WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Così fan tutte, ossia La scuola degli amanti, K. 588 — Meredith Hansen (Fiordigili), Lisa Chavez (Dorabella), Kyaunnee Richardson (Despina), Pavel Suliandziga (Ferrando), Suchan Kim (Guglielmo), Denis Sedov (Don Alfonso); Opera in Williamsburg Chamber Orchestra; Paul Nadler, conductor [Isabel Milenski, stage director; Naama Zahavi-Ely, producer; Troy Martin-O’Shia, lighting designer; Eric Lamp, costume designer; Opera in Williamsburg, Kimball Theatre, Williamsburg, Virginia, USA; Sunday, 29 May 2022]
At the time of his death on 17 August 1838, the Italian poet and priest Lorenzo da Ponte dwelled not in an opulent Viennese abode befitting the foremost librettist in the Habsburg capital in the final quarter of the Eighteenth Century but in a relatively modest flat in New York City. Following the ends of his work with his most celebrated musical collaborator and his career at the imperial court, effected by the respective deaths of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Emperor Joseph II, da Ponte sought new opportunities, settling first in Britain and later in the United States, where he became a naturalized citizen in 1828. Like many immigrants to the USA, da Ponte overcame many setbacks during his three decades in the New World, but even successes like founding the precursor of today’s Metropolitan Opera did not eclipse the legacy of his association with Mozart.
First performed in Vienna’s Burgtheater on 26 January 1790, Così fan tutte was the final fruit of the partnership between da Ponte and Mozart that also yielded Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni. Traditional notions of da Ponte’s work with Mozart have been upended in the past half-century by musicological discoveries of evidence suggesting that the libretto of Così fan tutte was originally intended not for Mozart but for the Salzburger’s superior at the court of Joseph II, Antonio Salieri. Why Salieri might have abandoned the project after having composed the recently-unearthed music for it has not yet been established. Whatever motivated the reassignment, Così landing in Mozart’s hands was one of the most fortuitous occurrences in opera’s history. In Così, Mozart and da Ponte further refined the art of creating nuanced characters through their interactions with one another that so distinguished Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, propelling opera’s transition from the Baroque focus on solo arias to increased emphasis on ensembles.
From a Twenty-First-Century perspective, Così fan tutte having long been revered as one of its creators’ greatest achievements, it is remarkable to recall that Nineteenth-Century observers, Ludwig van Beethoven among them, considered da Ponte’s libretto unworthy of Mozart’s score, the ‘immoral’ tale of a pair of lovers duplicitously putting their partners’ fidelity to the test disfiguring the noble music to which it was set. This attitude reflects the romanticization to which Mozart was subjected following his early death, as well as nonsensical proto-Victorian misogyny. Thankfully, these distortions and misinterpretations of Così have largely been supplanted by appreciation for the genius of Mozart’s handling of da Ponte’s words and dramatic situations, but some stagings of the opera continue to substitute awkward stereotypes for Mozart’s and da Ponte’s meticulously-wrought characterizations.
Fittingly presented in the historic Kimball Theatre, amidst the Eighteenth-Century surroundings of Colonial Williamsburg, Opera in Williamsburg’s production of Così fan tutte shrank from none of the opera’s complex gender politics, but producer Naama Zahavi-Ely and director Isabel Milenski brought refreshing lightness and sophistication to the work. Aided in no small part by the singers’ well-rehearsed diction, the production concentrated as pointedly on communicating da Ponte’s words as on performing Mozart’s music.
Roxane Revon’s clever visual and projection designs, Troy Martin-O’Shia’s thoughtful lighting, and Eric Lamp’s masterful costumes—luxurious Eighteenth-Century attire for the ‘proper’ Neapolitans, Summer of Love threads for the feigned Albanians, biker glam for the sisters’ Grease-like transformation, and a hilarious nods to Tim Conway and Stevie Wonder for Despina’s turns as the doctor and the notary—metamorphosed with the opera’s shifting moods. Abounding with wit and creative details like staging an ensemble in Act Two with Four Seasons-style choreography, the production was genuinely funny, never subjecting Mozart’s and da Ponte’s farce to overwrought foolishness.
Acclaimed for his work in a number of the world's important opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, for which company he has presided over sixty performances to date, conductor Paul Nadler marshaled the musical forces of Opera in Williamsburg’s Così fun tutte with unmistakable assurance. Utilizing an orchestral reduction by Jonathan Lyness, Nadler and the eleven members of the production’s chamber orchestra furnished a surprisingly robust account of the score, proving in the opera’s sparkling Overture that their collective virtuosity rendered their small number inconsequential.
