WNO’s ‘Così fan tutte’ is a treat as tasty as a Viennese pastry

At Kennedy Center, Washington National Opera offers a delectable evening of lighter-than-air meringue fare.

With the world limping forth slowly from a pandemic and at the same time watching the horrors of a new war nightly delivering us fears and tragic images of innocent casualties daily, do we dare ask for cultural bonbons? Maybe better to ask, “Do we dare not?” Isn’t laughter and weakness for beauty exactly what we need to survive and remember who we are — even with all our vanities and foolishness in the face of calamities?

Washington National Opera has followed up its political and social examination of the city’s monuments — a quartet of short operas (Written in Stone, which opened last week) with Così fan tutte, a treat an eye-catching and tasty as the richest of Viennese pastries. And this Così is a delight.

Visually the production is stunning. Set Designer Erhard Rom gets double duty from the giant wood moveable “frames” and scrim from the other opera program in rep, employing them here to project curtains and wallpaper and an entire 18th-century estate garden for maximum speed changes. Projections Designer Katy S. Tucker avoids period stuffiness, using these surfaces to drop in droll animations — a Cupid, nude statuary, and at one point even a gallery wall of framed images of Mozart with googly cartoon eyes. Their playfulness sets the stage and whets our appetite for sugary confections.

Laura Wilde (soprano) with, at left, Andrey Zhilikhovsky (baritone) and, at right, Ferruccio Furlanetto (baritone) in ‘Così fan tutte.’ Photos by Scott Suchman.

Designer Lynly Saunders delivers. She’s costumed the two lead female roles, a pair of young sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, in palest of pistachio green and cherry blossom pink, all ruffles and lace, two pictures of virtuous pulchritude. Some scenes later, and having tasted the headiness of desire, they reappear in drenched gold-green (Fiordiligi) and shocking magenta-pink (Dorabella). One wants to lick the creampuff skirts of Act I and dive into the rich silk gorgeousness in Act II. The girls’ male counterparts look eager to do the same.

Saunders refreshes Ferrando and Guglielmo, the young ladies’ suitors, transforming from brightly colored silly nutcracker soldiers, be-ribboned, sashed, and all saber-rattling to hirsute Albanian gypsies, their locks flowing and their garments richly embroidered.

Never mind the fun Saunders had with the character of Despina pushing her out of maid garments into outlandishly imaginative getups, including a to-die-for silver-striped frock coat with raspberry leather gloves!

The plot is stuffed with quick-change disguises, deception, and dizzying dotings. Despina, the conniving and randy maid, gets pulled into abetting the plot initiated by one Don Alphonso, a jaded older gentleman, involving a bet that the girls would fall hard and quickly for any bad, loose boy. Women are like that, hence the title. But as you might imagine, especially to satisfy today’s appetites, the “girls” give as good as they get, and the young gentlemen show in sly moments just how unfaithful they can be when distracted by the odd petticoat that shows up.

Despite the silliness of Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto (the opera was not a success when it first opened), the music is some of Mozart’s most delicious. No one phrased vocal lines so effortlessly as Mozart. Nonetheless, no composer before Mozart created tougher octave plunges or trickier recitatives, as abound in this work. It was said that Fiordiligi’s second act aria, “Come scoglio,” for instance, was written in vengeance against Da Ponte’s mistress and soprano Adriana Ferrarese, whom Mozart detested.

Andrey Zhilikhovsky (baritone), Ana Maria Martinez (soprano), and Kang Wang (tenor) in ‘Così fan tutte.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

Ferruccio Furlanetto is the mainliner in this cast, and he is a master of recitative. His Don Alphonso not only gives a shining lesson in how to deliver recitative lines (the neither spoken nor fully sung) but his articulation of Mozart’s writing is impeccable and his clarity of gesture and intention incisive. He made it all look so easy, and his Alphonso was clearly having fun bringing the audience into his little game. The character can come across sometimes as mean-spirited and misanthropic, but Furlanetto is simply too charming and genuinely amused at pointing out the foolishness of all man- and womankind.

