Getting Beneath the Surface: Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte in Princeton

On its face, no opera seems trashier than Così fan tutte. Two best bros bet on the fidelity of their young fiancées, disguise themselves as exotic strangers, and try to seduce each other’s girl. To their surprise, they succeed within the day: the two ladies enthusiastically agree to marry their new suitors.

Beneath the surface, however, Così among the most subtle, profound and modern of operas. For the four protagonists, infidelity (painful though it is to experience) is less a tragedy than a learning experience about the ways of the world. As Mozart’s librettist – the free-thinking, free-drinking and free-loving Catholic priest, Lorenzo da Ponte – signals in his subtitle: it is a “School for Lovers.” The moral is that in a world of fickle partners and fragile relationships, a reasonable person must eschew the naïve romantic illusion that one’s first crush is a uniquely ideal partner. A little experience allows one to temper blindless passion with a realistic, even slightly cynical, understanding of people (even our loved ones) as imperfect beings.

For most of the first hour and intermittently thereafter, this new staging from a team led by James Marvel (apparently The Princeton Festival’s go-to for this purpose) seemed to miss Così’s subtext entirely, setting it instead as a farce. One quickly tired of the brightly lit Barbie-pink unit, two ladies dressed like 18th century dolls, and a nearly continuous diet of mugging, posturing, slapstick, sight gags, and disco dance moves. This chaos obscured the essential simplicity of the story and the warm-hearted sincerity that gives the distinctive emotional journeys of these four individuals such a universal impact. The score leaves no doubt that Mozart understood this clearly.

Fortunately, the stage direction team relented a bit when it mattered most, notably during the introspective solo arias and emotional duets that come later. The soloists – all prize-winning young American singers active in regional opera houses across the US – could express themselves without visual distraction. Most delivered distinctive and memorable accounts.

As Fiordiligi, the more high-minded of the two women, soprano Aubry Ballarò sang her two bravura arias with solid technique and a heroic timbre with real edge at the top. She added to that a delightful (and rare) willingness to pull back occasionally and sing sweetly. More than most in this role, she conveyed the anguish of this character’s noble but futile struggle to remain faithful.

David Walton sang Ferrando, the more tender-hearted of the two men, with unusually clear and emotionally responsive diction and plangent timbre tenor – even though the voice itself is not as warm as some who sing this role. In particular, he excelled at portraying the full measure of this character’s emotional vulnerability, not least in his account of the romanza “Un’aura amorosa,” the second verse sung in a hushed piano with creative and elegant ornamentation.

Benjamin Taylor possesses a baritone of exceptional natural warmth and beauty. For most of the evening, his good-natured stage presence fit Guglielmo well. Yet he could have provided more dramatic immediacy and pointed diction when acting out the character’s darker and angrier side – not least in the Act II tirade against women and his asides in the quartet that follows. Mezzo Alexis Peart, too, brought a rich voice to Fiordiligi’s fun-loving and earthy sister, Dorabella – though here, too, crisper diction and smoother phrasing would have made the characterization more viscerally immediate. Her dusky voice is promising, if still a work in progress.

Soprano Zulimar López-Hernández seemed to relish embodying the sassy maid Despina. She pulled some subtle tricks: when impersonating a lawyer, for example, she seemed to deliberately render the Italian in a foreign (American?) accent.

As a drama, Così revolves around the sixth character, Don Alfonso, who concocts and directs the whole cynical scheme. Bass Jeremy Harr’s performance was solid, but more vocal power and crisper diction would have helped him command the stage. He also suffered even more than others from thoughtless direction and costuming, which presented him not as a worldly and ironic sophisticate but a silly and foppish old man.

Holding the performance together was superb orchestral playing by the Princeton Symphony. Music Director Rossen Milanov’s tempi, many slightly slower than customary, suffusing the opera with a smooth, unhurried elegance one hears more rarely in today’s era of raucous early music performances. He also achieved a lovely chamber-orchestra transparency that suits this human-scale score perfectly. The orchestra responded brilliantly, with special kudos due to the winds. The whole performance was uncommonly tight and well-rehearsed, and, after problems with overamplification in the past, the acoustic balance spot on.

Overall, this production offered the sold-out crowd a satisfying and (for me and those with whom I attended) sometimes moving rendition of this great opera. Yet, if the Princeton Festival wants to achieve its stated purpose of evolving into a “destination” venue that attracts opera lovers from further afield, more is required. At the top of the list should be enhancing the sophistication of the staging, costumes, and visual direction commensurate with fine singing and excellent orchestral playing.

Andrew Moravcsik

Così fan tutte
Composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte

Cast and production staff:

Aubry Ballarò, Fiordiligi – Alexis Peart, Dorabella – David Walton, Ferrando – Benjamin Taylor, Guglielmo –Jeremy Harr, Don Alfonso –Zulimar López-Hernández, Despina.

Rossen Milanov, conductor. Princeton Symphony Orchestra.

James Marvel, Stage Director –Blair Mielnik, Scenic Designer –Marie Miller, Costume Designer/Costume Shop Manager – Paul Kilsdonk, Lighting Designer – Carissa Thorlakson, Wig and Makeup Designer – Cassie Goldbach, Production Stage Manager – José Meléndez, Répétiteur/Coach.

Top image courtesy of Princeton Symphony Orchestra.