Women are constitutionally incapable of being faithful to their male partners.
That is, ostensibly, the unsavory message of Mozart's "Così fan tutte," making the 1790 opera an especially prickly proposition in the 21st century.
Except that Skylark Opera Artistic Director Robert Neu doesn't view the piece that way. In his new staging at St. Paul's Historic Mounds Theatre, he makes the women strong and the men increasingly immature and thoughtless.
Neu's approach has plenty of advantages for making "Così" less of a museum piece in terms of gender equality.
The action is updated to the present. The English text is laced with contemporary references. Neu also ditched the accompanied passages that link arias, replacing them with spoken dialogue of his own writing. These decisions give considerable immediacy to the tale of two young men who lay a bet against their fiancées betraying them — even before taking part in a scheme devised to test the two sisters.
Lopping half a century off the age of the scheme's deviser, Don Alfonso, is another sharp alteration. An "old philosopher" in Mozart's original, Don Alfonso becomes the same age as young Ferrando and Guglielmo in Neu's adaptation. A glossy-suited SoHo art dealer, the character is determined to prove that women are terminally fickle. The toxic masculinity that seals the wager is initially played out over clinking beer bottles on a thrust extension to the main stage.
As Ferrando and Guglielmo, Laurent Kuehnl and Justin Spenner brought a boisterous comic energy to their onstage machinations.
Donning "disguises" in an attempt to seduce each other's partner, the pair were particularly convincing. Spenner went for a "Spinal Tap" wannabe, complete with air guitar, while Kuehnl romped around in a hokey cowboy outfit — how could their girlfriends not be fascinated?
While there is slapstick humor in "Così fan tutte," there is also pain and anguish, as the women are cruelly pressured to capitulate to their "new" suitors' advances. This was most obvious in the two great arias of heartsearching Mozart wrote for Fiordiligi, sung with deep emotion by soprano Tess Altiveros.
Meanwhile, mezzo-soprano KrisAnne Weiss convincingly made Dorabella the flightier, more hard-edged of the sisters. And she sang equally effectively.
As Don Alfonso, Luke Williams brought slick acting skills and a robust bass-baritone to his cynical scheming. Siena Forest's portrait of the housekeeper Despina was wonderfully sassy and mischievous. Nathan Cicero accompanied sensitively on piano.
The biggest surprises in Skylark's "Così" came at the end, when Alfonso's wager was finally revealed to the women. In Mozart's original, the women shrug it off and join the general merrymaking. In Neu's staging, Guglielmo is left alone on stage, stranded amid the emotional wreckage of a joke that backfired badly.
And so this particular "Così" was far from having a cozy ending. But its boldness and intelligence were invigorating. The production demonstrated how old classics can still speak with relevance in a later age, where morals have evolved and society looks irrevocably different.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.