It’s rarely quiet on the home front in Palm Beach Opera’s charming “Così fan tutte”

By David Fleshler

Palm Beach Opera is presenting “Così fan tutte” through Sunday at the Kravis Center. Photo: Bruce Bennett

Palm Beach Opera’s fine production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte updates the action from late 18th Century Naples to the idyllic summer of 1914 — the eve of World War I.

The opera, which opened Friday at the Kravis Center, begins in the sleek casino of a Mediterranean hotel, with men and women in evening clothes gathered around a roulette table. It’s an update that works, thanks to the elegance of the sets and costumes, not to mention the opera’s ageless themes of seduction, infidelity and the fun of playing cruel pranks on loved ones. 

But the success of the production on opening night really rested on the quality of the musical performances. With six vibrant singers and a fine orchestral performance under chief conductor David Stern, the production brought Mozart’s music to vivid life.

Sung in Italian with English supertitles, Così fan tutte folllows two young soldiers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, who are dating sisters, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, respectively, and decide to test their girlfriends’ fidelity on a bet with an older friend, the “philosopher” and cynic Don Alfonso. And so they dress up as “Albanians” in white sailor suits, white fezzes and extravagant black beards, and set to work seducing each other’s sweethearts.

Unlike Carmen and La Traviata, among others, this opera is an ensemble work, not a star vehicle. Some of its greatest moments are in the duets, the trios and the incomparable finales. In the latter, all the main characters sing at once, their lines cascading over each other in a manner that defeated PBO’s attempts on Friday night to translate them through the above-stage supertitle system, which at that point went mercifully blank.

Among the highlights in this performance were the trio  “Soave sia il vento,” sung by the sisters and Don Alfonso as they wish the two soldiers a safe return from the army; the boisterous scene in which the sisters meet the fake Albanians; and the scene in which the apparently love-struck Eastern European sailors poison themselves in despair, with luminous mock-sinister tones provided by the orchestra.

As Fiordiligi, the soprano Hailey Clark gave an affecting, passionate performance. The character’s famous aria of unshakeable devotion, “Come scoglio,” came off with red-hot fury, skillful coloratura and a gleaming tone. In her duet with Ferrando, she brought real anguish to the moments when she finally surrenders to him, making this weird half-fake love scene into an episode of real romantic warmth.

As Fiordiligi’s more adventurous sister Dorabella, the mezzo soprano Samantha Hankey brought a lively, rich voice to the role. Particularly affecting was her duet with Guglielmo, in which she allowed him to replace her locket with one of his own—a scene that captured her character’s growing enchantment with her new suitor.

The baritone Dennis Jesse made a sinister Don Alfonso. Bald, with a gray goatee, black suit and walking stick, he was the portrait of cynical worldliness. The soprano Madison Leonard gave a winning performance as the sisters’ maid, Despina, with a full-bodied but agile voice and an ability with physical comedy that showed in her impersonations of a fake notary and a doctor who speaks bogus Latin.

 As Ferrando, the tenor Duke Kim brought a warm, smooth voice to the role. His “Un’aura amorosa” was full of youthful ardor, with shining tones in phrases that arched into the upper register. As Guglielmo, the baritone Thomas Glass performed with subtle humor and vocal gleam. In his aria on the cruelty of women to men, he articulated his words with the precision of a Gilbert & Sullivan player and a polished legato.

The orchestra supported the singers without overpowering them—if anything, there were times when the music seemed to demand more volume and presence from the orchestra, as in some of the more complex and important accompanying passages, and in the jubilant, brassy music of the finales.

Stage director Fenlon Lamb embraced the work’s comedy and drama with some effective touches and some misses. At the beginning of the overture, the gamblers in the casino stood frozen as Don Alfonso darted around them like a sinister puppetmaster about to set them all into motion, a chillingly effective way of showing the manipulative Don about to get to work disrupting innocent lives.

At other times the stage action got just too busy and noisy. Also during the overture, Mozart’s music had to compete with the clatter of chips and the squeals of roulette table winners. And there were too many attempts at broad slapstick that distracted from the music rather than enhancing it. During Fiordiligi’s “Come scoglio,” Guglielmo in his Albanian sailor garb repeatedly minced around, lifting his trouser leg to show off his calf to her. Again and Again.

A joint production of Opéra de Monte-Carlo and San Francisco Opera, the sets create a Mediterranean resort with pleasure boats, striped beach umbrellas and modernist interiors. In place of ornate 1790s military uniforms and party dresses, we get soldiers in khaki, Red Cross nurses and women’s hairstyles that looked like they came from Downton Abbey.

The chic surroundings didn’t quite go with the harpsichord continuo and the antique dialogue (“Please don’t try to tempt a faithful heart.”). But the update, with the looming threat of war, was still an effective way to interpret an opera in which the characters end up wiser, if less romantic, in need of forgiveness and more willing to forgive.

Così fan tutte will be performed again 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “It’s rarely quiet on the home front in Palm Beach Opera’s charming “Così fan tutte””

  1. Posted Feb 27, 2023 at 8:27 pm by Mot Nat

    I attended yesterday’s performance and found it highly enjoyable. I agree with the observation about the orchestra and that the action in the opening scene during the overture was distracting. I disagree that the harpsichord continuo conflicted with the set/costumes/lighting — I found the seeming juxtaposition entertaining. And the libretto translation was fine. Agree that the performances by the 6 principals were all very good.

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Sat Feb 25, 2023
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