Review: “Cosi fan Tutte” – Nicely Sung, Imaginatively Staged – San Francisco Opera, November 21, 2021

 

This is a review of the first performance of a new production of “Cosi fan Tutte” conceived by Director Michael Cavanagh for the San Francisco Opera. The opera “Cosi fan Tutte”, like the operas “Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni”, is a collaboration between Composer Wolfgang Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. Cavanagh conceptualized a trilogy of Mozart-da Ponte opera productions set in the same mansion in three different centuries.

First, in 2019, San Francisco Opera audiences were introduced to the mansion during the time of the American Revolution [Review: Strong Cast, Arresting New Production for “Marriage of Figaro” – San Francisco Opera, October 13, 2019]. The third opera, “Don Giovanni”, announced for June, 2022, will take place in the late 21st century, when the mansion has fallen onto hard times. The second production, “Cosi fan Tutte”, takes place at the mansion during the 1930s, when it has been converted into a country club.

The opera, whose title in English means “All Women are Like That” concerns the reactions of two young men (Ferrando and Guglielmo) to an older friend, Don Alfonso, who proposes a bet that the men’s fiances (Dorabella and Fiordiligi) would prove unfaithful to them if tempted. Ferrando and Guglielmo are so certain that about their sweethearts’ fidelity, they take the bet. The bet requires both of them to be pretend to be drafted, then to disguise themselves and court the other’s fiance. During the course of the opera, both men lose their bet.

Nicole Cabell’s Fiordiligi and Irene Roberts’ Dorabella

Performing the roles of the two sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella were respectively California soprano Nicole Cabell and California mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts, both in their role debuts. Costume designer Constance Hoffman’s youthful girl outfits emphasize the sisters’ high-spiritedness in Cavanagh’s production.

Their sisterly rapport was evident in their duets, first in their beautifully sung Ah guarda sorella about their devotion to their beaux. Later, after each sister fails to recognize that she is being courted by her sister’s disguised boyfriend, they sing the wickedly enchanting Prendero quel brunettino.

[Below: Fiordiligi (Nicole Cabell, left, joins in the fun with Dorabella (Irene Roberts, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Roberts was a sprightly Dorabella. She performed the first major aria Smanie inplacabili, an over-the-top expression of her despair at her lover Ferrando being drafted. Later, as the first sister to succumb to the charms of her disguised suitor (her sister’s boyfriend Guglielmo), she sings the sly and charming aria E amore ladroncello, un serpentello e amor.

A member of the Deutsche Oper Berlin ensemble, Roberts has sung three quite different roles previously at San Francisco Opera, Offenbach’s Giulietta [Review: Matthew Polenzani Triumphs in Pelly’s Take on “Tales of Hoffmann” – San Francisco Opera, June 5, 2013], Carmen [Review: Roberts, Jagde and Dehn in “Carmen” – May 29, 2016] and Bao Chai [World Premiere Review: “The Dream of the Red Chamber” Transforms into a Fascinating Opera – San Francisco Opera, September 10, 2016]. Her Dorabella continues her string of vividly performed characters.

[Below: Irene Roberts as Dorabella; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

As Dorabella’s sister Fiordiligi, Cabell was an engaging, even playful presence, unlike the staid neo-Victorian approach to the character that we sometimes see. Cabell dispatched both of FIordiligi’s powerhouse arias. The first, Come scoglio, is one of Mozart’s most demanding arias, ranging from A below middle C (A3) to high C (C6). Cabell was especially effective in the aria’s higher (and dramatically most powerful) range. Her performance of the second aria, Per pieta, was soulful and affecting.

[Below: Nicole Cabell as Fiordiligi; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The first Cabell performance I ever attended was at the Lyric Opera of Chicago [Review: Eyecatching, Mellifluous “Pearl Fishers” at Lyric Opera, Chicago – October 16, 2008] three years’ after Cabell, an alumna of the Chicago company’s Ryan Center for Young Artists, had won the BBC Cardiff Singers of the World Competition.

Cabell previously sang two other roles at the San Francisco Opera – Bellini’s Giulietta [Review: Joyce DiDonato, Nicole Cabell Sing Beautifully in Bellini’s Bel Canto “Capulets and Montagues” – San Francisco Opera, September 29, 2012] and Violetta [Review: Luisotti Leads Triumphant “Traviata” Starring Cabell and Pirgu – San Francisco Opera, June 11, 2014]

Ben Bliss’ Ferrando and John Brancy’s Guglielmo

Kansas tenor Ben Bliss and Pennsylvania baritone John Brancy performed the role of the two friends who are the sisters’ fiances, each of whom the bet requires must attempt, in disguise, to seduce the other’s fiance.

[Below:  John Brancy as Guglielmo (left) has entered into a rivalry with his friend Ferrando (Ben Bliss, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Bliss showed vocal elegance in performing the aria Un aura amorosa. He gained audience sympathy in his realization of the character of Ferrando, who learns of Guglielmo’s conquest of his fiance Dorabella, while he makes no headway in trying to soften Fiordiligi’s heart. 

