During the overture, and before a gaudy show curtain, the canary-colored zoot-suited con man Don Alfonso, presents his co-conspirator and inamorata Despina with a magician’s bouquet of flowers and a very large travelling box, tied up with a bow. She hits him with the flowers, but helps him remove the bow and open the gift box.
Out from the box climbs a circus of carnival oddities, a collection of people who might populate the old Ripley’s Believe It or Not arcade on Times Square.
What do this seeming magician named Don Alfonso and his magician’s assistant, a maid labeled “Despina,” have in store for the two pair of lovers created by Wolfgang Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte?
In their last collaboration the writers created an opera about a lover who could not resist temptation, Don Giovanni. This time they have created a tour de force of temptation involving the two financeed girls.
The brilliant stage director Phelim McDermott has conceived of Don Afonso’s gift as a Pandora’s Box of evils and troubles with which to plague the young sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, until they succumb to unthinkable temptation by breaking their engagement vows.
Once having the con man make the bet with the sisters’ fiancées – Ferrando and Guglielmo- McDermott quickly moves the action to Cony Island, the natural habitat for the creatures unloosed from Pandora’s Box, a place where one may see, and even do, things one wouldn’t dream about doing anywhere else – the perfect place in which to lead the virtuous sisters astray.
Not content with a simple tale of seduction and betrayal as the Mozart-Da Ponte team offered with Don Giovanni, this time the opera duo boldly enlists the fiancées themselves to lead the girls astray! The naval officers are transformed into two “Wild and Crazy” Don Juans, like the Czechoslovak Festrunk brothers created by Dan Akroyd and Steve Martin for the 1979 Saturday Night Live season. With money on the line, and intoxicated by the carnival atmosphere and oddities surrounding them, the boys are relentless in forcing their fiancées to betray them.
Cosi fan tutte is an original script no doubt based on some real-life experiences by Mozart and Da Ponte. Most people know of Mozart’s affair with his future wife Constance’s sister, Aloisia, but Da Ponte’s wild life is one of western civilization’s great unfortunate secrets. A brief digression into the unbelievable life of Lorenzo Da Ponte clarifies, and justifies, Mr. McDermott’s exciting production choices.
Da Ponte (1749-1838) was simply one of the most amazing people in the history of the arts. He was born Emanuele Conegliano to a Jewish family, whose widowed father baptized all of his children into the Christian faith. Adhering to the custom of the time, Emanuele took the name of the priest who baptized him Cardinal Lorenzo Da Ponte, Bishop of Ceneda. Thanks to the bishop, Lorenzo received one of the finest educations available at the seminary. He became a priest and professor of literature, in which position he began to gain fame for his poetry. Moving to Venice, Lorenzo lived a life comparable to his friend Casanova, full of wine, women, song, and more women. He was banished from Venice after a trial found him guilty of “public concubinage” and “abduction of a respectable woman’ while forced by economic necessity to live in a brothel.
He fled to Austria where he found employment translating libretti for the Italian Opera Company. (Every capital city had an Italian Opera Company.) As court poet and librettist, he collaborated with both Salieri and Mozart. However Mozart, with only two more years to live, was beset by money troubles; while Da Ponte was fighting to keep his position at court in the knowledge that his protector, the Emperor, was gravely ill, and that he himself was surrounded by unscrupulous rivals anxious to get rid of him. When the Austrian Emperor died, Lorenzo needed to leave Vienna. He headed to Paris with a letter of introduction to Marie Antoinette, but the revolution caused him to detour to London. With his lifelong companion Nancy Grahl, Lorenzo worked as a grocer and translator and librettist at the city’s first Italian Opera house, Kings Theatre. But debt led to bankruptcy and Lorenzo fled to America.
He settled in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, of all places, where he ran a grocery store, commuting to New York City to teach Italian lessons privately. Eventually he opened a bookshop in New York City, where he met Clement Moore the author of A Visit from St Nicholas. Moore helped Lorenzo become both Columbia University’s first Professor of Italian literature and first Jewish faculty member. In 1825 he produced America’s first Don Giovanni in his own opera house, America’s first, The New York Opera Company, which was the predecessor of both the Academy of Music and Metropolitan Opera House. In 1828, at age 79, Lorenzo became an American citizen. His funeral was a giant affair held at old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry Street.
