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CFA Offers Timeless Così fan tutte

Mozart’s comic opera at home in the age of Tinder

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Mozart’s playful, exquisitely melodic comic opera Così fan tutte has been delighting audiences since 1790, but it could be considered a work for our digitally promiscuous times. The opera’s lively pratfalls and surprise musical jokes are a nod to the sexual mischief wrought by Tinder and OKCupid, the often-shallow channels through which we reinvent ourselves. It’s a romp that eventually sobers up enough to carry poignant implications, and being opera buffa, it all works out in the end.

The College of Fine Arts School of Music, Opera Institute, and School of Theatre present the popular piece tonight through Sunday, February 28, at the Boston University Theatre, under the stage direction of opera veteran James Marvel. It will be sung in Italian with supertitles in English.

The hijinks and emotional roller coaster of the opera, translated loosely as “Women are like that” and subtitled The school for lovers, are the result of a wager by the conniving Don Alfonso. While discussing the matter of female fidelity with two young military friends, he says he can prove that even their girlfriends—who are also sisters—are not as unswervingly faithful as the young men assume. Don Alfonso convinces the pair, Ferrando and Guglielmo, to pretend that they have received orders to leave Naples, where the story is set, and to return in disguise, with each trying to seduce the other’s partner. It’s a dizzying, often hilarious setup, especially since the disguise—the soldiers’ cover as visiting Albanians makes them the original wild and crazy guys—results in their attempted courtship of the sisters being ridiculously resistible. That is, until the stakes change and the emotional fragility of both the men and their beloveds, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, is exposed.

Known for his avant-garde as well as traditional staging of operatic productions, Marvel made his Lincoln Center debut in 2008 for the Juilliard Opera Center with Trilogy, three one-act operas, and his Carnegie Hall debut, codirecting Katy Tucker’s video production of Carmina Burana, in 2011. Among his many national and international directing credits was a critically acclaimed production of Carmen in 2011 for Opera Africa in Johannesburg, South Africa.

For this staging of the Mozart opera, which CFA also presented in 2010, Marvel added more physicality to the singers’ roles and drew on the Carnival-like aspects of Così—a world where “nothing seems to be what it should be” and nothing is what it seems, says Marvel. Along with lead scenic designer Jeffrey Petersen (CFA’17), costume designer Megan Mills (CFA’17), lighting designer Paul Timmel (CFA’17), and their teams, Marvel sets a mood of distorted self-reflection, using funhouse-like mirrors.

Nevergall,  Hassinger, Camargo, Jennifer Jaroslavsky CFA ’17, Rodrick, and Nelson in Così fan Tutte, directed by James Marvel.

Nevergall (from left), Hassinger, Camargo, Jennifer Jaroslavsky (CFA’17), Rodrick, and Nelson in Così fan Tutte, directed by James Marvel.

“It’s my second time doing this role; the first time it was a lot less physically demanding,” says Benjamin Taylor (CFA’16), who has sung many leads in his years at the Opera Institute, referring to his part as the soldier Guglielmo. Helen Hassinger (CFA’16), who sings the role of Fiordiligi, one of the sisters, says her Fitbit registered three miles during one rehearsal. Like all CFA fully produced operas, this production will have two alternating casts. Singing the female leads in the cast with Taylor are Chelsea Seener (CFA’16) and Bridget Cappel (CFA’17). The soldiers in the alternate cast are John David Nevergall (CFA’16) and John Allen Nelson (CFA’16).

Taylor also points to Marvel’s refreshingly egalitarian approach to the behavior of both the men and the women, virtuous or not: “For me this production is cool, because it doesn’t put the sole blame on the women as the traditional production does,” he says. “There’s no one person to blame besides Don Alfonso.”

“The plot is set up like Tinder; in it women are disposable to men and men are disposable to women—that’s what is not period about it,” says one of the singers playing duped sister Dorabella, Alexandra Rodrick (CFA’16). The production is a “wonderful interpretation of the characters, because they become uncomfortably relatable,” says Hassinger. “You could see how they’d be tempted. You can do this as a stand-and-sing or a period piece and it’s beautiful, but you can also choose to push those themes a little further, highlighting the ironies, double standards, and discomfort of the situation.” And the chorus “heightens the ambiguity” of the proceedings, says Jesse Darden (CFA’16), one of the two Ferrandos.

Those who think they don’t like opera should note that in addition to Mozart’s music, which is uplifting and enchanting, this opera is very funny. “The thing that’s unique in this opera, and in Mozart operas in general, is that the first act is completely comedy-driven, with the exception of one aria,” says conductor William Lumpkin, a CFA associate professor of music and Opera Institute artistic director. “It’s The Carol Burnett Show. Then the second act takes a turn toward something with a lot more humanity. We see a side of anger and jealousy and an aria that’s the most sublime music of the night.”

As for the audience’s potential skepticism (think Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors or A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Clark Kent’s placebo eyeglasses) about flimsy disguises and characters appearing rather slow on the uptake, Marvel has spiced the production with what he calls “a little trippiness,” involving shots of an unnamed hallucinogen, a chorus that functions as “a bunch of anarchists,” and enough mischief—and changes in both costume and physical bearing—to make the women’s susceptibility believable and the men’s posturing hilarious, and ultimately quite touching.

Così fan tutte runs February 25, 26, and 27, at 7:30 p.m., and February 28, at 2 p.m., at the Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston. Tickets are $20 for the general public, $15 for BU alumni, WGBH members, Huntington Theatre Company subscribers, and senior citizens; $10 for CFA members; $5 for students with ID. Members of the BU community can get two free tickets with BU ID at the door on the day of performance. Purchase tickets here or call 617-933-8600. Take the MBTA Green Line to Copley Square or the Orange Line to Back Bay.

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