Opera with a complicated soul

OperaDelaware presents Così fan tutte

4 minute read
Richly costumed: McKeever, a Black male singer, looking diabolical, by Sheriff, a Black woman singer, looking exasperated
Meeting some of the challenges of ‘Così fan tutte’: OperaDelaware’s Eric McKeever as Don Alfonso and Amanda Sheriff as Despina. (Photo by Justin Heyes for Moonloop Photography, Wilmington.)

The comic opera Così fan tutte is certainly a masterpiece. This is a tale of a foolish wager and its comic consequences—an improbably and often problematic commedia dell‘arte plot that is filled with Mozart’s sublime music. But Così is also rife with dramatic and musical conundrums, and OperaDelaware’s intermittently con brio production met many (but not all) of the work’s challenges.

As this opera buffa opens, the easily led lovers Guglielmo (baritone Paul La Rosa) and Ferrando (tenor David Walton) are convinced by their jaded mentor Don Alfonso (baritone Eric McKeever) that the fidelity of their fiancées is in question. To test the devotion of these two sisters, Fiordiligi (soprano Colleen Daly) and Dorabella (mezzo Marie Engle), the ersatz gentlemen pretend to go off to war, but they return disguised as Albanians. The women are at first deceived by the jest but aided by their feisty and manipulative maid Despina (soprano Amanda Sheriff), they penetrate the disguises as the opera comes to a (lengthy) comic conclusion.

The infidelity triumvirate

In illuminating online pre-production talks, Towson University musicologist Aaron Ziegel noted that Così (which premiered in 1790) is part of a Mozart triumvirate that includes Nozze di Figaro/Marriage of Figaro (1786) and Don Giovanni (1787). All three explore the ramifications of infidelity, a subject whose comic potential is overlaid and potentially sideswiped by some of the serious questions it raises, both then and now.

At its premiere, Così was not as enthusiastically received as its comic partners. Well-known writer Lorenzo Da Ponte originally penned his libretto for Antonio Salieri. But when Salieri stalled, the project was passed to an enthusiastic Mozart, who musically tailored it for six singers he had worked with and whose voices he knew.

Beauty and inanity

The lengthy opera is a huge musical lift for its cast: here, six fine singers who often sounded like many more in the Grand, a house perfectly suited to works of this period. And the small chorus (also tasked with moving elegantly spare scenery by Peter Tupitza and Erica Harney) was excellently prepared by Aurelien Eulert. The work’s overture opens heroically, but it soon devolves into the clever comic music, a shift that opera audiences of the time would have understood and appreciated. OperaDelaware’s nimble orchestra was authoritatively led by Domenico Boyagian, who conducted with a clarity and drive to realize the work’s quick mood shifts underpinning and often uplifting the plot’s inanities.

Four white actors, 2 women and 2 men, face one other in rich purple & red satin costumes, all with long, luxuriant hairstyles
Left to right: Marie Engle (Dorabella), Colleen Daly (Fiordiligi), Paul La Rosa (Guglielmo), and David Walton (Ferrando) in OperaDelaware’s ‘Così fan tutte.' (Photo by Justin Heyes for Moonloop Photography, Wilmington.)

Così’s first act is filled with lively comic situations that moved this production along at a quick dramatic pace, the company clearly delighted and buoyed by director Samuel Mungo’s clever staging. In Così, the stage director has a plethora of choices, and Mungo skillfully included farcical pratfalls, operetta tropes, and commedia stagecraft. He also made great use of Glenn Avery Breed’s on-point costumes, opulent garments with just the right touch of zany elegance to allow for sartorial jokes.

Chasing the soul of the opera

The evenly matched cast was uniformly appealing, with musical highlights that included Walton’s elegant, beautifully sung “Un aura amoroso” (far more challenging than it appears) and Daly’s “Come scoglio,” with virtuosic leaps all over the soprano register. Così is filled with sublime ensemble writing, some of Mozart’s best, and the group singing was especially notable. Such extensive ensemble writing was unusual for operas of the time; there’s nary an aria until well into the first act. But the second half is markedly different, with a major solo piece for each of the six characters (in writing for a company he knew, Mozart could play no favorites!), and therein lies one of the work’s challenges.

Così is almost always adapted and streamlined, but OperaDelaware chose to present it virtually uncut. Thus, the second act was massively slowed by each character’s appointed moment in the spotlight. Though the arias were well realized by the six singers, the production’s forward motion was greatly diminished. Some (or most) of these introspective solos are generally cut from modern stagings (Mozart himself often made cuts), and their presence here muddied the comic clarity that Mungo and Boyagian so successfully set up in the first act.

Near the end of Così, buried among the witticisms and pranks, a character poses the opera’s central—and serious but unresolved—question: “What is there left to believe in?” This is an opera where two different things constantly confront one another. The cavalier male attitude toward women and their fidelity raised questions when it was written, and it continues to challenge viewers today. And throughout the work, Mozart writes moving music of great emotional sincerity that spuriously graces the silly situations, setting up challenging contradictions for listeners. The plot, libretto, and music all carry comic and potentially unsavory ramifications juxtaposed against and underscored (undercut?) by the composer’s earnestly beautiful, often serious music. Which musical direction is really the soul of this opera? It’s up to each company to decide, but this production, for all its strengths, never quite made up its mind.

What, When, Where

Così fan tutte. Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte. OperaDelaware Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Domenico Boyagian; production directed by Samuel Mungo. $29-$99, October 28 and 30, 2022, at the Grand Opera House, 818 North Market Street, Wilmington. (302) 658-8063 or operade.org

The opera, which ran two hours, 40 minutes with one 20-minute intermission, was sung in Italian with English supertitles.

There are no Covid-19 protocols now in force.


The Grand has wheelchair accessible locations, seats near the stage for patrons with low vision or blindness, and assistive listening devices.

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