Cosi fan tutte would be the final, and most daring, collaboration for these eighteenth century Wild and Crazy Guys. Mixing their own personal experiences with women with Da Ponte’s considerable erudition – Marivaux’s Les fauses confidences, Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, “Cephalus and Procris” from Ovid, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, Tasso’s Gerusalemme libertata, Tirso de Molina’s El Amor medico and Le celosa de si misma – the opera has troubled scholars and audiences ever since. Mozart, too, has been taken to task for lending his genius to such a trivial and improper libretto, which ‘was universally pronounced to be one of the worst of its kind’, as Otto Jahn wrote dismissively. Throughout the nineteenth century earnest attempts were made to produce alternative texts which, in the eyes of the critics, would be worthy of the music. Luckily no one succeeded, and from these two masters of their craft posterity has inherited a very moral and “Christian” work, and which many people nowadays regard as the most perfect of all Mozart’s operas.
Da Ponte and Mozart, perhaps sensing that Cosi fan tutte would be their last hurrah as a writing team, left the opera with a mystery which has haunted opera fans ever since. A fascinating question mark hangs over who pairs off with whom at the end of the opera. Do they return to their original partners, Fiordiligi to Guglielmo and Dorabella to Ferrando. This is probably the men’s preference. The women, in switching lovers, seem to have found their true partners, and to have experienced a sexual arousal they have never known before. Da Ponte deliberately gives no indication of what happens after the reconciliation, but merely makes Alfonso remark ‘Siete sposi’— ‘You’re married’. The two couples have just been through a bogus marriage ceremony, each with the ‘wrong’ partner, though only the women have signed the marriage contract. So, what are we meant to understand?
As Agatha Christie’s great Belgian detective Hercule Poirot explains, when faced with a complex problem, the solution is simple. Mr. McDermott has found the simple solution in the myth of Pandora, upon which his production achieves stunning clarity.
At the end of the Pandora tale one human trait remains in the box – Hope. This virtue is the core of McDermott’s beautiful staging of Fiordiligi’s “Per pieta ben mio perdona” in which she floats above the hurly-burly, closer to God, in a hot air balloon. She enters kairos time to ponder the subject of Christian hope, the final trait in Pandora’s box. The moment is the opera’s highlight, and the singer, Ms. Majeski’s greatest moment.
That hope allows the men to forgive the women and the women to forgive the men.
The men fell by seducing, the women fell by giving in to seduction. But, importantly, all place their hope in the Christian virtue of forgiveness.
And at the end, Despina even accepts Don Alfonso’s ever-ready hopeful bouquet, and love blooms everywhere in the chastened lovers.
Phelim McDermott makes updating an eighteenth-century opera look easier than it is. It involves far, far more than putting actors in modern clothing, and in a cool edgy location with all sorts of hip gadgets. No. Mr. McDermott clearly did a lot of historical research and went moment by moment, line by line, note by note through the score and libretto understanding who and why each piece was where it was. He then made sure his new time and place and accoutrements served the same architectonic purposes. Every detailed and perfectly apt bit of stage business and pantominic dramatization testify to his meticulous process. The beautiful and stunningly imaginative scenic choices made in collaboration with designer Tom Pye, as with the equally creative and lovely costume decisions arrived at with designer Laura Hopkins, primarily are there to serve the original story and music as written centuries ago. Paule Constable’s lighting gloriously frames the brilliance on display.
The opera is served by a wonderful cast of singers who catch on to Mr. McDermott’s production style. Wisely avoiding both the stylization or slapstick which have characterized too many productions of Cosi fan tutte, the cast plays genuine romantic human comedy, with a sprinkle of morality “over easy.” Christopher Maltman sings and acts cunningly. Kelli O’Hara seems made for the opera stage. She knows how to play every type of scene truthfully and beautifully. As the male lovers Ben Bliss’ Ferrando and Adam Plachetka’s Guglielmo couldn’t be beat. Believable in and out of disguise, winsome when truthful or when deceptive, they must be what Da Ponte and Mozart had in mind. (Mr. Plachetka is now not only my favorite Papageno but also my favorite Guglielmo.) The sisters are just as fetching as their beaux. So different and so transformed is Amanda Majeski’s Fiordiligi that I could not believe she was the same singer and actress I had seen a few years earlier as the Marshallian at Chicago’s Lyric Opera. Her sister Dorabella is played with a firecracker passion by Serena Malfi. The sisters have such chemistry together, and ease of playing, that they could easily walk into the sisters Eileen and Ruth of Bernstein’s Wonderful Town. Maestro David Robertson leads the proceedings with a steady hand and ear for clarifying what is often made a jumble of a plot.
The Met’s Cosi fan tutte is a work of great intelligence, imagination and talent in the service of opera’s greatest team of collaborators- Mozart and Da Ponte.