This season the San Francisco Conservatory Opera Theatre selected Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 588 Così fan tutte for their full-length fully-staged production. The run of four performances opened last night in the Cowell Theater at Fort Mason Center; and the remaining performances will take place at 7:30 PM tonight (March 30) and tomorrow (March 31), concluding with a 2 PM matinee of Sunday, April 1. Musical direction was by Giuseppe Finzi, Resident Conductor of the San Francisco Opera; and the production was staged by Heather Mathews, Assistant Director of the Opera Program and the Director of the Musical Theatre Workshop at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
The subtitle for Così fan tutte (which may be translated as “thus to they all”) is La sculola degli amanti (the school for lovers). The lovers in question are two sisters, each engaged to a soldier, the two of whom are comrades-in-arms. The soldiers boast of the fidelity of their fiancées to their world-weary friend Don Alfonso, who is well acquainted with the frailties of human nature. In an effort to get his friends’ heads out of the clouds, he proposes a test of the women’s fidelity, reinforced with a wager. The plan is to disguise the men, woo the sisters in their altered personas. and see if their sweethearts will succumb to the next men to walk into their presence.
Between the subtleties of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto and Mozart’s music, which never fails to tap into the depths of the human heart, the plot unfolds in far from trivial or superficial ways. There are any number of twists in the planning-execution-disclosure sequence through which one continually revised one’s opinions of the characters. Da Ponte then confounded all involved by omitting any explicit resolution to the staged mix-up, leaving each director free to choose who ends up with whom at the final curtain. All we get from the final chorus is praise for the triumph of reason over unbridled emotion, without any suggestion of where reason will guide the characters. (One New York director tried delegating the choice to the audience, having everyone use their cell phones to text in their votes for alternative endings.)
Mathews approach was to focus on the “schooling” itself, but spicing it with generous helpings of low humor. She wastes no time establishing the two sisters are superficial airheads in a household in which only their maid is blessed with sensibility (not to mention awareness that assisting Alfonso in his plot can lead to supplemental income). Much of Mathews’ humor involves a clever approach to upstaging. When the execution of the plot first begins to unfold, Mozart gives each sister an elaborate “protestation aria.” These often serve to develop each sister’s character. Mathews, on the other hand, allowed the “singing sister” to focus on Mozart, leaving it to the sibling to react to the onset of distress through a variety of comic turns verging on slapstick. The result is less a matter of divas competing for attention and more one of letting Mozart be Mozart while letting the natures of both characters expose themselves. With this unabashed clowning as a point of departure, the viewer comes to recognize that the object of all of that “schooling” (in other words, the progress of the opera itself) is to enable these cardboard stereotypes to take their first baby steps towards becoming flesh-and-blood human beings.
Mathews’ generosity toward Mozart was well-supported by Finzi’s work in the pit. From his opening gestures, we all knew we were in for a brisk and energetic account of this opera’s score. Indeed, the overture, taken as a whole, effectively established the madcap pace of the staged antics about to ensue. Mathews, in turn, reinforced the overture by bringing attention to a banner with the words “così fan tutte” given a spotlight when the orchestra played the theme to which these words would be sung towards the end of the second act. The interplay between instruments and vocal soloists was always well balanced, and the modest chorus added to the polish of the overall sonorities.
It is also worth noting that the rather modest scale of the Cowell Theater also contributed to this performance. The progress that takes place through the “schooling” of the libretto involves subtle and gradual changes of character. Such subtly can rarely be executed, let alone perceived, in the vast space of a “grand opera” house. One needs the intimacy of a smaller space to fully appreciate all the structural details through which the intricacies of Da Ponte’s plotting and Mozart’s musical expression reveal themselves. The Conservatory Opera Theatre did not skimp on any of those details, and the physical setting allowed the audience to take them in to the fullest measure.