San Francisco Opera 2021-22 Review: Così Fan Tutte

Nicole Cabell, Irene Roberts, Ben Bliss & Company Shine in Dazzling New Production

By Lois Silverstein

On Nov. 21, 2021, the San Francisco Opera unveiled Michael Cavanagh’s new production of “Così fan tutte’  that rocked with energy, gaiety, verve, and abundance.

The production worked on all fronts. The stage design, created by Erhard Rom, featured the so-called Wolfbridge Country Club, in the 1930s, complete with Fitness Center, Ballroom,  Badminton Court, and Swimming Pool, unfolded lively and myriad comic scenes. So long as we didn’t take the plot as anything other than comic lynchpin, we sat back and enjoyed the smooth as silk scene shifts, and moods.

Costumes by Constance Hoffman enhanced the pleasure with aesthetic appeal, color, design, complementarity, doubling, and even hats created in San Francisco’s own hat shop, and fabrics of a wide variety of sizes that were exceptional, and boosted the layers of humor. To see not only “matches” in singing characters and identical vocal lines, heightened the satiric features of the production and highlighted the fun.

Each movement, from the gold treadmills in the Fitness Center to the swimming pool and the Badminton game, the ensemble ran riot and without chaos. All was “as it should be” and the character types ruled the day. For Mozart the aim was to satirize types rather than create character. So, guests came in a flurry of 1930s bathing suits, fencing outfits and evening dress. Throughout we savored a wide sample of 18th century values in parody.

Thus, when we were asked the questions was this how women were, and inferred that men were too, we took it all “cum grano salis,” and laughed at them as at ourselves, all the genuine stuff of humor. It was as good a musical comedy as we get on an opera stage, with shades of San Francisco production of “Hair,” back in 1970 at the Geary Theater: even though we strive to be an individual, we wind up just like everybody else.

Music to Fit the Maestro

The music was by Mozart was performed magnificently. Hungarian conductor Henri Nánási brought an energetic and brisk style to the brilliant score. Trios, quartets and quintets, duets, choral ensemble – it was a musical festival. Critics in the past have viewed “Così Fan Tutte” as a problematic opera except for the score. It was clear that Nánási provided an apt platform  from which the singers could show their wares. And what wares they offered.

Soprano Nicole Cabell, making her role debut, sang a rich, lustrous and glamorous Fiordiligi. In fact, through the arias she and her sister Dorabella, sung by exceptional mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts, we heard two individuals rather than the deliberate stereotypes we had been witnessing up to this point.

Cabell’s “Soave il Vento” was strong and amply adorned. Not only did she show a gallant upper register, illustrating her emotional shifting nature, but she displayed the extravagant shifts from upper to lower with complete mastery. Some of her lowest notes suffered a bit from indistinct clarity, but her top notes rang out with power and high color. She was never afraid to move her voice or her body or her face into line with the text and its extravagant statements and this made for beauty, comedy and delight.

Irene Roberts, also making her role debut, matched Cabell in skill and communicative power. Physically flexible on stage and pouty, flirty, coy, she contrasted exceptionally well with Cabell’s more statuesque persona.

Her voice was abundant, the tonal leaps from high to low, low to high, amply displayed her command of the music, as well as conveying emotional oscillation. Listen to “Smanie Implabile.” Along with Cabell, she more than communicated her own individuality. With her, she doubled the vivacity, and wit, and together they kept their timing fastidious. At once the two communicated differences while they illustrated “a portrait of female nature,” including us in the view. From Badminton antics to show their “mood,” to costume changes right on stage, they were poised and adaptive, humorous, and musically on tempo, never missing a beat.

Solid Doubles

Their male counterparts were overall equally paired. Tenor Ben Bliss, singing Ferrando, and baritone John Brancy, singing Guglielmo, were an apt opposite. Both their acting and their voices played off each other as well as their fiancées’ with smarts. Quick, witty, flexible, and adaptable, their romantic and smartee pants quipping kept the plot line moving and surprising at every turn. When Ferrando fell down, Guglielmo jumped on a bench; when one hid under a towel in apparent despair, the other cocked his head and pranced around pleased as punch.

Bliss’ voice had a quasi Irish tenor sound, round and contained. From inside a shell-like purity, the vocal line pearly and appealing. His “Un Aura amorosa”was memorable in its lustrous round sound and its ardent appeal. Here again, Mozart’s gifts for gleaming melody rose to the fore and made the opera more than its teasing plot line. We were alone with the soloist, and he was singing his heart out.

Brancy’s Guglielmo conveyed a lovely baritonal sound although at first he struggled to project. Until midway in the first Act, some of his music stayed “up to the footlights” as it were, rather than out and rather than resonate across the audience, he sounded distant. But as the opera unfolded, he came forth dramatically, mobile, fluid, funny, flexible, his character somewhat of the underdog, taking his equal place with his pal.

Despina, played by Nicole Heaston, was a gem. She played her myriad of disguises along with her main character role, with “élan.” From doctor to notary, from golf-cart specialist, in argyle and golf-hat and then to black robe as notary, she was a live wire on stage. Sometimes it hardly seemed like she was singing, the whole parade of emotion and quip moving so sinuously and smoothly. Her voice moved with fluidity and lustrousness and flexible. Her presence was a flashpoint throughout, from her resting on her chaise lounge reading a Romance to her scolding her female charges and instructing them in the ways of love and seduction. She was an apt mentor.

Don Alfonso, sung by Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto, was a worthy plot lynch pin as quasi-speculative philosopher. He set the tone for questioning the quality of women’s fidelity and played his role with aplomb. In his spats, he kindled then kept the plot in motion, his song keeping action flowing at all times. Did we like him for it? Hardly. Even when he lit the fire in Despina, he was a comic foil if not a charmer. As a performer he set the stage, sang his role with aplomb, and did the job.

A perfect symbol of 18th century wit and ribaldry, festooned with frivolity and fun, San Francisco Opera’s “Così Fan Tutte” ranks with the best of them – lively, entertaining as the best of musical comedy, vocally splendid, orchestrally festive and fruitful. The final touch, outside the War Memorial opera house, and independent of it,  were two little musicians, seven and nine years’ old, playing Bach and Mozart, one on her little cello, the other on her full-sized violin. The audience, in high spirits from indoors, were serenaded down the steps and into their ordinary lives with music, art, and hopefulness.

What couldn’t Mozart inspire?



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