Similarly, unaccustomed attention on the beauties of Mozart’s instrumental writing wholly compensated for the omission of the choral voices from ‘Bella vita militar!’ in Act One and Ferrando’s duettino with Guglielmo in Act Two. Like Nadler’s invigorating but sensitive conducting, Eric Sedgwick’s harpsichord continuo was propulsive without being over-assertive, and, complementing a splendid string quintet, flautist Jen Tobin, oboist George Corbett, clarinettist Shawn Buck, bassoonist Matt Lano, and horn player Cody Halquist executed their parts superbly.
I piaceri della cospirazione: soprano Kyaunnee Richardson as Despina (left) and bass Denis Sedov as Don Alfonso in Opera in Williamsburg’s 2022 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Così fan tutte
[Photograph by Roxane Revon, © by Opera in Williamsburg]
A particular joy of Opera in Williamsburg’s staging of Così fan tutte was the casting of a young, vibrant Despina who both possesses and wields complete control over a fine voice. From her first entrance, uttering ‘Che vita maledetta è il far la cameriera’ with bemused ennui, soprano Kyaunnee Richarson ignited the performance with her fiery singing and personality. Manifesting the production’s ethos, her account of the aria ‘In uomini, in soldati sperare fedeltà?’ was riotous without being exaggerated, the no-nonsense maid’s frustration with her stoic mistresses delightfully imparted. In both the rollicking sextet, one of Mozart’s most masterful ensembles, and the Act One finale, Richardson ensured that each of Despina’s words was audible, singing with consummate musicality and an engaging sense of fun.
Despina’s aria in Act Two, ‘Una donna a quindici anni,’ was a highlight of the performance, Richardson’s Despina relaying crucial life experience rather than lecturing. As in Act One, her vocal acting in Act Two’s quartet and final scene delighted. In some productions, Despina’s appearances in disguise, first as the doctor of questionable credentials who revives the Albanians and later as the pedantic notary, are embarrassingly silly, but Richardson enchanted in these scenes, too. Vocally and comedically, Richardson was an atypically endearing Despina who both earned her laughs and sang Mozart’s music with charm and technical flair.
The rôle of Don Alfonso, the cosmopolitan opportunist whose denunciation of the professed fidelity of his friends’ fiancées precipitates Così’s events, is very difficult to cast, and a few unsteady, uncertainly-tuned notes at the top of the range suggested that the music’s compass is not completely ideal for bass Denis Sedov. Despite these fleeting moments of vocal discomfort, Sedov’s performance of the part was magnificent. The voice resounded with tremendous power in Don Alfonso’s trios with Ferrando and Guglielmo in Act One, the bass declaiming ‘Ho i crini già grigi’ with expert timing. His voicing of the aria ‘Vorrei dir, e cor non ho’ was divertingly droll, but this Don Alfonso’s cunning shone most brightly in ensembles, particularly in the quintet and the exquisite terzettino ‘Soave via il vento.’
Sedov voiced ‘Non son cattivo comico’ forcefully and delivered Don Alfonso’s lines in the Act One finale gleefully. The quartet in Act Two was the vehicle for some of Sedov’s best singing of the afternoon, his smoky timbre amplifying the character’s sarcasm. Though brief, Don Alfonso’s aria ‘Tutti accusan le donne ed io le scuso’ encapsulates the wily man’s philosophy. In Sedov’s portrayal, the aria served as the fulcrum that vaulted the opera to its jovial resolution. That such an imposing voice darted through Mozart’s patter was incredible but only one satisfying surprise in a tour-de-force performance.
Prima amati, e poi soldati: baritone Suchan Kim as Guglielmo (left) and tenor Pavel Suliandziga as Ferrando (right) in Opera in Williamsburg’s 2022 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Così fan tutte
[Photograph by Roxane Revon, © Opera in Williamsburg]
Following the path traveled in his lauded depictions of Silvio and Belcore in Opera in Williamsburg’s recent productions of Pagliacci and L’elisir d’amore, baritone Suchan Kim sang Guglielmo in Così fan tutte suavely, exhibiting command of the musical language in the Act One trios with Ferrando and Don Alfonso. There was no disputing his sincerity when this Guglielmo declared that ‘La mia Fiordiligi tradirmi non sa,’ and his parts in first the quintet and then the duettino with Ferrando were impeccably voiced. Kim’s traversal of the aria ‘Non siate ritrosi, occhetti vezzosi’ simmered with romantic zeal, a quality that also coursed through his singing in the terzetto and Act One finale.
