When I think of a fun night at the theater, I don’t typically think of the opera. Blame it on my generation, my relative poverty, my lack of sophistication. What can I say? I haven’t taken to opera the way I’ve taken to Sondheim.
That all may be changing thanks to a hugely entertaining production of Cosi fan tutte at Lyric Opera of Chicago (select performances now through March 16). A playful, silly story of mistaken identity and romantic fidelity (or lack thereof) set to music by Mozart, it debuted in Vienna in 1790. Thought to be a bit too provocative, it didn’t make it to American shores for over a century, premiering at The Met in 1922 and arriving in Chicago for the first time in 1959. Then set in 18th century Naples, in 2018—this version a co-production with Opera de Monte Carlo and San Francisco Opera, originally directed by Joh NCox—it’s been “modernized” to 1914 (the beginning of World War I) at an unnamed resort in Monte Carlo, that playground of the wealthy.
And rich, it is.
We join two soldiers, Ferrando (Andrew Stenson) and Guglielmo (Joshua Hopkins) after an evening at the roulette table, where Don Alfonso (Alessandro Corbelli) insists their fiancées aren’t ladies as faithful and fair as they believe them to be. A small bet is agreed to, and the deceit is afoot: they’ll pretend to be called to war, only to return in disguise to try to seduce each other’s bride-to-be. Surely, these reputable young women won’t be tempted by such overtures.
But then, we wouldn’t have much of a show, would we?
Of course, Fiordiligi (Ana Maria Martinez) and Dorabella (Marianne Crebassa) are at first bereft at the loss of their sweethearts, mooning and moaning at their own misfortune. But Don Alfonso has a point to prove—that women are fickle and not to be trusted—and he enlists the help of a boy-crazy lady’s maid, Despina (Elena Tsallagova, making her U.S. debut), to help him do so. The first half of the two-act show (with one intermission, it’s a hefty three-and-a-half hours) sees the ladies resisting the advances of the now-bearded soldiers, their resolve to stay true to their lovers quite commendable.
It’s in the second act where things really begin to go haywire, when Fiordiligi and Dorabella are convinced to give in to the soldiers’ advances, thanks to some comical nudges from Alfonso and Despina. In one sequence, the men pretend to take poison, so desolate are they after the women reject them. Here comes the doctor—or is it just Despina in a silly doctor’s disguise? (It is.) And the doctor has some contraption to shock them back to life. It’s all quite a show just to win a bet.
There are more than a few genuine laugh-out-loud moments in the course of the farce, and just the idea that opera, in all its soaring notes and lush productions, could also be approachable in this way, funny and smart and, well, entertaining…it’s all more than one as uninitiated as me ever dared hope. In a strong ensemble, where the plot allows for each of the main six characters to enjoy solo time on stage to shine, Tsallagova rises above the rest. Her trickster Despina is as charming as she is conniving; sure, she’s in it for a buck, but she’ll have a good time getting there.
While there’s no single number in Cosi fan tutte (are they called numbers in opera? Is my musical theater showing?) that you’ll recognize on its own, the music is nevertheless engaging, and the durability of a show that’s more than 200 years old is likely thanks in no small part to Mozart’s mastery. Moments of exposition and internal dialogue are simple, set at times to nothing more than a harpsichord; just as easily, the six leads combine their voices with a full orchestra and a chorus behind them to fill all of Lyric with the immense sounds one expects of the art form.
Theater options abound for the cultured Chicagoan, from storefront productions in your neighborhood to Broadway productions on their way through town. If you haven’t considered Lyric Opera as a top-notch option for a night out at the theater, it’s time to re-think your approach to live theater. Cosi fan tutte would be a perfect place to start.
Cosi fan tutte runs through March 16, with several performances per week. Visit Lyric Opera online here to learn more and find tickets.