NEW YORK CITY: Così Fan Tutte
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In Review > North America

Così Fan Tutte

The Metropolitan Opera

In Review Cosi Met lg 618
Christopher Maltman and Kelli O’Hara, Don Alfonso and Despina at the Met
© Beth Bergman

THE MET HAS LONG been alone among the world’s top opera houses in refusing to take Così Fan Tutte seriously. A new production by Phelim McDermott, first seen at English National Opera with a different cast and conductor, arrived at the Met on March 15. The most successful productions of Così, such as those directed by Michael Haneke, Patrice Chéreau and Claus Guth, have had some things in common: they set the action in a single location, they discarded the idea that the women don’t recognize their disguised fiancés, and they invented a preexisting relationship for Alfonso and Despina. The McDermott production is an outlier in that it respects the changes of scene in the libretto, it respects the idea of disguises, and the lovers unambiguously end up in their original pairings.

Così may be the deepest psychological study of human emotion in the opera repertoire, but McDermott’s production was determined to remain superficial at all times. The settings, by Tom Pye, are Coney Island-esque. (Da Ponte’s seaside was here the pier at the amusement park; the sisters’ lodging was a cheap motel where Despina was the maid; and so forth.) The idea was that a place of whirling teacup rides and funhouse mirrors might explain the characters’ behavior. But there was ultimately little reason to care. An early example of how the concept might have clicked was Fiordiligi’s “Come scoglio.” It was sung by Amanda Majeski with not a hint of parody or the-lady-doth-protest-too-much, while everything around her was a farce of slapstick entrances and exits. But nothing else was engaging on this level. (For her later aria “Per pietà,” Majeski took a ride in a hot-air balloon, then took it again and once more, with no relation to the music.) In any decent Così, we find the characters tiresome at first, then we fall a little in love with each of them. Here, we stalled at tiresome.

Vocal honors went to Christopher Maltman’s Alfonso, the long role elegantly sung from start to finish. Majeski surely deserves some award for bravery for her steady tone during her aerial ascents. Ben Bliss’s Ferrando was mostly interested in his two arias. (“Ah, lo veggio” was cut, along with the duet with Guglielmo.) Elsewhere Bliss made little of the chance for warm phrasing in something like the “Fra gli amplessi” duet. McDermott, conductor David Robertson and mezzo Serena Malfi all failed to find any reason to include Dorabella’s “E amore un ladroncello” in the performance, and Adam Plachetka was simply miscast as Guglielmo, a role that sits awkwardly for him vocally and physically. His contribution to the duet with Malfi was unsuitably effortful. 

Kelli O’Hara sang a performance of Despina that another dozen singers might have sung, which is a remarkable achievement for an above-the-title Broadway star, but she had the same lack of variety of timbre that most singers have in this role. Her stage savvy paid off in the Act I finale—her Doctor Magnetico was one of the sideshow attractions, and it was the only genuinely funny moment in a show that was meant to be nothing much more than funny—and her professionalism was on view when she and Robertson momentarily lost contact with each other at the start of her second aria.

Robertson has a distinguished history in Mozart, Britten and John Adams at the Met, but he couldn’t salvage this evening musically. He found a bit of magic for the long-delayed entrance of the woodwinds in “Un’ aura amorosa,” and he did a splendid job with the Act II finale. Very little else touched the heart, but then his fine work with the overture was effaced when the audience applauded each trick from the group of sideshow performers who entertained and moved the scenery. Likewise the usually excellent lighting designer Paule Constable lit the candy-colored sets with an understandable lack of affection. If nothing wrenched the gut in this gut-wrenching opera, nothing was meant to.  —William R. Braun 

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