During the course of his long and varied career in the world’s leading opera houses, British baritone Sir Thomas Allen has developed a special relationship with Mozart’s racy comic opera “Così fan tutte.” Early in his career, he often sang the role of Guglielmo, a callow Neapolitan dude who, along with his buddy Ferrando, decides to test their girlfriends’ fidelity to win a bet.
More recently, Allen has been taking the role of the cynical “old philosopher” Don Alfonso who initiates the bet, being confident that the susceptible young women — who are sisters — will prove fickle. (Alfonso is correct in his assumption.) And now, here in Boston, Allen is going for the trifecta. Not only is he singing the role of Don Alfonso. He is also directing a brand-new fully staged production of “Così” for Boston Lyric Opera, which opens on Friday at the Schubert Theatre for five performances.
A native of the small mining village of Seaham Harbour in County Durham, the globe-trotting Allen recently celebrated his 40th anniversary with the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden in London. The last few weeks have found him in Boston, rehearsing “Così fan tutte.”
“This is the first time in my career I’ve both sung and directed,” Allen said in an interview. It “engages different halves of the brain. It’s a complicated process. When I’m singing I have to remember to turn off the director, and vice versa.”
Appearing along with Allen are tenor Paul Appleby (in his BLO debut) as Ferrando, baritone Matthew Worth as Guglielmo, soprano Caroline Worra as Fiordiligi, mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy as Dorabella, and mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella as Despina, wisecracking chambermaid to the ladies and Don Alfonso’s partner in petty crime. The sets have been designed by the BLO’s artistic adviser John Conklin. David Angus, the company’s music director, will conduct.
The Italian title of “Così fan tutte” translates into something like “All Women Are Like That.” (The BLO production will be sung in English, using a translation by Marmaduke Brown.) It is Allen’s jaded “I’ve seen it all” character of Don Alfonso who clarifies the title in an aria toward the end: “The lover who finds that he’s been deceived should blame not others but his own mistake; whether they’re young or old, fair or plain — repeat with me: All Women Are Like That!” Not surprisingly, Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte (they also collaborated on “Don Giovanni” and “The Marriage of Figaro”) have been accused of misogyny, chauvinism, and worse, especially in more recent times.
Allen acknowledges that the opera’s attitudes toward women can be problematical. “Of course the men are guilty of huge hypocrisy. Why is their infidelity left unexamined or criticized? But it is true that the men learn their lesson at the end.”
Mozart and da Ponte set the opera in Naples at the end of the 18th century. Recent productions have often updated the action, most notably Peter Sellars’s wildly innovative 1986 staging that took place around Despina’s greasy-spoon diner. But Allen and his production team have chosen to keep the 18th-century setting, although he hinted that it might not look like what people expect. “In any case, the message is timeless, in the same way that the plays of Shakespeare can work in almost any kind of production,” he said.
Moving to the role of Don Alfonso has given Allen new insight. “My attitude toward the piece has certainly changed over time. I’ve grown with it. . . . Guglielmo is one of those roles you sing as a baritone early in your career, and in some ways it’s a thankless task. He is less emotionally involved, and his role is less well-written.”
What intrigues Allen about Don Alfonso is why the character wants so badly to draw the young men into the bet, and why he continues to pursue the goal of showing the women unfaithful even after their strong resistance. This involves elaborate use of disguises and a healthy suspension of disbelief that Dorabella and Fiordiligi fail to recognize the voices of Gugliemo and Ferrando beneath their costumes.
For Alfonso to carry out his schemes, he relies heavily on Despina, one of those smarter-than-their-master servants also found in “Don Giovanni” and “The Marriage of Figaro.” In Allen’s view, the detailed recitative dialogue between Despina and Alfonso suggests some past romantic involvement that helps to explain why she is so willing to help him.
“ ‘Così’ is often seen as a very cynical piece, and it does start out sour,” Allen mused. “But it is also full of eternal truths. For the director the challenge is to fill in the gaps. Why do Alfonso and Despina go to such lengths to prove the women fickle? Here it’s important to remember that in the late 18th century, when gentlemen made a bet like this, it was a binding contract, a matter of honor. So they have to pursue it to the end.”
One of the musical challenges that “Così” presents is the extensive use of recitative, a half-sung, half-spoken setting of text that links the arias, ensembles, and choruses. Allen said he and the singers have been concentrating on the language. “We have to make it sound like real dialogue. One of the problems with American opera singers today is that they think internationally, and sing in so many languages that they forget how to sing in English!”
Allen has prepared a few surprises. One involves the ending. In the original, after considerable confusion, shuffling, and embarrassment, Mozart and da Ponte restore the original pairings (Guglielmo with Fiordiligi, Ferrando with Dorabella) to be married amid general rejoicing over the vicissitudes of romance taken with good humor. Some productions, however, have switched the partners, or even (in Sellars’s staging) left them unattached. Calling the ending “an eternal conundrum,” Allen was mum about what approach he and the company have taken. “I would ask you not to ask that question right now.”
Harlow Robinson can be reached at harlo