Bliss is sought after as a stylish Mozartian lyric tenor. This was my third opportunity to hear his Ferrando, following performances of that role in Seattle [Review: Seattle Opera’s “Cosi fan Tutte”: A Crowd-Pleasing Alternate Cast – January 14, 2018] and Santa Fe [Review: “Cosi Fan Tutte” – World Class Singing, Deconstructed Staging – Santa Fe Opera, July 26, 2019].

In addition, I have admired Bliss’ Tamino [Review: Beautiful Singing from a Silent Screen “Magic Flute” – Los Angeles Opera, February 24, 2016], Don Ottavio [Review: Outstanding Cast for “Don Giovanni” in Kasper Holten’s Vibrantly Visual Production – Houston Grand Opera, April 27, 2019] and Belmonte [Review: Kathryn Lewek Leads Strong Cast for “Abduction from the Seraglio” – Lyric Opera of Kansas City, September 27, 2019].

[Below:  Ben Bliss as Ferrando; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Brancy displayed a technically solid, lyrically expressive baritone voice. He became the first artist in San Francisco Opera history to sing Guglielmo’s rarely performed aria Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo in a company performance. Brancy himself convinced the production’s director and conductor to include it as one of Guglielmo’s two solo arias, replacing a much shorter aria that some Guglielmos sing. Brancy performed the aria brilliantly, as he did also Guglilemo’s best-known aria, Donne mie la fate a tanti.

[Below:  John Brancy as Guglielmo; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Brancy’s previous appearance at the San Francisco Opera was as Billy Budd’s shipmate Donald [Review: An Indomitable “Billy Budd”, San Francisco Opera, September 7, 2019].

Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Don Alfonso

Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto’s distinctive bass voice brought authority to the role of Don Alfonso. He has a magnetic stage presence, even if he is only standing still. I am always aware of where he is standing, whether he is singing or not.

As Furlanetto moves into his 70s, such adjectives as “legendary” are applied to him as a sign of the immense respect given him by the artists with whom he interacts and the opera aficionados for whom he performs.

[Below:  Ferruccio Furlanetto as Don Alfonso; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

I have been fortunate to have heard Furlanetto in a wide variety of roles, beginning in 1979 with his San Francisco Opera performance as a 30-year old performing as Alvise in Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda” (with Renata Scotto and Luciano Pavarotti). Two years later he portrayed the elderly Don Diègue in Massenet’s “Le Cid”. Furlanetto was absent from San Francisco Opera for 31 years, but returned in 2012 for Verdi’s opera “Attila” [Review: “Attila” in Italy with a Phenomenal Ferruccio Furlanetto – San Francisco Opera, June 12, 2012].

Despite Furlanetto’s long absence from San Francisco Opera, I was able to see him perform several times at the San Diego Opera, beginning with the title role of Verdi’s first opera, “Oberto”, in 1985 and including the 21st century appearances as Boris Godunov [Review: Furlanetto’s, San Diego Opera’s, Compelling 1869 Version of “Boris Godunov” – January 30, 2007], Don Quichotte [Review: Furlanetto, Campbell Lead Compelling Revival of Massenet’s “Don Quixote” – San Diego Opera, February 14, 2009] and Thomas a Becket [Review: Ferruccio Furlanetto, Ian Campbell Team Up Memorably for Pizzetti’s “Murder in the Cathedral” – San Diego Opera, March 30, 2013].

Nicole Heaston’s Despina

To enhance the chances of his bet succeeding, Don Alfonso enlists the sisters’ maid, Despina (performed by Illinois soprano Nicole Heaston). No sooner have the sisters’ boyfriends been “drafted” than Heaston’s Despina (in her witty and enchantingly sung In nomine in soldati) seeks to undermine the sisters belief that men in the military will remain faithful to the women they leave behind. By the time Heaston completes Despina’s second act aria Una donna a quindici anni, the sisters are discussing which of the two suitors they prefer.

Below:  Nicole Heaston as Despina; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]    

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Despina is a strong contender for the most outrageous comic character created by Team Mozart/Da Ponte, with, among her other activities, her disguised appearances as a magnet-wielding health worker and a wedding contract notary. Heaston’s superb comic timing is enlisted for a truly funny (and beautifully sung) performance.  

[Below:  Despina (Nicole Heaston, right) has brought a medical device appearing to resemble golf clubs, a golf bag and magnets, being inspected by Don Alfonso (Ferruccio Furlanetto, left); edited image, based ones a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

This is the fourth time I have reviewed one of Heaston’s admirable performances. Besides her serious role as Countess Almaviva in the first of the Michael Cavanagh San Francisco Opera Mozart/Da Ponte Trilogy productions (see below), she sang the dramatic role of Mimi [Review: Back Home for “Bohème” – Houston Grand Opera, November 10, 2018] and the lyric comedy role of Adina [Review: Engaging “Elixir of Love” at Houston Grand Opera, October 29, 2016], both at Houston Grand Opera.

