In Seattle Opera’s production of Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte, the stage’s main prop, aside from an inviting pile of mattresses, is a tall mirror. Each character pauses in front of it at some time, checking out his or her current reflection, or identity. The mirror is a throwback symbol in this thoroughly contemporary production, but it says more than a selfie, which catches only a moment and can be edited ad infinitum.
Promoted by the company as “Mozart’s comedy about sex. Sort of,” this Cosi, which closes January 27, is certainly sort of. In fact, this Jonathan Miller production, staged over and over since the 1995 Covent Garden debut that dressed the cast in Armani instead of period costumes and substituted bikers for Albanians, is about more than sex, bad manners and faithlessness. The opera is usually categorized as buffo, or comic, yet Miller argues in several interviews that a thin line separates comedy from tragedy. This piece is more complex than one running joke of mixed-up identities in the bumbling pursuit of love.
As that prominent mirror suggests, Cosi is more explicitly about identity rather than sex and lust, claims Miller, the distinguished 83-year-old British playwright/director/author/medical doctor. The more the characters switch roles, the more they try on different people (or clothes and makeup), the more they discover who they are, and the more they learn about about love and life. Cosi’s subtitle is the “School of Love,” after all.
The familiar Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart-Lorenzo Da Ponte creation, debuted in 1790, shines its light on two couples, young, beautiful and naive. As the story goes, Don Alfonso (sung and acted with precise comic timing by bass Kevin Burdette), an older friend of the the two young men — Guglielmo (baritone Michael Adams) and Ferrando (Seattle tenor Ben Bliss) — wagers that the guys’ women will be unfaithful to them when given time and opportunity. Cosi fan tutte. They all do it, or more loosely, all women do it. The guys don’t believe it, but go along with the bet.
The spoiled sisters Fiordiligi (soprano Marjukka Tepponen) and Dorabella (mezzo Hanna Hipp), who are hooked up with these guys, claim they love them, would never be unfaithful. They resist, and when tested again and again, vacillate. Finally, they cave.
To carry out the faithfulness test, the guys, who are soldiers supposedly going off to war (here they are performing United Nations duty) morph into Portland hipsters instead of the original opera’s Albanians. They are tattooed, leathered down and duded up, and they switch girls. Unbelievably, the girlfriends don’t recognize their boyfriends, and fall for the wrong boyfriend. Adams and Bliss are hilarious in these scenes.
Despina, the girls’ “PA” (“personal assistant”) and another love cynic in cahoots with Don Alfonso (for money), encourages her employers to go for pleasure, not virtue. As she urges the plot (and plotting) on, she changes identity, too, into a fake doctor, a faux lawyer. Soprano Laura Tatulescu plays her with so much verve that her role’s significance rises toequal to the couples’ (as does Don Alfonso’s — almost).
The ensemble singing builds the backbone of this beautiful opera, conducted by Brit Paul Daniel. The music is lush and romantic (if not, technically, Romantic) and full of emotion, while the libretto is often mean-spirited. Miller has been criticized for widening the gap between the sweet music and the hard-edged message, but I think it works. Mozart was in love at the time; librettist Da Ponte was in another state of mind, so even if music doesn’t match message in tone, it creates a dissonance that makes us think more deeply.
Duets, trios, quartets, quintets, sextets abound so no one stars (consider “Soave sia il vento” with Don Alfonso and the sisters in the first act). The six main singers have to be very good — and so they are at singing (in Italian), acting and comic timing. Two casts alternate the four main roles throughout the run. Stage director Harry Fehr, another Brit, brings the best out of the cast.
In part because the spare set doesn’t change, the lighting does extra work. Early on, Neil Peter Jampolis floods the stage with avery girly baby-soft pink that flushes to a deep flesh hue as the plot heats up.
Though updated with cell phones, jeggings (jean leggings) and spikes, Euro-cut mens’ suits, and clever topical translations (thanks to Jonathan Dean’s supra titles), the opera takes three hours and 20 minutes to make its point, but such is opera. It ends in an argument, another lesson from the school of love, and in the ongoing struggle to know oneself in life and love.
Cosi proved too racy and controversial for the 19th century; it was roughed up with endless changes to pass muster with uptight audiences and conservative opera companies. It rose again after World War II and then was born for a third time with Miller’s production. SO staged it in 2006, and they’ll likely stage it again if they can continue to nail down superb casts. It has the flexibility (if not Portland hipsters, something else) and appeal to continue for a few more centuries.