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Ana María Martínez, Joshua Hopkins, Andrew Stenson, and Marianne Crebassa [Photo © Cory Weaver]
08 Mar 2018

Così fan tutte at Lyric Opera of Chicago

With artifice, disguise, and questions on fidelity as the basis of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, the composer’s mature opera has returned to the stage at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Così fan tutte at Lyric Opera of Chicago

A review by Salvatore Calomino

Above: Ana María Martínez, Joshua Hopkins, Andrew Stenson, and Marianne Crebassa [Photo © Cory Weaver]


The cast features Ana María Martínez and Marianne Crebassa as the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella; their suitors Guglielmo and Ferrando are performed by Joshua Hopkins and Andrew Stenson. The worldly Don Alfonso is Alessandro Corbelli, the sisters’ housemaid Despina is Elena Tsallagova. The performances are conducted by James Gaffigan. This production is owned by the San Francisco Opera and Opéra de Monte Carlo. The original director is John Cox, the Revival Director is Bruno Ravella. The Lyric Opera Chorus is prepared by its Chorus Master Michael Black. Sets and costumes are designed by Robert Perdziola, the Lighting Designer is Chris Maravich, and wigs and makeup are designed by Sarah Hatten. Ms. Tsallagova and Mr. Gaffigan make their debuts at Lyric Opera of Chicago in these performances, and in the case of Tsallagova, her U.S. debut.

The dispute concerning fidelity that had already begun among the male principals before the start of Act One continues as the curtain rises, appropriately, on the gaming room of a Mediterranean resort hotel. The wager initiated by Don Alfonso follows protests by both Guglielmo and Ferrando that their prospective lovers would never waver. In his defense of Dorabella, Mr. Stenson’s impassioned portrayal in the concluding trio results in variable projection. Mr. Hopkins’s steady melodic line is matched by Mr. Corbelli in his self-assured depiction of Don Alfonso as a prophet of human foibles. Corbelli’s easily produced runs and embellishments of key lines suggest a natural emphasis on the part of a realistic adviser. Both young men submit to the wager of “cento zecchini” while Corbelli’s imperturbable coolness invites the audience to a display worth watching.

In the following scene the sisters show equivalent devotion to their respective partners. Ms. Martínez communicates emotional confidence in her “guerriero ed amante” (“soldier and lover”) Guglielmo by means of enhanced vibrato. Ms. Crebassa’s Dorabella shows her insistence more pointedly and with expressive runs leading to a delightful appoggiatura. The calm of both women is interrupted by Don Alfonso’s entry and announcement that the men have been called to the battlefield. This production draws on the identification of Guglielmo and Ferrando as officers to fix a tense date of August 1914 for the action. Accompanying production details, such as dress and props, conform then to this chronology. The sisters react with perfect unison on “Ohimè, che sento?” (“Alas, what do I hear?”), before Corbelli summons the men now in uniform onto the scene. In the following series of quintets and recitatives the lovers vary in emphasis while reacting to their imminent separation. Hopkins and Crebassa are especially importunate before Don Alfonso celebrates the moment of departure by means of a period, group photo. The gentle, moving trio, “Soave sia il vento” (“Soft be the breeze”), is exactly that, as Martínez and Crebassa express their misgivings with Corbelli’s voice affecting a thread of unity.

The first entrance of Despina injects a touch of lightness into this officially somber mood. Ms. Tsallagova not only acts convincingly but she also uses her perky voice to counter the sisters’ pessimism. Her response to Crebassa’s forte approach in “Smanie implacabili” (“Implacable pangs”) exemplifies Despina’s realistic philosophy in the aria concluding “amiam per comodo” (“Let us love to suit our convenience”). In this solo Tsallagova provides choice decoration on “fedeltà” with top notes scattered and pointed throughout. After a brief conspiratorial scene between the three men and Despina the sisters return to witness unrecognized “uomini in casa nostra.” Although Don Alfonso vouches for the disguised suitors as close friends, their presence evokes surprise and consternation. Crebassa’s reaction suggests already a nascent curiosity while Martínez remains steadfast “Come scoglio” (“Like a rock”). In this touchstone of an aria Martínez displays an even and confident approach with measured embellishments on significant lines. The comparable responses in subsequent solo pieces for the disguised suitors allow the men to remain sure in their wager with Don Alfonso. Stenson reclines on a chaise longue to sing “Un’ aura amorosa” (“A breath of love”) as a dreamy self-reflection. Stenson’s breath control and light voice communicate the delicacy of the sentiment while his transition into the repeat is accomplished with an effortlessly arching glide.

The conclusion of Act One, in keeping with this production’s fiction, features the sisters wearing Red Cross symbols while surveying the wounded. Soon after the entrance of the disguised suitors, the men claim to have taken poison. The further disguise of Despina— in pit-helmet and glasses—as a doctor fetched to remedy adds to the madcap hilarity and emotional indecision of the final scene.

At the start of Act Two sufficient possibility and self-doubt has been sown such that Despina’s encouragement begins to bear fruit. In her aria “Una donna a quindici anni” (“At fifteen a woman”) she encourages the worldly and wise demeanor to which her ladies should have recourse. Tsallagova’s self-congratulatory and controlled ending, “Viva Despina, che sa server” (“Cheers for Despina, she knows how to do it”), leads directly into the sisters’ examination of their future conduct. After a spirited self-defense they begin to relent and to use Despina’s very words from a previous scene, e.g., “divertirsi” (“amuse ourselves”). In this production the transition is not staged as a mere reversal, since the sisters continue to touch the pendants with portraits of their true loves—while choosing a dalliance with the other. In the first scene of surrender Dorabella walks alone with Guglielmo; their playful dialogue extends to vocal decorations of highlighted emotion. When Hopkins describes his heart “e spasima per voi” (“that longs for you”), he urges Dorabella to take his symbolic pendant (“L’accettate?” [“Will you acceprt it?”]) with both phrases showing urgency through increasing rubato. In their subsequent duet Hopkins expresses excitement by rolling playfully the letter "r" in “furbetta” (“you little rogue”) while Crebassa extends repeated top notes on the “Vesuvio” (“volcano”) in her breast.

A comparable trajectory for the second couple simply shows more extensive resistance. In her ultimate statement of loyalty Martínez transforms the aria “Per pietà, ben mio” (“In pity’s name, my dearest”) into a showcase of exciting, vocal decoration. While left alone and protesting her devotion to Guglielmo, the range from “fra quest’ ombre” (“among these shades”) upward to top pitches on “sempre ascoso” (“evermore hidden”) is taken by Martínez at a moderate and challenging pace. The attempt to convince herself that she will spare her lover the knowledge of unfaithful thoughts is conclusively embellished by Martínez with repeated melismas on “Caro bene” (“Dear heart”). Once the suitors have compared their experiences Ferrando realizes that he must redouble his efforts in order to keep pace with Guglielmo. In his aria “Tradito, schernito” (“Betrayed and scorned”) Stenson’s voice rises from understated anger to rage on “perfido cor” (“by her faithless heart”). His extended notes on “Le voci d’amor” (“The voice of love”) exemplify his resolve to conquer the determination of Fiordiligi.

Once the stage of equality among the couples is reached, it remains for Don Alfonso and Despina to guide the strands of love back into place. In the ultimate making and unmasking of the final scenes the phrase “bella calma troverà” (“he will find sweet peace”) speaks for a resolution of confusion and uncertainty. As the men in this production march off at the close into military conflict, one must presume that the “calma” will remain, for the most part, emotional.

Salvatore Calomino

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