Maestro Henrik Nánási , Chorus Master Ian Robinson and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Following his highly successful San Francisco Opera debut conducting a riveting “Elektra” [Review: San Francisco Opera’s “Elektra” – Goerke, Pieczonka in a Gory, Gloriously Sung Night at the Museum – September 9, 2017], Hungarian conductor Maestro Henrik Nánási took on the assignments to conduct the first two of the three operas in director Michael Cavanagh’s trilogy of Mozart/Da Ponte operas. Nánási displayed a sensitivity to and mastery of Mozart’s classical style of integrating voice and orchestral accompaniment.

[Below: Maestro Henrik Nánási; edited image of a publicity photograph from henriknanasi.com.] 

The San Francisco Opera Orchestra responded to Maestro Nánási’s baton with the professionalism for which this opera orchestra is respected, resulting in a brilliant performance.

This was a special night for the San Francisco Opera Chorus – the opening performance of the Chorus’ final opera production whose choral preparations were overseen by Scottish Chorus Master Ian Robertson. Assuming the Chorus Master position 35 years previously, Robertson retires at the end of 2021.

Director Michael Cavanagh, Mozart, Da Ponte and the San Francisco Opera

Director Michael Cavanagh, in collaboration with scenic designer Erhard Rom and costume designer Constance Hoffmann, conceived three interrelated productions of Mozart’s three operas with libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte. All three take place in a Colonial American mansion at three different points in time.

[ Below: Director Michael Cavanagh; edited image, based on a publicity photograph, courtessy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The satirical theme of “Cosi fan Tutte”, that an entire gender is incapable of fidelity in love relationships, invites detractors. In fact, by the time Victoria had become Queen of England (1837), the opera had vanished from the standard operatic repertory, and only in the mid-20th century did it begin to get the respect a Mozart-da Ponte opera should command. It was only 65 years ago it was first performed at the San Francisco Opera [Historical Performances: “Cosi Fan Tutte” with Schwarzkopf, Rankin, Munsel, Lewis and Guarrera, San Francisco Opera in San Diego, October 25, 1956 ] and [Historical Performances: “Cosi fan Tutte” with Schwarzkopf, Vanni, Valletti, Prey, Wolovsky, Grist – San Francisco Opera, October 19, 1963.] Subsequently, the opera has taken root here. Since 1956 and prior to this season,”Cosi” has been performed in 13 of San Francisco Opera’s main seasons, in four productions, three of which were performed in more than one season.

In addition to their Mozart-da Ponte trilogy, Cavanagh and his frequent collaborator Washington scenic dresigner Erhard Rom have been responsible for three other mainstage productions for the San Francisco Opera. These included the San Francisco Opera premieres of Adams’ “Nixon in China” [Review: 25 Years Old, “Nixon in China” Arrives at San Francisco Opera, June 8, 2012 and A Second Look Review: “Nixon in China” at San Francisco Opera, June 17, 2012] and the main season premiere of Floyd’s “Susannah” [Review: Racette, Aceto, Jovanovich in Brilliant New Production of “Susannah” – San Francisco Opera, September 6, 2014 and A Second Look Review: Patricia Racette Medals in “Susannah” at the San Francisco Opera – September 21, 2014].

Before Cavanagh’s commssion for new productions of the trio of Mozart-DaPonte operas, Cavanagh and Rom created a new San Francisco Opera production for Donizetti’s “Lucia” [Review: Soprano Nadine Sierra’s, Director Michael Cavanagh’s Vivid “Lucia di Lammermoor” – San Francisco Opera, October 8, 2015].

Additionally, I reviewed a Cavanagh production elsewhere [See Review: San Diego Opera’s Rousing “Rigoletto” – Well-deserved Ovations for Stephen Powell, Alisa Jordheim, Scott Quinn – February 2, 2019].

Erhard Rom’s Sets and Constance Hoffman’s Costumes

The attractive scenic design is by Washington State designer Erhard Rom. The basic sets that constitute the building and grounds of the Colonial Mansion seen in the “Marriage of Figaro” have been converted into gym areas, exercise and fencing rooms, and places for social interaction.

[Below: Scenic designer Erhard Rom; edited image, based on a publicity photograph.]

The conceptual transformation of the “Marriage of Figaro” sets into the “CosI” sets worked splendidly.

[Below: a large room in a mansion converted into a country club; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

In addition to Rom’s San Francisco Opera projects with Cavanagh mentioned earlier, Rom was the scenic designer with other directors elsewhere. These include impressive sets for Kevin Puts’ opera “SIlent Night” [See Review: Glimmerglass Festival’s “Silent Night”, Profoundly Moving Content, Stylishly Performed, July 22, 2018.]

California designer Constance Hoffman created the production’s spectacular array of costumes, as she did for the predecessor “Marriage of Figaro”. Her evocative costumes added immeasurably to the success of Cavanagh’s concept.

[Below: Costume designer Constance Hoffman; resized image of a publicity photograph.]

Recommendation

I recommend this production for its strong cast, vibrant sets and costumes and lively comedy to both the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera.