03 Jun 2014

Così fan tutte at the Los Angeles Philharmonic

On May 23rd the Los Angeles Philharmonic premiered its production of Così fan tutte, the third and last of the Mozart/Daponte opera series it inaugurated in 2012.

Although advertized as the “grand finale” of the series, grand is hardly an adjective one can associate with Così fan tutte, though the work has many other operatic virtues: first and foremost, its exquisite music.

Così also requires a small cast. It can be produced on a small stage. And its plot, which revolves around mistaken identity, the stuff of comedy since the inception of drama (unless you’re Oedipus), can be set in almost any place in any era. And so it has been and will continue to be. This year alone 49 different productions will be presented in 42 cities.

The most important thing you need to know in regard to Così fan tutte is that no one knows what it’s about. The opera’s title means “all women are like that” and its subtitle “La scuola di amante” means “school for lovers.” Ostensibly it’s an education in love. However, in the 224 years since the opera’s creation, each era’s arbiters of morality have redefined their view of the work. They have told us to laugh at it or to cry, to sympathize with certain characters, or to revile them. The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s production team: director, Christopher Alden, set and costume designers, Zaha Hadid and Hussein Chalayan, have chosen not to moralize, but to show us the continually shifting ground upon upon which the work is based.


Mutability is the key to this production. The set, visible as the audience enters, is a smooth white, undulating ramp that represents the sea. (Così is set in Naples). Apparently slippery, and somewhat steep, the women were often barefoot and the audience gasped at one moment as a tenor slammed rather abruptly into a wall. The ramp, which was designed to reflect the curves of the concert hall itself, had a solo moment when no one was aboard, when it undulated rapidly to dramatic lighting changes.

The opera’s plot revolves around Guglielmo and Ferrando, two soldiers, who boast to Don Alfonso, their cynical old friend that Fiordiligi and Dorabella, the sisters to whom they’re engaged, will be faithful to them forever. Alfonso, portrayed as a nastier creature in this production than usual, bets the young men that if they follow his instructions he can manipulate the girls into taking new lovers in less than 24 hours. The women are told that their heroes have been called to war, and shortly thereafter the two men disguised as “Albanians” appear to declare their passionate love, each to the other’s fiancée. Alfonso tightens his trap by bribing the young women’s maid servant, Despina, here too, a tougher character than usual, to assist him. Torn by conscience and tempted by the joys of love, the girls suffer a few pangs, but soon agree to marry their new fiancés, whereupon their original fiancés reappear and everyone’s treachery is revealed. Since there’s no reconciling all this deceit — even in 1790 “I’m sorry, I’ll never do it again” seemed to work for all kinds of misdeeds — the opera ends with a cheerful sextet in which the characters agree, “let’s get over this and look at the sunny side of things.”

The musical aspects of this production sparkled. Gustavo Dudamel and the Philharmonic orchestra produced one of the most articulate, lustrous, most graceful orchestral performances of the opera I’ve heard. The six attractive, lithe and experienced Mozart singers excelled in their roles. Bass Rod Gilfry seemed to enjoy portraying the almost maniacal Alfonso. I’m not sure how mezzo soprano Rosemary Joshua, as Despina, managed to sing and strut her hard-boiled stuff on that stage. As Fiordiligi, the more resistant of the two sisters, soprano Miah Persson negotiated the difficult “Come scoglio” with aplomb. Mezzo-soprano Roxana Constaninescu was an eager to be loved Dorabella, while Baritone Philippe Sly as Guglielmo, and tenor Alek Shrader, Ferrando, were in turn earnest and zany lovers.

As in The Marriage of Figaro, despite the fizzy overture, crisp rhythms and perky tunes heard in the orchestra, the cast enters the stage at a measured funereal pace (indeed, there is a moment in this opera when we hear the funeral march). Once again there are bits of comedy enacted at the apron of the stage involving Dudamel and orchestra members. In this case, it is Alfonso, who engages with the conductor, as well as with the excellent continuo duo, harpsichordist Bradley Moore and cellist David Heiss.

In keeping with the concept of mutability, Hussein Chalayan, renowned for his changeable clothing (he once designed “a robotic dress with panels that mechanically separate and float upward”), created layered clothing for the four lovers that metamorphosed even as they sang. Some of the costumes were attractive, some distracting. Try as I will, I still don’t understand why, when the mutability terminated, the two former soldiers ended up in dresses.

Architectural, theatrical and fashion world sites posted laudatory comments on the artistic achievements of the opera’s production team. Still, as in Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro, the LA Philharmonic’s two previous Mozart/Daponte productions, Disney Hall’s staging area, which literally lacks depth enough for drama, and doors enough for farce. proved an unhappy venue for opera. My companion, a veteran theater goer, who had never before seen the opera, couldn’t figure out what was happening on stage - though the titles helped.

This was a conceptually fascinating, musically delightful Così fan tutte, but it was neither joyful, nor understandable. Maybe that’s all we can expect from it. The scholarly 1910 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica called its libretto “too stupid to criticize.”

Estelle Gilson

Cast and production information:

Ferrando:Alek Shrader; Gugliermo::Philippe Sly: Don Alfonso:Rod Gilfry; Fiordiligi:Miah Persson; Dorabella:Rosana Constantinesco; Despina: Rosemary Joshua. Conductor: Gustavo Dudamel. Director: Christopher Alden. Set Designer: Zaha Hadid Architects. Costume Designer: Hussein Chalayan. Lighting Designer: Adam Silverman.