It’s the battle of the sexes. Women come off worse — after all, the piece is entitled “Così fan tutte” (“Women Are All Alike,” i.e. fickle and unfaithful) — though men don’t come away unscathed. As the maidservant Despina sings, “You look for fidelity in men? Hah! Shifting breezes and quivering leaves are more reliable than they are. They lie and deceive. They use us for their pleasure, and then despise us.”
Admittedly, this is only one aria in a three-hour opera, but let’s not forget that it’s there. The subtitle of Mozart’s (and the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte’s) famous opera is “The School for Lovers,” that is, all lovers, both men and women.
In the Koussevitzky Music Shed at Tanglewood on Saturday night, Andris Nelsons led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a concert performance of Mozart’s 1790 opera, together with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, prepared by James Burton, and six excellent soloists: Nicole Cabell, soprano, as Fiordiligi; Kate Lindsey, mezzo-soprano, as Dorabella; Meigui Zhang, soprano, as Despina; Amitai Pati, tenor, as Ferrando; Elliott Madore, baritone, as Guglielmo; and Patrick Carfizzi, bass-baritone, as Don Alfonso.
The story is unreservedly silly. Two sisters, Fiordiligi, the older sister, and Dorabella, the younger sister, are betrothed to two men: Fiordiligi to Guglielmo and Dorabella to Ferrando. An older man, Don Alfonso, bets the two young men that since “all women are alike,” their fiancées will be unfaithful to them.
Guglielmo and Ferrando are appalled at the suggestion and, certain of the steadfastness of their girlfriends, willingly take the bet. Alfonso arranges for them to be apparently called up to serve as soldiers, and they stride off. As a test of the young women’s affections, they each put on a disguise and return to attempt to seduce the other’s lover. Alfonso enlists the sisters’ maidservant, Despina, to aid in the plot. All goes according to (Alfonso’s) plan. Dorabella gives in quickly, Fiordiligi more slowly. The boys are naturally upset, leave, and return as themselves to confront the sisters. Lamentation ensues. The wager is paid. All is forgiven (for, after all, “così fan tutte”), and the opera ends in an uneasy reconciliation.
The outlines of the story are ancient: They go back to Shakespeare (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Cymbeline”), Boccaccio in the 14th century, and before that to the Roman poet Ovid. But Da Ponte updated the tale to 18-century Naples.
The brilliant young Mozart, only 34 at the time of the premiere, lifted this ludicrous amatory romp into sublime heights with his music. Each of the singers has two or three arias, ranging from cynical (Alfonso) to firm (Fiordiligi), pining (Dorabella) to passionate (Ferrando), boasting (Guglielmo) to knowing (Despina).
But the principal musical glories of the piece are the singing ensembles: trios, quartets, quintets, and even, frequently, sextets, which Mozart, with his naturally theatrical touch, generally saved for the end of each act. In these ensembles, the magical Mozart allows each character to define himself or herself while wrapping the whole in unforgettable melody and poignant harmony.
Saturday’s production was musically satisfying and beautifully played, especially by the winds (William Hudgins, principal clarinetist in the orchestra, produces a lovely tone and perfect articulation throughout his instrument’s range) and a smallish ensemble of players from the BSO, playing modern instruments but with a strong sense of historical style. This was aided by Nelsons’s crisp conducting and the occasional arpeggio from a harpsichord in the recitatives.
The solo singers were superb — clear in their diction, accurate in pitch, and melding smoothly in the ensembles. Carfizzi’s crystal-clear enunciation as Don Alfonso allowed every nuance of his character to shine. The only slight drawback was the rather wide vibrato in Cabell’s soprano, which blurred the accuracy of her pitches and muddied some of the ensembles. Her acting, though, was convincing, as was that of the other singers.
Amid this high level of acting skill, Lindsey stood out with her wonderfully convincing gestures and facial expressions, filling out the character of the more labile younger sister with captivating verisimilitude. And Zhang, in a BSO debut, was both vocally and gesturally perfect as the confident, conniving maid Despina. The small chorus, expertly trained by Burton, was coherent, harmonious, and disciplined.
Two quibbles: First, the supertitles were not well handled, with several disturbing lags and the occasional visually errant artifact. Second, the props and disguises were misguided for a space as large as the Shed. Instead of the simple (if conventional) device of a black bag for Despina playing a doctor or an oversized magnet as the instrument of her fake “cure,” she was made to haul in a music stand imprinted with the letters “BSO.” And when the young men return, disguised as “Albanians,” their tiny, inked-on mustaches were almost invisible even from very close up.
If director James Darrah wanted minimalism, he could at least have given each of them a brightly colored scarf, or some other marker, which would have been noticeable to everyone in the audience and would have explained the main turning points of the plot.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Andris Nelsons, conductor
At: Tanglewood, Saturday night
Jeremy Yudkin is Professor of Music at Boston University and co-founder and co-director of Boston University’s Center for Beethoven Research. The author of 10 books and many scholarly articles on music, he gives pre-concert Tanglewood Talks at Lenox Town Hall.