Soprano Laura Wilde appears in Act I positively sparkling vocally and physically, supremely confident in her virtue, defining beautifully her character of Fiordiligi with her precise and prim gestures. Mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb offers a vivacious and splendid sultry heat in her portrayal of Dorabella to Wilde’s cool, and we see from the start the character is less restrained, more curious, and game for amorous adventure. Their voices blended beautifully from the first sisterly duet, and each shines in her own aria such as Dorabella in her stricken “Smanie implacabili” and Fiordiligi’s faithful resolute “Smanie implacabili.”  If Wilde may have struggled a little with that aforementioned tricky Act II aria, well she might have on the kamikaze vocal plunges.

Young Baltimore Director Alison Moritz deserves much credit for the success of the production. She has clearly taken great pains to support these women’s performances by demanding moment-to-moment verisimilitude to keep the work from becoming superficial or silly. One could follow not just their individual motivations but their characters’ emotional maturing.

Lyric Tenor Kang Wang and Moldovan Baritone Andrey Zhilikhovsky make for a most comedic duo as the ardent lovers, and they sport an easy physical “bro” relationship. Their voices are warm and harmonious, especially in their duets. Sometimes Wang gets a little stuck in what I call “tenor blast,” stand-and-deliver performance, but when he trusts more nuance in shaping an aria, he is most affecting. Zhilikhovsky has a true clown in him and he’s not afraid to play both the fool and the ham. His voice is lovely and rich, like warm melted chocolate.

At left, Andrey Zhilikhovsky (baritone) and Kang Wang (tenor); at right, Ana Maria Martinez (soprano) and Ferruccio Furlanetto (bass) in ‘Così fan tutte.’ Photos by Scott Suchman.

Ana María Martinez returns to the Kennedy Center with new stretch in her range in the part of Despina. She demonstrated she can deliver broad physical comedy and drop into character voice for effect as Despina turns into two other characters. It was great to see her in a WNO opera again after more than a decade away and taking such chances and exploring new colors vocally.

Erina Yashima is making her WNO debut conducting this opera. The sound she gets out of the orchestra, strategically positioned upstage of the singers, was terrific. She led the ensemble with confidence and sprightliness, just right for Herr Mozart’s swift tempi changes and needed articulation.

If you’re in need of lighter-than-air meringue fare, this is a delectable evening of opera.

Running Time: 3 hours 15 minutes including one 20-minute intermission

Così fan tutte plays for only five more performances through March 26, 2022, in the Eisenhower Theater at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets ($69–$200), call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or toll-free at (800) 444-1324, or purchase online.

The Così fan tutte program is online here.

COVID Safety: Proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 and a valid photo ID are required to attend all indoor performances and events at the Kennedy Center. Patrons are asked to wear masks throughout the performance. Further information is online here.

Così fan tutte
Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte
Directed by Allison Moritz
Conducted by Erina Yashima
Set Designed by Erhard Rom
Costumes Designed by Lynly Saunders
Projections Designed by Katy S. Tucker
Lighting Designed by Mark McCullough

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Playwright, librettist, songwriter, director, theater reviewer, and actress Susan Galbraith has worked in London, Singapore, New York, Minneapolis, Prague, and Boston before settling in DC. Her resume includes working with international directors including Peter Brooks, Miřenka Čechová, and Peter Sellars; choreographer Takao Tomono; and rock-and-roll superstar Prince. After moving to Washington, she helped found Alliance for New Music-Theatre and in the past decade led the development of original works across the spectrum of music-theater including musicals and opera. For over a decade, she was also pleased to support the greater Washington theater community as a happy member of the reviewing team of DC Theater Scene under Lorraine Treanor. She holds a BA from Tufts University, graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and two graduate degrees, including a Fulbright fellowship. She now lives in Kalorama with three cats, a happy Samoyed, and a most understanding partner. You can read more of her theater writing here.

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