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The School for Lovers

Kennedy Center Opera House
03/08/2012 -  & March 9, 10, 11, 12, 15, 2012
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Così fan tutte, K. 588
Joel Prieto (Ferrando), Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Guglielmo), William Shimell (Don Alfonso), Elizabeth Futral (Fiordiligi), Renata Pokupic (Dorabella), Christine Brandes (Despina)
Washington National Opera Chorus, Steven Gathman (Chorus Master), Washington National Opera Orchestra, Philippe Auguin (Conductor)
Jonathan Miller (Set and Costume Design/Stage Director), Timm Burrow (Revival Costume Design), Neil Peter Jampolis (Lighting Design)

J. Prieto, T. T. Rhodes (© Scott Suchman)

The Washington National Opera opens its 2012 Spring Season with a highly imaginative and visually captivating updated production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte. The production is brilliantly conceived and directed by the legendary British director, Sir Jonathan Wolfe Miller, CBE. It is equally distinguished by a quartet of singers that could hardly be bettered by any major international opera company, led by a conductor of impeccable style and refinement. It speaks extremely well of the new relationship between the Washington National Opera and the Kennedy Center and raises expectations for future productions of extremely high artistic caliber.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Così fan tutte (le donne), ossia La scuola degli amanti (Thus do all (the ladies), or The School for Lovers), is an opera buffa, that was first performed in 1790. The libretto was written by Lorenzo da Ponte, and is one of the three operas by Mozart for which Da Ponte composed the libretto. The other two operas being Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). These three Italian operas, with the addition of Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), form the quartet of what is generally considered Mozart’s greatest operas.

Although this opera premiered in Vienna in 1790, it was not produced in the United States until 1922, when it premiered at the MET. The subject matter was considered risqué at the time, and often presented with a bowdlerized libretto. This was because Mozart and Da Ponte based the opera upon a theme of “fiancée swapping”, which dates back to the 13th century. Notable earlier versions being those of Boccaccio’s Decameron and Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline. Since the end of WWII Così fan tutte has regained its rightful place in the standard operatic repertoire.

Miller has set this production in modern day Washington, DC, although it could just as easily be any major Metropolitan city in the USA or Europe. If anything, this setting only clarifies this comedy/drama and makes the action all the more relevant to modern audiences. As I detest supertitles in general, it would have been perfectly fine by me to have done the production in English. The projected English translation by Jonathan Dean, courtesy of the Seattle Opera, was especially well done however, and elicited many laughs from the audience in its clarification of the comic moments. The first scene, which takes place in a Viennese coffee house, might have been an elegant reception room in a Washington embassy. Fiordiligi and Dorabella’s apartment could easily have been one of the new high ceilinged condominiums along the Southwest waterfront. The spaciousness and expanse of the settings still managed a feeling of intimacy, while giving grandeur to each scene that always said: OPERA! It was really quite marvelous. I particularly like the brightness of everything, as opera lighting can often be quite dark.

As most of the opera deals with couples…couples of friends…couples of lovers…and couples of schemers, I will discuss the singing in couples. The voices of Elizabeth Futral and Renata Pokupic were so well blended, they might have been actual sisters in real life. As their voices soared up and down the scales in the many melismatic passages and duets of the score, it was often difficult to distinguish where one voice left off and the other began. It is only tradition that uses a soprano as Fiordiligi and a mezzo as Dorabella. Mozart lists both voices as sopranos, but the tessitura of Fiordiligi’s vocal lines is decidedly the higher role. Both singers exhibited formidable technique and range, that was amplified by impressive breath control and beautifully clean intonation. Miss Futral, not surprisingly, brought down the house in her famously brilliant aria “Come scoglio”. She was fearless in her fiery coloratura, her declamations into chest voice, and her incisive attacks on the high notes. Mozart’s dazzling and treacherous vocal writing is calculated to produce a thrill in the audience when delivered with brilliance. Elizabeth Futral’s daunting panache delivered to maximum effect the intended thrill. Miss Pokupic achieved her finest moments in the quieter passages. She has a great feeling for pathos and heartbreak. She also has a most unusual and delicate way of coloring her voice for sorrow without darkening her voice to the extreme. It did however, tug at the heartstrings of the audience.

Joel Prieto and Teddy Tahu Rhodes, as our heroes Ferrando and Guglielmo, made a dashing young pair of gallants. Mr. Prieto was an immense joy to hear. He is a young singer, but if he continues the way he is now singing, he could easily be the finest Mozartean tenor since Luigi Alva and Nicolai Gedda. He rode the very high tessitura with absolute ease, and he has a fullness of timbre that is rarely found in a leggiero tenor. The aria “Un aura amorosa”, which can choke the finest tenor, he literally tossed off. The audience knew they were hearing something special as they awarded him one of the biggest ovations of the evening. Mr. Rhodes, last heard here as Count Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro, is also a commanding singer of Mozart, and a very fine stage actor. It might also be said that he really fills out a pair of tight blue jeans, and he caused quite a titer in the audience as he paraded around in his hippie wig, sunglasses, and bulging blue jeans.

This is indeed a well balanced and finely tuned ensemble. You will not likely see as fine a quartet of singers in these roles for some years to come. WNO has done a superb job of casting for this production of Così fan tutte. It is reassuring to know that although the seasons may be smaller, for the time being, in the amount of repertoire presented, there is nonetheless a major emphasis on the quality of the productions.

The icing on the cake of these performances is the conducting of Maestro Philippe Auguin. He achieves a precision and polish under his baton that goes way beyond the routine. It is true that he has an exceptional cast with which to work, but he has also molded them into a world class musical ensemble. There are several times during the performance where he tests his authority by pushing the allegro tempos to the maximum. The brilliance with which the orchestra and the singers accommodate him makes one want to stand and cheer immediately. The audience was well behaved however, and waited until the end of the opera, when in unison they all seemed to rise to their feet in loud, cheering acclamation. If you are a Washingtonian, or just happen to be in town, this is a production you do not want to miss. It will leave you aglow for some time.

Micaele Sparacino



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