Idiots at the Opera – Così Fan Tutte – Not That Misogynistic

Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte falls squarely and deeply into opera-buffe territory, so “storywise” you can either take it for what it is and have a good time, or just listen to a recording of the sublime music without looking at the supertitles or the action on the stage.

We had a very good time indeed although my understanding (based on the source of all knowledge, Wikipedia) is that the plot was considered so offensive to the ladies that it was often changed.

The basic premise is that all women are fickle and will run off with any man who tries to seduce them. Two young man, Ferrando and Guglielmo dispute this premise, talking of how great their fiancees are. They are challenged by their philosophical older friend, Don Alfonso. A wager is made. The boys tell their fiancees – a couple of sisters named Fiordilgi and Dorabella, that they are going off to war. They come back  — later that same day — in disguise as “Albanians” – each wooing the other’s girl. In addition to Don Alfonso, they are added and abbetted in this ruse by Despina – the saucy maid, who doesn’t exactly know what’s going on, but there’s money in it for her if they go off with the foreigners.

Will the girls crack? Of course they will, it’s a comedy, though Fiordiligi holds out longer and gets to sing a lovely aria about her struggles. Is this terrible in terms of its view of women? Nah. It’s too ridiculous. That the girls don’t recognize their fiancees or their maid who disguises herself as a doctor and a notary is absurd, but no more so than things that happen all the time Shakespeare comedies and in other operas both comedic and dramatic all the time.

It does kind of make you think about the excuses for women’s oppression then and even (in some parts of the world) now. The idea that women have no real moral core and should never be tested, is what keeps them locked away and hidden. Yet, I don’t think the story would work “better” if the girls knew all along – a change which was made at one point in time. That would take away both the opera’s comedy and it’s power.

The singers were all game and seemed to be having a fine time. Guanqun Yu as Fiordiligi was a powerhouse. Maurizio Muraro as the cynical Don Alfonso was a standout. Danielle de Niese mugged a bit – which apparently she does – but charmingly. Matthew Polenzni sang as sweetly as tenors do. James Levine condutcs. The music is by Mozart, the libretto’s in Italian. So if great music and great theater with stage antics and happy endings are your things, you’ve got one performance left – this Thursday night. Tickets including some decent family circle and balcony seats are still available, and if you’ve got nothing to do Thurday afternoon, you could always go for the rush.

In other opera news, I also caught the final performance of Haydn’s Orlando Paladino at the Manhattan School of Music. Every time I hear “Haydn” I want to shout out, “Hidin? Hidin from vat?” which is a line from a play – Arthur Kopit’s Chamber Music, which I was in when I was a kid. It wasn’t my line, but it cracked me up. That’s not relevant to this review. It was just compulsive.

First off, I just want to commend the professionalism of the (graduate) student singers and the musicians. Great work by all. Second, they’ve got a beautiful theater. Acoustics were fantastic. MSM does a couple of operas every year. This was my first despite its being close to where I live. I’d say they need to do a better job on neighborhood outreach but the house was pretty full. Tickets are $30 full freight, $15 for students an seniors. Sunday, I’d say students and seniors comprised at least 70% of the audience.

The production which shortened three acts to two was one of those interesting modern concepts – re imaging castles and woodlands as reality television and a mental hospital. While the concept didn’t totally work – these things rarely do – the pop-art set was something to see, and it mostly worked . It worked better IMHO than the Met’s rat-pack Rigoletto. I didn’t take any photos of the set, and all the ones on the web seem to belong to someone, so you’ll have to look for yourself. There’s a full-length review in the Times, and other places. I plan NOT to miss their future performances, AND I’ll concur with the others that Cameron Johnson, a young baritone, singing the buffoonish Pasquale has a big future ahead. While that future could be operatic, I sense it will be in musical comedy and theater. Given his matinee looks, talent for physical as well as vocal comedy – including a dead on John Travolta dance impression taking us from Tony Manero to Vincent Vega, AND a range that includes a bit of falsetto — the kid is going places.