratic tendency to drop her chin on low notes and throw back her head on high ones, Mozart filled her showpiece aria with constant leaps from low to high and high to low in order to make her head bob like a chicken.
In our enlightened age, the sexual politics of Da Ponte’s libretto, which proclaims that “women are like that,” can strike a sour note, but the infidelity storyline of “Cosi fan tutte” did not offend Viennese sensibilities of the time. Mozart and Da Ponte actually used the theme of “fiancée swapping”, which dates back to the 13th century; earlier versions are found in Shakespeare‘s play “Cymbeline.” And elements from Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” are also present.
But in the 19th Century when female chastity was idolized, even a hint of infidelity in “Cosi” was considered scandalous (After all, two unchaste sisters are going unpunished for their wickedness). Therefore, throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, anytime the opera was performed in –which was rarely–it was accompanied by an apology for the frivolous plot. Or cleaned up–sometimes completely rewritten.
After World War II and with the advent of feminism, “Cosi” regained its place as a complex tragicomic masterpiece in the operatic repertoire. Now it ranks 14th on the Operabase list of the most-performed operas worldwide.
SO adds even more charm to the production. Real-life sisters are portraying the two sisters in “Cosi.” It’s the first time Marina Costa-Jackson (Fiordiligi) and her sister Ginger Costa-Jackson (Dorabella) have sung together in an opera. Marina is actually 11 months younger than Ginger, so she’s having fun playing the bossy older sister for the production.
“Cosi fan tutte” is often said to be the perfect ensemble opera. A small cast, the six roles—without a leading lady–are almost equal in weight and equal in importance. In fact, Mozart is known as “the Master of the Ensemble.” There were ensembles in opera before Mozart. But his musical genius put ensembles on the operatic map. When everyone sings at the same time, and the music continues to differentiate their characters and tell their separate stories—that’s Mozart’s magic.
The audience is bound to laugh during this opera. “Cosi” is a comedy. Mozart and Da Ponte mock the military, the church, the law, science and medicine, east-west politics, and most of all serious eighteenth-century opera. The plot is so silly, and the characters are both naïve and ridiculous. It’s not often an audience sees an operatic tenor in biker couture with shaggy hair, prancing the stage in torn jeans, shades, and leather. If that doesn’t make to you chuckle, the audacious supertitles by Jonathan Dean will surely do so. Example: He refers to principal singers as “ladies from Seattle” and “gentlemen from Portland.”
Seattle Opera’s production of “Cosi fan tutte” runs through January 27th at McCaw Hall. It’s sung in Italian with English subtitles, performance Time: 2 hours, 50 minutes with 1 intermission. Tickets start at $25 and there are many ways to attend for less, including discounts for groups, students, seniors, military, teens, ages 21-39, and more; orchestra seat tickets start at $90, and second tier tickets start at $59. Tickets are available at 206-389-7676 or seattleopera.org; tickets may also be purchased at the box office, 1020 John Street, M-F 9am-3pm; 206.676.5588 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fiordiligi (Marina Costa-Jackson, soprano, Seattle Opera debut, Jan. 13, 17, 24, & 27
Marjukka Tepponenf (Fiordiligi), soprano, Seattle Opera debut, Jan. 14, 20, & 26
Tuomos Kataljala (Ferrando), tenor, Seattle Opera debut, Jan. 13, 17, 24, & 27
Ben Bliss (Ferrando), tenor, Seattle Opera debut, Jan. 14, 20, & 26
Ginger Costa-Jackson (Dorabella), mezzo soprano, Seattle Opera Debut. Jan. 13, 17, 24, & 27
Hanna Hipp (Dorabella), mezzo soprano. Jan. 14, 20, & 26
Craig Verm (Guglielmo), baritone, Jan. 13, 17, 24, & 27
Michael Adams Verm (Guglielmo), baritone, Jan. 14, 20, & 26
Laura Tatulescu (Despina), soprano, Jan. 13, 14, 17, 20, 24, 26, & 27
Kevin Burdette (Don Alfonso), bass, Jan. 13, 14, 17, 20, 24, 26, & 27
Jonathan Miller, original stage director and production designer
Harry Fehr, stage director, Seattle Opera Debut
Paul Daniel, conductor, Seattle opera debut
Cynthia Savage, associate costume designer
Neil Peter Jampolis, lighting designer