SF Opera’s ‘Così fan tutte’ challenges female stereotypes

Michael Cavanagh’s new production interprets libretto through modern lens

Although the translation of Mozart’s opera “Così fan tutte” as either “so do they all” or “women are like that” suggests a misogynistic stereotype of the fairer sex, the women in Michael Cavanagh’s new production of the work that premieres at San Francisco Opera on Sunday are far from the fickle, passive fools the Lorenzo Da Ponte libretto would have us believe they are.

In the opera’s traditional storyline, the young Neapolitan officers Ferrando (tenor Ben Bliss) and Guglielmo (baritone John Brancy), confidant of the devotion of their respective fiancées, the sisters Dorabella (mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts) and Fiordiligi (soprano Nicole Cabell), accept a bet from their older bachelor friend Don Alfonso (bass Ferruccio Furlanetto) to disguise themselves as Albanians. They attempt to seduce each other’s unsuspecting fiancée with the connivance of the maid Despina (soprano Nicole Heaston), and then expose what Alfonso expects will be their infidelity.

But Cavanagh adds a twist to the story that, with the help of Despina, lets the sisters become aware of the ruse.

“I think the women are much smarter and more aware than they are given credit for, and for a deeper reading of the piece, I think we have to drift away from Da Ponte’s text,” Cavanagh said. “For a reading through a modern lens and eye, we can treat this piece with the women, if not willing participants at the outset, by the end gaining an understanding of what’s happening to them and flipping the script and turning the tables on the menfolk.”

Cavanagh, who considers himself an opera purist, accomplishes his pivotal finessing of the opera through the cast members’ telling expressions and gestures without changing a word of Da Ponte’s libretto, even as he moves the time and place of the opus to 1930s America. He isn’t really concerned that some opera aficionados might still be put off by any deviation from the traditional comedic plot, and instead welcomes the conversation it will spark about the opera — and about ourselves.

“That is one of our first responsibilities, to have a point of view on the material,” Cavanagh said. “Sometimes when you make people laugh you can also disarm them a little, and what I hope is that people will ponder what they are laughing at and think about these characters and human nature in a new way.”

Nicole Cabell as Fiordiligi, Irene Roberts as Dorabella, Ferruccio Furlanetto as Don Alfonso, Nicole Heaston as Despina in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte at the San Francisco Opera. (Photo Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera)

Nicole Cabell as Fiordiligi, Irene Roberts as Dorabella, Ferruccio Furlanetto as Don Alfonso, Nicole Heaston as Despina in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte at the San Francisco Opera. (Photo Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera)

Although many people will see Mozart and Da Ponte’s depiction of women as typical of the era they lived in, Cavanagh draws a distinction between the librettist, whose life and career — Da Ponte also collaborated with Mozart on “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni” —he believes cast him as inherently misogynistic, and the composer, whom Cavanagh credits for interpreting the misogynistic moments with “real insight and complexity” and for what he calls the “proto-feminism” evident within operas other than the Da Ponte-written trio of works.

Whereas in the two other Mozart/Da Ponte operas that are Parts 1 and 3 of the Cavanagh-produced trilogy at San Francisco Opera the misogynists get their comeuppance in the end, there is no such just ending for their counterparts in “Così fan tutte” (Part 2 of the trilogy), which isn’t a desirable conclusion for Cavanagh and prompted the revised tone he wanted to set fo this production.

“Contemporary audiences of Mozart and Da Ponte would not have seen anything unusual and would have had a good guffaw about the humiliation of these women, and that for me as a director and a citizen of the modern world is not acceptable,” Cavanagh said. “This is why ‘Così’ has an extra level of challenge when you present it, and I don’t think it’s a surprise that is why for many people ‘Così’ seems to be the least satisfying of the three operas because there isn’t a satisfactory set of consequences for these unacceptable actions.”

Henrik Nánási, who will conduct the orchestra for the opera, echoes Cavanagh’s positive opinion of Mozart’s take on women, especially through the arc of the composer’s extraordinary career. And he cites specific pro-woman examples, including from “Così fan tutte.”

“Mozart lifts women into higher spheres and gives them the most valuable human qualities of greatness and strength, properties that men often fail to show,” Nánási said. “Since Susanna from ‘Figaro,’ he has continued to develop the musical characteristics of the modern woman. He gives his female characters the most moving arias. Fiordiligi‘s aria in Act 2, which is the exemplar for the Leonore aria in ‘Fidelio,’ is one of the highlights of the opera, unbelievably rich in musicality and human emotion. At this point in the opera, at the latest, it is decided to which gender our sympathies are directed.”

Cavanagh’s artistic decision to empower and give agency to the women in “Così fan tutte,” not only has made them more complex, expressive characters but also impacted the opinions the female singers have of their respective roles.

“My opinion of Fiordiligi could change based on different directions a production might take, but in this version, I believe she is a responsible, stubborn young woman who has never been challenged to feel deeply in the ways of love,” Cabell said. “She’s infatuated with the idea of a fiancé and marriage but also committed to serving a social role by taking on a specific kind of suitor and life. She doesn’t really know what it is to feel for a lover until this ‘stranger’ comes along, and this is very confusing to her. Ultimately she chooses real feelings over responsibility, which some might consider brave, rather than weak.”

Roberts, whose character is the first of the two sisters to surrender to the charms of her “Albanian” suitor, has a similarly nuanced view of Dorabella.

“Dorabella gets a glimpse of what her life could be like if she gave herself the permission to live and be free in the present moment as opposed to living within the constraints of her privileged life,” Roberts said. “With the support and encouragement of Despina, she allows herself to live freely. Now there is the topic of betrayal … this breaks my heart, but I also see how a young girl who has never had her curiosity validated by a trusted friend would take this opportunity to stray and explore her suppressed desires.”

As for Heaston, whose character Despina is older and more experienced than the sisters and therefore inclined to taking them under her wings, the fact that she is a maid working at a country club in the waning days of the Great Depression accentuates the socio-economic dimension in Cavanagh’s production.

“Fiordiligi and Dorabella are young girls who are very privileged, very sheltered and a little flighty, but Despina, who’s a servant, doesn’t have the luxury or privilege to be flighty or to be able to fall back on a man to help her; she’s on her own,” Heaston said. “Therefore, she has a bit of wisdom that is a little more toward the male perspective because she is on her own and doesn’t have anyone to rely on. I see Despina as someone who looks at the girls and tries to school them a little bit in the way of actually being a woman so they won’t be taken advantage of so much, or better yet, to check out their options.”

Notwithstanding the tapestry of personalities that Cavanagh’s production brings to the fore in “Così fan tutte,” the opera remains above all a paragon of Mozart’s penchant for beautifully setting to music the stories of people, and in ways we can relate to.

“For Mozart, like Shakespeare, there is no good human and bad human, no friend and enemy, all of us have all properties in ourselves, Nánási said. “That’s why we’re constantly recognizing ourselves in his music.”

IF YOU GO: “Così fan tutte” at San Francisco Opera

Where: War Memorial Opera House

301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: Sunday 2 p.m.; Tuesday, Saturday, Dec. 1, 3 7:30 p.m.

Tickets: $26 to $398; Livestreams available at $25 for Sunday, Tuesday, Saturday

Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

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