It may be fall outside the War Memorial Opera House, but indoors it’s languid summer weather at the Wolfbridge Country Club. That’s where Così fan tutte spins out its enduring gossamer web of love, jealousy, and self-deception in the second installment of San Francisco Opera’s multi-year trilogy of Mozart’s collaborations with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. The Marriage of Figaro debuted in 2019. Don Giovanni is due in the summer of 2022. All three are set, in different centuries, in the same American manor house.
By placing Così in the 1930s, director Michael Cavanagh finds the ideal moment to unfold the story. With World War I and the Great Depression behind them, two pairs of well-to-do idle lovers can toy with each other and their feelings to their hearts’ content. It’s all tennis times and garden parties, drinks by the pool and bespoke evening wear. But as Mozart’s playful and finally profound score reveals, hearts get bruised and hard lessons learned when serious matters are taken too lightly.
The set-up comes when Don Alfonso (the jauntily insinuating baritone Ferruccio Furlanetto) tempts a pair of vain and gullible dandies to test their partners’ faithfulness. Ferrando (the willowy, sweet-voiced tenor Ben Bliss) and Gugliemo (bluff, stocky baritone John Brancy) agree to go to off to a fictitious war and return in disguise to woo their respective partners, who happen to be sisters. Dorabella (spunky mezzo Irene Roberts) and Fiordiligi (soprano Nicole Cabell, her voice textured but porous at the bottom) turn from valentine musings about their fiancés to vulnerable wavering and hard-won maturity.
Over the opera’s two acts and three-and-a-half hours of running time, all four lovers move, however obtusely along the way, from shallow romance to adult realism. As Don Alfonso’s partner in deceit, the maid Despina (the ebullient and world-wise soprano Nicole Heaston) becomes a comic moral center, her own disguises (as a mad doctor and nattering notary) a spur for the lovers to open their eyes to the flawed, rounded nature of their partners and themselves.
Under conductor Henrik Nánási’s baton, the music patiently flows and capers by turns through Mozart’s bounty of arias, duets, and larger ensembles. The join between singing and acting is especially fine. To a one, the cast remains in lively consistent character, even when vaudevillian chaos and slapstick break out. Bliss and Brancy have to make it through one passage as they writhe and wriggle on their bellies through a mock poisoning. Roberts and Cabell are either in buzzing motion or wilting dismay, fully animated by their fluctuating feelings either way.
Woven through the amorous maneuvering and frantic hijinks are moments of meditative depth. The first act contains two of transporting beauty. Joined by Don Alfonso, the two women imagine their lovers sailing off to battle in a murmurous trio (“Soave sia il vento”). Shortly afterward, Bliss, his hands stilled inside his pockets, lives up to his name in a gorgeously pensive account of Ferrando’s aria “Un’aura amorosa.”
In its deluxe design, featuring Constance Hoffman’s casually sumptuous summer costumes and Erhard Rom’s projection-enhanced set of multiple locales and cinematic scene sweeps, the production is a visual as well as a musical delight. Cavanagh’s inventive staging is full of witty and wise choices. When the word “birdies” comes up in the supertitles, to choose one example, a set panel lifts to reveal the two morose women engaged in a listless game of badminton.
As the plot plays out through its ingenious and emotionally probing twists, Cavanagh adds a brief bit of stage business that may seem brash and discordant in the moment but lingers hauntingly as the opera reaches its upbeat but ambiguous end. Audiences should discover this moment, and many other finely wrought ones, for themselves. For all its broad comic strokes and buoyant music, this Così gets under its lissome surfaces to the flesh and beating heart of love.