Arts & Events

Merola Opera Stages COSÌ FAN TUTTE in a Hospital Ward

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday August 05, 2016 - 01:45:00 PM

When the audience took their seats in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall for the first of two performances of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte on Thursday, August 4, they were greeted by a bare stage with only a long table and a few chairs. It seemed a very austere, basically modern setting for this 18th century opera by Mozart. During the overture, conducted robustly by Mark Morash, the five principals – Don Alfonso, Ferrando, Guglielmo, Fiordiligi, and Dorabella, walked onstage through a rear door and sat down to have a drink. The men were all in military uniforms, with Don Alfonso as the superior officer. The two women wore identical white pin-striped dresses. As the overture concluded, Don Alfonso pulled a long beige curtain to close off the whole stage, while a scene change was effected behind the curtain. Meanwhile Ferrando and Guglielmo joined Don Alfonso in front of the drawn curtain, and Alfonso challenged the two men about the faithfulness of their fiancées. A wager was made: if the two men agreed to do whatever Don Alfonso asked them to do, he would prove that their fiancées were not the paragons of fidelity the men imagined them to be.  

The bet was on. Now Don Alfonso pulled back the curtain, revealing a ward in a hospital, where Fiordiligi and Dorabella work as volunteer nurses. A super-numerary played the part of a wounded man lying in a hospital bed, tended by a registered nurse. Fiordiligi and Dorabella sang of their love for their fiancés and looked forward to their future marriages. Suddenly, Don Alfonso entered with bad news. Their fiancés were sent off to war. They were to leave immediately. While the wounded man was wheeled off in a wheelchair, the fiancés entered and bade their girlfriends a sad farewell. To a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart here offers very conventional music to express very conventional emotions. The women are devastated, and the men feign anguish at having to leave their women behind as they go off to war. Actually, of course, they’re going off to war of a different sort – the battle of the sexes. When the men finally departed, the women sang a lovely duet wishing them a safe voyage on calm seas.  

Then, just before the men were about to re-enter in disguise as Albanians, an alarm went off in the concert hall, lights flashed and a siren was heard. I thought for a moment this was a signal for an ambulance to deliver two wounded Albanians to the Emergency Room. But, no. A voice on the intercom announced that a fire had been detected somewhere in the building and we were asked to leave the building in a quick but orderly fashion. So we did. Audience members, musicians from the orchestra, singers in costume, and various backstage crew-members all gathered in the street in front of the building. Soon fire engines appeared. No fire or even smoke was visible, and we all wondered whether the show would eventually go on. Well, after 20 minutes or so, the show did go on, as the fire alarm seemed to have been due to a system malfunction. There was no fire. 

Somehow, serendipitously, the fire alarm and evacuation seemed to tie in somehow with Ted Huffman’s staging of Così Fan Tutte in a hospital ward. When Ferrando and Guglielmo re-entered disguised as Albanians wounded in the war, walking on crutches with one foot in a cast, bandages wrapped around their heads, and a patch over one eye, it all seemed to fit together realistically. Indeed, with their fake beards and mustaches as part of their disguises, the men looked less ridiculous and more real than in any previous Così Fan Tutte I have ever seen. Moreover, the singing in this production was excellent. As Fiordiligi, soprano Yelena Dyachek sang with a rich, edgy tone that conveyed her character’s emotional mood-swings. As Dorabella, mezzo-soprano Alexandra Schenck also had a slight edge to her lustrous voice, thus giving each of the sisters a high-strung quality that Mozart evidently wanted for these roles. Where the men are concerned, tenor Amitai Pati was an ardent Ferrando, singing with a clear, ringing voice; and bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum was an outstanding, full-voiced Guglielmo. In the role of Don Alfonso, bass-baritone Josh Quinn offered a robust vocal interpretation of this cynical character. Finally, as the maid Despina, soprano Adelaide Boedecker contributed a spirited, purposely shrill account of this woman’s somewhat sardonic take on life and love, the battle of the sexes, and issues of class. Somehow, everything came together in director Ted Huffman’s visionary staging of Così fan Tutte, an opera that many find full of unresolved problems. 

Some of the vocal highlights included Yelena Dyachek’s passionate aria, “Come scoglio,” (“Like a rock”), Amitai Pati’s aria, “Un aura amorosa” (“a sigh of love”), and Alexandra Schenck’s aria, “Amore è un ladroncello” (“Love is a little thief”). Another highlight was Mozart’s sextet involving all six principals to close Act I, with Despina in disguise as a doctor who employs Mesmer’s infamous magnets to ‘cure’ the Albanians of the poison they have ostensibly taken when rebuffed at first by the two women. Later, of course, in Act II the Albanians have more success in winning over the affections of their buddies’ betrotheds. Here, as in most productions of Così Fan Tutte, Ferrando’s impassioned courting of the heretofore steadfast Fiordiligi offers one moment, at least, where real passions rather than conventional poses of love seem to be expressed. Though it is by no means clear whether Ferrando truly loves Fiordiligi or simply wants revenge against Guglielmo who has already won over Ferrando’s Dorabella and bragged about it. There are deep, dark mysteries at stake in Così Fan Tutte, and no one has quite found an answer to them. However, in this imaginative staging by Tedd Huffman, with excellent singers and a fine orchestral interpretation led by conductor Mark Morash, Merola Opera has created a production that holds together remarkably well and is enjoyable throughout. Così fan Tutte repeats Saturday, August 6 at 2:00 pm at San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Hopefully, there will be no repeat of the fire alarm.