Director Stephen Wadsworth on a vision, neither bleak nor farcical, for the Met’s ‘Così’

Emalie Savoy and Alexander Lewis in 'Così fan tutte.' (Nan Melville)
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“A great work of art is like a dream,” Carl Gustav Jung wrote in his essay “Psychology and Literature.” “For all its apparent obviousness, it does not explain itself and is never unequivocal.”

Jung wrote those words in 1930, around the time when Così fan tutte, the third and last comic opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte, and a quintessentially enigmatic work of art, was re-entering the repertory after more than a century of neglect.

This month New Yorkers will have the relatively rare chance to see and hear all the Mozart-Da Ponte operas in quick succession. The Metroplitan Opera’s revival of Le nozze di Figaro plays through Saturday (when the luminous Hei-Kyung Hong will sing the role of Countess Almaviva), and Don Giovanni will join the repertory on Nov. 28. The Met and the Juilliard School also present a joint production of Così fan tutte that opens tonight at Juilliard’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater and will be repeated on Nov. 17 and 19. Alan Gilbert, the music director of the New York Philharmonic, conducts, Stephen Wadsworth directs, and the cast features a remarkable ensemble of rising stars from the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and Juilliard’s Ellen and James S. Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts.

Così—its complete title translates as “So Do All Women, or the School of Lovers”—had its world premiere in Vienna in 1790. While audiences and critics have always recognized that Mozart wrote some of his most sublime and searching music for Così, its libretto was judged “worthless” by the composer’s first biographer and trivial and indecent throughout the 19th century, when the opera was performed rarely and nearly always with a new book. Così’s reputation surged in the 1930s after a famous Glyndebourne Festival production (the audio of which is available as a C.D. or download) and today, according to Operabase, only ten other operas (including Nozze and Don Giovanni) are more frequently performed worldwide.

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Da Ponte’s libretto centers on two soldiers, Guglielmo and Ferrando, and their fiancées, the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella. Believing the women incapable of betraying them, the men, challenged by the cynical old philosopher Don Alfonso, pretend to be called to the front and return in disguise, each to woo the other’s betrothed, unleashing a vortex of heartache and desire in which all the characters lose their bearings. Egged on by their maid Despina, the sisters yield to their new swains and agree to marry them. When the ruse is revealed, the couples reunite and the company sings a final hymn to reason and laughter, the key to preserving a “beautiful calm” amidst “the whirlwinds of this earthly life.”

Rigorously symmetrical, observing the classical unity of time, and (on the face of it) brazenly misogynistic, Così remains hard to swallow to this day even though its tale of constancy undone by lust hardly shocks modern audiences. (Bruce Alan Brown, the author of a Cambridge Opera Handbook on Così, noted that the opera emerged from oblivion “during a period of great public interest in the investigations of Freud and others into the unconscious motivations—particularly sexual—of human behavior.”) It can be hard to take the reconciliation at face value, and many directors do not, staging against the words and music at the very end. Despite (or perhaps because of) the apparently glib moral of the story and its sunny musical setting, as the curtain comes down in any given production you are nearly as likely to see the original couples part ways as you are to see them reconciled. Last spring New York City Opera offered a brilliant and starkly dystopian Così directed by Christopher Alden that played up every venomous undercurrent swirling beneath the lustrous surface of Mozart and Da Ponte’s comedy. At opera’s end, characters stared shell-shocked into space, and you left the theater feeling about the same.

Stephen Wadsworth takes a long view of Così’s reception history.

“The reflex over most of the last century has been to play Così for laughs when possible,” he wrote me in an email. “Since the 1980s, the trend has been to play it bleak and cruel.” A youthful 60, the Mount Kisco native is the head of opera studies at Juilliard and of dramatic studies at the Met’s Lindemann program. A writer, translator, librettist (for Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place), and director whose stagings range from Shakespeare and Wilde to Terrence McNally’s Master Class, at the Met Wadsworth has spun the 20-odd da capo arias (solo vocal numbers in A-B-A form) of Handel’s Rodelinda into riveting theatrical magic. (Last year’s magnificent “Live in HD” transmission of the production is a must-see DVD.) He has also directed works by Gluck and Mussorgsky for the company.

Like parts of his Met Rodelinda, Wadsworth’s Juilliard-Met Così takes place in an 18th-century courtyard, a setting both unfussy and, in an opera concerned with women’s purported faithlessness, rich in irony. It evokes both Eden and the hortus conclusus or “walled garden” from the Biblical Song of Songs that in Christian art represented the Virgin Mary’s chastity.

He and his young singers "looked at French and Italian drawings from the 1700s,” he wrote, “mostly to look at how clothes were worn and bodies moved in space in those clothes.”

While scholars continue to debate Così’s sources—its genesis is poorly documented, and conjectures range from Ovid to Cervantes to anti-mesmeric pamphlets—Wadsworth sees the urbane and intricately plotted plays of Pierre de Marivaux (1688–1763) as Da Ponte’s inspiration. To prepare themselves for Così, he had his cast read Marivaux’s The Dispute, a 1744 comedy depicting pairs of lovers who take part in an experiment designed to test fidelity in love.

“I spent the 1990s working on Marivaux,” Wadsworth wrote. “I translated and directed three of his plays all around the country, and when I came back to Così I realized that these plays were Da Ponte’s model. One of them played twice at the Burgtheater in the decade before Così, when Mozart and Da Ponte were living in Vienna. Mozart also worked in the Burgtheater during this period, and Marivaux’s play was revived in the season of Così’s premiere. This tells us about the intended tone of Così, an unsettling blend of comedy and dark-hearted drama, a landscape where the situations are often amusing but the ramifications troubling and the stakes high.”

I attended several Così rehearsals in early November and was struck by both the painstaking work of Wadsworth (pictured at right in a rehearsal last year) and his young artists—at one point, they spent nearly two hours sifting through a few dozen bars of music—and the relaxed and collegial atmosphere that reigned even after Sandy had made a hash of the production schedule.

“We had people walking through Astoria to come back to work,” Wadsworth announced to the company at the first stage run-through. In an opera sometimes played for guffaws, he stressed nuance (“Don’t throw yourself at it”) and nimbleness (“Get easy in your knees and hips”), drawing attention to the coloring of individual vowels while also urging his cast to “keep that fast-heart-rate physicality.”

Asked whether young artists have the “disenchanted perspective” necessary to make sense of Così, he said he was confident that they did.

“They’ve all been through relationships that came to an end, they’ve all been disappointed by people they needed and trusted. We all have.” At the same time, he underscored the immense difficulties of the opera for apprentice singers. “The Italian is full of double entendres, and it takes a well-trained tongue to get around it deftly; the ensemble singing is exacting and precise; and the vocal demands, on the soprano, mezzo, and tenor particularly, are considerable.”

To be sure, and to return to Jung’s assertion, Così fan tutte is not the only inscrutable opera in the Mozart canon. The “madcap day” portrayed in Le nozze di Figaro embraces both betrayal and grace, near-Oedipal incest and a community healed, while Don Giovanni may be the trickiest masterwork of all. How often have you read that the opera ends with the title character dragged into the abyss by the Commendatore’s shade? Actually, no: The Commendatore time and again offers Don Giovanni the chance to save his eternal soul; it is the perfidious nobleman and his revenge-besotted pursuers who create hell on Earth.

Wadsworth sees parallels between Così and the other Mozart-Da Ponte operas.

“Of course they called Così a dramma giocoso (‘jocular drama’), as they had Don Giovanni before it, and from this it is clear that they considered it a species of comedy set in an emotional minefield. There are dramatic and musical connections to Figaro, too.”

Look and listen for mirth, yes, but also for passions and certainties exploded as Così fan tutte and Mozart’s other great comic operas light up New York stages this month.

For tickets and information about ‘Così fan tutte’ at Juilliard’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater, visit www.juilliard.edu or call 212.721.6500. For tickets to ‘Le nozze di Figaro’ and ‘Don Giovanni’ at the Metropolitan Opera, visit www.metoperafamily.org or call 212.362.6000.

Photos, from top left: Alexander Lewis as Ferrando, Naomi O’Connell as Despina, Emalie Savoy as Fiordiligi, Wallis Giunta as Dorabella (red hair), Luthando Qave as Guglielmo, Evan Hughes as Don Alfonso (on ground); Stephen Wadsworth rehearsing 'Don Giovanni' from last season’s production at Juilliard. All photos: Nan Melville.