Two young men boast about their fiancées. An older man goads them to put their lovers to the test.
Disguise yourselves, he says. Then each of you will try to seduce the other’s partner. You will soon be successful, he adds.
And why? Because women are incapable of fidelity. “They’re all like that.”
Incredibly, that pretty much summarizes the plot for Mozart’s “Così fan tutte,” one of the world’s most popular operas. First performed in Vienna in 1790, the opera’s ugly whiff of misogyny — the women do give in, eventually — galled generations of audiences. The piece looks especially bad in the #MeToo era.
“There are problems with the piece in the year 2019,” said Skylark Opera Theatre Artistic Director Robert Neu. “As written, it treats women like they’re idiots, like they’re property. Like men are the ones who completely control and rule everything.”
Recently appointed artistic director of Mill City Summer Opera, industry veteran Crystal Manich agreed with Neu’s assessment. “ ‘Così’ could be seen as a problematic opera” in the 21st century, Manich said recently by phone. “The girls are not stupid. They are deliberately duped by the men.”
And yet both directors are working toward new productions of the opera. Skylark opens its “Così” at St. Paul’s Historic Mounds Theatre this week. Manich will stage the work this summer in the ambient courtyard at Minneapolis’ Mill City Museum.
If “Così” harbors such nasty prejudices, why bother staging it at all? What about the opera justifies all that effort?
In short, there’s more to the opera than its cynical libretto, written by Lorenzo Da Ponte, a colorful Italian poet, priest and businessman who eventually emigrated to New York City. The opera contains some of Mozart’s most beautiful music, the directors agreed, ranking among his very best work. “I think it’s one of his greatest, greatest scores,” Neu said.
An opera originalist
To Manich, much more than “Così” needs fixing.
“I think the #MeToo movement has opened up a huge question mark over the entire operatic repertoire,” she said. It’s a repertoire where the suffering of women — think “Madam Butterfly,” “Lucia di Lammermoor,” “La Traviata” — is a recurring stereotype and abiding plot point.
But Manich refuses to indulge the fashion for tinkering with classics that no longer jibe with modern mores. “I am interested in presenting the text and the music that is given to me,” she said. “I’m not interested in changing that. I will only go as far interpretively as I feel the text will support my choices.”
Manich’s Mill City Summer Opera production will feature the exact Italian text written by Da Ponte (with supertitles in English). That still leaves ample elbowroom for re-examining the relationships among the opera’s six characters, she said, especially those involving the entangled pairs of lovers.
While Manich describes her approach as “female-forward,” she’s keen to avoid demonizing the opera’s male characters for behavior that comes off as boorish. “I don’t want to portray Guglielmo and Ferrando as pigs,” she said of the two male lovers. “It’s pretty clear to me, they realize in Act 2 that they took the joke too far. They almost come to blows about it. I love pulling that out when I stage ‘Così.’ ”
Nor is Manich unequivocally negative about Don Alfonso, the “old philosopher” who hatches the entire scheme to test the women’s fidelity. “Don Alfonso is not a villain,” Manich insisted. “The two guys are very young; they are very simplistic in their thoughts about relationships. Don Alfonso is older and more experienced. I think he’s interested in schooling them on how dangerous their attitude is. I don’t think he’s interested in testing the girls.”
‘I would even change the plot’
To a point, Neu shares Manich’s aversion to altering the nearly 230-year-old opera. “I’m a little weary of the view that everything that doesn’t coincide with current-day progressive values is illegitimate,” Neu said.
But he’s much more prepared to tweak “Così” for 21st-century audiences. “I think there are ways — not to fix the problems of ‘Così,’ but to look at the opera through a more contemporary lens.”
For starters, Neu views the opera’s male characters as unintelligent, a stark contrast to the female characters. “The women fight for their independence through a great deal of the piece,” Neu observed. “I want to accentuate that.”
As for Don Alfonso, Neu holds a very different view from Manich. “I’m making him the same age as Guglielmo and Ferrando. So that he’s not an old man teaching young men the ways of the world — an idea I dislike — but has more of a vested interest emotionally in what they’re doing.”
To emphasize the callowness of male behavior in “Così,” Neu also sets the opera in the present moment. His staging places all three men in college. They’re Wall Street-rich, too, with plenty of leisure time on their hands.
Perhaps more controversially, Neu’s production ditches the accompanied recitatives between the opera’s arias — these are bits of text that advance the plot, set to Mozart’s music. Neu wrote contemporary dialogue to replace these passages, generally sharpening the English translation his singers will use.
Neu doesn’t apologize for these modifications. “The first priority with any opera is to make the story accessible, interesting and moving to the audience,” he said. “You have to give yourself permission to make changes and make it relevant. I would even change the plot if necessary.”
Stressing the music
Manich and Neu were coy when asked about their plans for staging the opera’s ending. Will the women forgive the men their cruel deception? Will the women happily return to their original partners, as Da Ponte’s text suggests? Or do further twists and tweaks await Twin Cities opera fans?
There are certainly precedents for playing with the opera’s ending. Here in Minnesota, the legendary Theatre de la Jeune Lune staged a 2002 version where the women explicitly rejected the men at the opera’s conclusion. At a recent Paris Opera production, Belgian choreographer and director Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker pushed the envelope even further, pairing each of the opera’s characters with a dancer to accentuate the music’s complexity of emotion. “If Mozart suggests anything,” De Keersmaeker explained, “it is that the sentimental life of women is more serious and more profound than that of men.”
It’s an interpretation that prioritizes Mozart’s glorious music over Da Ponte’s pessimistic libretto. Perhaps it also explains the inherent worth so many opera lovers find in “Così fan tutte.”
Will Mozart come off as proto-feminist in these Minnesota productions? Will “Così” register as an operatic harbinger of the #MeToo movement? The idea seems far-fetched and wildly anachronistic.
Then again, listening to Mozart’s witty, sublime and profoundly empathetic music makes you wonder.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.