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The first discrepancy you’ll notice in Jonathan Miller’s production of Così fan tutte, supposedly set in present-day D.C., is that nobody in D.C. dresses that well. Miller’s Washington is populated by strange, dapper creatures who wear waistcoats and match their socks to their ties, not GS-12 program officers in relaxed-fit khakis and lanyards. Flattering as it may be, the British director’s update of Mozart’s opera appears to be set instead in a present-day Banana Republic ad.
Così is Miller’s debut with the Washington National Opera and, true to the original, it’s funny in a kind of uncomfortably sadistic way. But aside from a couple jokes at the expense of our neighbors in Baltimore, this staging—-originally performed and set in London, and later Seattle—-feels neither uniquely local nor particularly modern. The latter discrepancy is clear halfway through Act 1 with the appearance of two hippie biker dudes, the likes of which haven’t been seen since Altamont 1969. Beatles and AC/DC lyrics and references to “jive” straight out of Airplane! only add to the anachronisms.
Not that the story doesn’t merit some revising. Così was always one of Mozart’s more morally suspect (though beautifully scored) operas, a comedy about two assholes who trick their fiancées into cheating on them as a test of their fidelity, and then—-ha ha!—-berate them to tears for failing it. Don Alfonso, a bitter cynic, warns the otherwise happily engaged Ferrando and Guglielmo that “a faithful woman is like a phoenix”—-a myth—-and enlists the two in a scheme to prove it. The men abandon sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, saying they are being sent off to war, but then reappear disguised in biker gear (in the original, they were “Albanians”). With the help of Alfonso and the sisters’ personal assistant Despina, the biker dudes woo the ditzy Dorabella and slightly more mature Fiordiligi, winning their hearts by repeatedly threatening suicide.
At Saturday’s opening, soprano Elizabeth Futral, as Fiordiligi, showed off her agility in a defiant “Come scoglio,” a roller-coaster aria that spans multiple octaves. A more modest standout was Ferrando’s ode to love, “Un’ aura amorosa,” one of the few expressions of sincerity tucked into three hours of deceit. Tenor Joel Prieto delivered it tenderly and without the sight gags and physical humor present throughout the rest of the opera. Baritone William Shimell, as Don Alfonso, was drowned out occasionally in trios and quartets, and by the uneven orchestra. Then again, he also spends most of the time standing in a corner and snickering. The stage design, a cavernous apartment mostly bare except for a giant mirror, makes the characters appear small and petty, accentuating their vanity.
Much like Taming of the Shrew, Così fan tutte presents a challenge to directors trying to balance its unenlightened mean-spiritedness with 21st century values. It was probably a different Shakespeare play, Much Ado About Nothing, that inspired librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, but to contemporary audiences the story sounds more like something dreamed up by Neil LaBute than the Bard of Avon. Miller’s solution to the rampant chauvinism is to make all of the characters equally repulsive. Whether misanthropy makes for better laffs than misogyny is up to the viewer; either way, for a spoof, it’s pretty bleak.
The opera plays through March 15 at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House, 2700 F St. NW. $25-$300. In Italian with English surtitles. Photo by Scott Suchman