It’s the 18th century, so there are tall meringue wigs, fluffy dresses and richly appointed men’s jackets over pantaloons, and sets, big sets to telegraph Naples of the time. Powder-pale faces and apple-rouged cheeks are often involved.
Such stuff isn’t really necessary to the story, said R.B. Schlather, the director of Santa Fe Opera’s new production of Così fan tutte.
“When you just strip everything away — the decoration, the clutter, the traditions — and look at what people are saying in the librettos, sometimes there’s no reason for a lot of them,” he told Pasatiempo. “What I’m trying to do is liberate these pieces from a lot of that baggage and show people what’s there that they haven’t seen before — the deeper layers inside of these great pieces from the past.”
Così fan tutte can be viewed as the quintessence of the Enlightenment, the 18th-century movement that believed “The proper study of mankind is man,” as Alexander Pope put it in An Essay on Man.
An age-old story of love and fidelity, it follows two couples engaged to be married. The men contend the women are faithful and, to prove it, disguise themselves as would-be suitors to put their lovers’ loyalty to the test.
Schlather’s vision for the Santa Fe Opera’s new production of Così fan tutte takes the audience to a somewhere (or is it a nowhere?) far from 18th-century Naples. The scenery is minimal and the setting, to a degree, is ambiguous. It could be taking place anywhere at any time. Its themes are universal and, Schlather believes, that allows it to transcend geography. Instead of “Once upon a time,” it’s unfolding in the present. Divested of opera’s penchant for opulent grandeur, Schlather’s vision is focused on other aspects, such as the music, the performances, and the story. Together, he said, these three things are meant to drive the audience’s experience.
“Aesthetically, it may not be what someone expects to see if they have an assumption about what opera is,” said the 33-year-old director. “The work that I do is very rooted in the poetry and the music and the place that it’s going to be presented. A lot of the work that I do is immersive, site-specific work.”
Schlather is known for productions that challenge audience preconceptions but that result in experiences that feel entirely fresh and new, even if the opera, like Così fan tutte, is old-school.
Così fan tutte’s story of disguises, deceptions, and happily ever afters, stems from a literary tradition that predates Mozart. Not much is known about what sources inspired the opera, but it shares a spiritual kinship with other stories involving wagers and tests that challenge female constancy. The opera’s title is variously translated as The School for Lovers and All Women Do It. The latter, in particular, relates to an assumption on the part of one character, Don Alfonso (bass-baritone Rod Gilfry), who wagers that the fiancés of the two male leads would cheat on them if given the chance.
“One of the things that R.B. and his team were very keen on is the fact that this piece, although it doesn’t have direct source material the way La bohème does — there’s not a book from which it’s adapted — it does have a lot of mythological precedent, going back to Ovid’s Metamorphoses and on through Boccaccio, Cervantes, Shakespeare, and so on,” said SFO dramaturg Cori Ellison.
By avoiding the tendency to set his production of Così fan tutte in a particular time and place, Schlather opened the door to emphasize its archetypal and universal dimensions. But he did consider the Santa Fe Opera location as a factor, making it the literal space in which the action unfolds and allowing it to dictate how the production would look. As much as the opera house is a discernible place and the production starts at a scheduled time, the emphasis is still on the story’s timelessness.
“To me, it’s this really dynamic exchange between the singers, the audience, and the site,” Schlather said. “My collaborators and I talked a lot about Western mythology and American iconography. That’s informed the way we present ideas in the show.”
Schlather made some changes to Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto in order to minimize aspects that tied it too explicitly to 18th-century Naples. Originally, to test their lovers’ fidelity, soldiers Guglielmo (baritone Jarrett Ott) and Ferrando (tenor Ben Bliss) pretend to go off to war but come back disguised as Albanians and attempt to woo the female leads (soprano Amanda Majeski as Fiordiligi and mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo as Dorabella).
In this production, the men pretend to leave in order to find themselves and fulfill their destinies — a more contemporary idea than soldiers in the time of the Napoleonic wars.
The set by scenic designer Paul Tate dePoo III is open and sparse, subtly at odds with the Baroque flourishes and delicate harmonies of Mozart’s music. The characters make their entrances and exits through portals in grey floors and walls, which look almost like a concrete prison cell.
“It’s meant to be something that you don’t really notice, but that serves as more of a playing space for the characters,” Schlather said. “But it also transforms, through the evening, as an expression of their internal, emotional experience. It has some tricks up its sleeve.”
The scaled-back set makes space for other things, like for more physicality in the singers’ performances, something that Schlather is also known for. In a review in the New York Observer of a 2015 production of Georg Friederich Händel’s opera Orlando, for instance, critic James Jordan wrote, “The staging put great physical demands on the singers, who climbed and crawled on, over, around and under the playing area. It is to Mr. Schlather’s immense credit that all this activity felt utterly organic.”
This production of Così fan tutte, Schlather said, is highly physical, so perhaps we can expect something similar.
“It’s an extremely energetic story,” he said. “It’s full of a lot of contrasts and oppositions. There’s lots of conflict and tension, which is the stuff of great drama and great theater. You watch very complicated people get involved in a very complicated scenario, and you get to see how it all plays out.” ◀
See the review of Così fan tutte in Monday's Santa Fe New Mexican.