Throughout Act Two, Kim’s vocalism convincingly limned Guglielmo’s conflicting feelings, each successive ensemble adding a further dimension to his portrayal. In the duet with Dorabella, he voiced ‘Il core vi dono’ seductively, his wooing overwhelming the lady’s defenses. Guglielmo’s anger upon learning of Fiodiligi’s eventual surrender to Ferrando’s advances was scorching, but Kim also emphasized the pain of the betrayal, thereby intensifying the cathartic reconciliation of the opera’s finale. The emotional complexity of his characterization notwithstanding, Kim’s singing elicited nothing but joy.
With his elegantly-sung, captivatingly-acted portrayal of Ferrando, tenor Pavel Suliandziga won the admiration of Opera in Willamsburg’s audience anew. The exchanges with Guglielmo and Don Alfonso in the early scenes of Act One introduced his Ferrando as a fun-loving but intrinsically serious young man, the tenor singing ‘La mia Dorabella capace non è’ and his lines in the quintet with conviction. He reacted with ever-changing vocal colors to the chameleonic sentiments of the duettino with Guglielmo, the terzetto, and the act’s madcap final. Still, the pinnacle of Act One was his performance of the exquisite aria ‘Un’ aura amorosa del nostro tesoro,’ hypnotically sung, the sweetness of his sound mitigating occasional stress above the stave.
Regrettably, both Ferrando’s bravura aria ‘Ah, lo veggio, quell’anima bella’ and the cavatina ‘Tradito, schernito dal perfido cor’ fell victim to cutting, but Suliandziga’s emotive singing in Act Two ensured that the character remained at the center of the comedy. Joining Kim in an alluring account of ‘Secondate, aurette amiche,’ he projected Ferrando’s commitment to his bargain with Don Alfonso and his absolute belief in Dorabella’s fidelity. The voice glowed in the quartet and the duet with Fiordiligi, in which he phrased ‘Ed intanto di dolore’ alluringly. Singing Mozart rôles exposes the flaws in some tenors’ techniques, but his portrayal of Ferrando disclosed the strengths of Suliandziga’s artistry.
Un addio in lacrime: (from left to right) soprano Meredith Hansen as Fiordiligi, bass Denis Sedov as Don Alfonso, and mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez as Dorabella in Opera in Williamsburg’s 2022 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Così fan tutte
[Photograph by Roxane Revon, © by Opera in Williamsburg]
Though Dorabella’s constancy is ultimately determined to be slightly less durable than her sister’s, there were no inferiorities in mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez’s portrayal of the spirited young woman. Dueting with Fiordiligi in Act One, Chavez sang ‘Osserva tu un poco’ fetchingly before partnering her colleagues affectingly in the quintet and ‘Soave via il vento.’ Her scintillating performance of the aria ‘Smanie implacabili che m’agitate’ illustrated Dorabella’s individual character. Here and in the Act One finale, the singer’s potent upper register gave Dorabella’s words special vigor.
Dorabella’s adventurousness was evident in Chavez’s voicing of ‘Prenderò quel brunettino’ in the Act Two duet with Fiordiligi. Then, first in the quartet and later in the duet with Guglielmo, in which her passionate ‘Mei date, lo prendo’ was one of those indescribable moments in comedy in which true emotion bursts forth, the mezzo-soprano underscored the genius with which Mozart’s music supports da Ponte’s words. Text was the medium with which Chavez painted her portrait of Dorabella, but it was her earnest, effervescent singing that brought the images to life.
Soprano Meredith Hansen confronted the daunting trials of Fiordiligi’s music unflinchingly, intrepidly approaching a rôle that singers as accomplished as Eleanor Steber and Leontyne Price found perilous. Her singing of ‘Ah, guarda, sorella’ in the duet with Dorabella announced the soprano’s vocal prowess, the voice’s muscular energy giving this Fiordiligi visceral resolve. Her part in the quintet was dispatched ebulliently, and Hansen voiced the high line in ‘Soave via il sento’ radiantly. The sextet and the final ensemble of Act One benefited from the incisiveness of her vocalism, and her account of the aria ‘Come scoglio immoto resta,’ its top B♭s and C, trills, and triplets discharged defiantly, flickered with repressed sensuality.
Mozart delineated Fiordiligi’s evolution from unshakable loyalty to sexual liberation in Act Two with exactingly formidable music. This fueled Hansen’s artistic drive, spurring her to voicings of ‘Ed intanto io col biondino’ in the duet with Dorabella and her passages in the quartet that radiated voluptuous femininity. The expressivity of Hansen’s singing of the rondò ‘Per pietà, ben mio, perdona’ was arresting, every note representative of Fiordiligi’s emotional crisis. The duet with Ferrando finalized this awakening, the soprano singing ‘Fra gli amplessi in pochi istanti’ exultantly. In many performances of Così fan tutte, a Fiordiligi of Hansen’s caliber would claim the laurels. In Opera in Williamsburg’s blissful Così fan tutte, she was a paragon among equals.