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.”
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 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.
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.
“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. “Ultimately she chooses real feelings over responsibility, which some might consider brave, rather than weak.”
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