The sunny cynicism of Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” glistens with particular charm in Jonathan Miller’s brisk and refreshing production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Miller’s typically clean-lined staging, based on his recent version for the Royal Opera, features an impressive quartet of young singers in the roles of the deceiving and deceived lovers, and a pair of supremely talented veterans acting as the merrily corrupting chaperones. Robert Spano and the Brooklyn Philharmonic provide ebullient accompaniment in the pit of the intimate Harvey Theater.
The setting is contemporary and Miller’s touch is light. Fiordiligi (Alexandra Deshorties) and sister Dorabella (Rinat Shaham) are a pair of fashion designers whose business-suited husbands are called off to war — or so they pretend. (A CNN camera crew is on hand to record the teary farewells, lending another dash of contemporary verisimilitude.)
In fact, Thomas Allen’s supremely confident Don Alfonso is, of course, intent on teaching the boys familiar lessons in female infidelity. Ferrando (Eric Cutler) and Guglielmo (Garry Magee) reappear shortly in the guise of a pair of rockers, hilariously dressed up in dirty denim and leather, with Ferrando sporting bleached split ends under a kerchief and Guglielmo in dreadlocks. They set about seducing each other’s girls, with Don Alfonso, cell phone in hand to give cues, and the women’s “assistant” Despina (Helen Donath) merrily encouraging them to live a little.
The sexual politics of Da Ponte’s libretto, which proclaims that “women are like that,” can strike a sour note in our enlightened age. But the exceptional youth of the performers here accentuates that the women’s susceptibility is more a function of youth than the weakness of their sex. And the singers’ natural stage presence and committed comic acting brings a touching note to the florid emotionalism of their characters’ youthful confusions.
The dominating symbol in Miller’s production, handsomely designed by Anne Patterson, is a full-length mirror that the characters are continually using to check themselves out. Men and women so concerned with appearance are naturally seduced by them into betraying the firmer and nobler impulses of their hearts, it seems.
The singing is superb, with Deshorties’ strong and flexible soprano negotiating the perilous challenges of her second-act aria, “Per pieta,” with impressive assurance. Mezzo Shaham shows equal agility and round, lovely sound in a stylish rendition of her second-act aria, and proves to be the most expressive and witty actor of the young quartet. Cutler’s bright tenor and Magee’s rich baritone are excellent and they throw themselves into the goofy doings with amiable exuberance.
Allen orchestrates the complications with the suave polish and witty, intelligent acting that have always typified his work. And Donath is a superb comedienne, reveling in Despina’s disguises as a doctor and a notary. Throughout the evening, the comedy is played robustly without becoming labored.
Miller ends the opera on the kind of ambiguous note that directors tend to favor these days: After the supposedly cheery concluding ensemble, the men and women stalk off in separate directions, scowling. I think it’s a miscalculation. Objectively, it is indeed hard to believe that these lovers can live happily ever after having such strong proof of their vacillating hearts. But Mozart’s opera — and Miller’s sensitive production — argue, most touchingly, that the right and proper condition of youth is happiness. It is unhappiness that leads Fiordiligi and Dorabella astray, not corruption, and to suggest that recrimination and discord will carry the day belies the jubilation of Mozart’s music and the deeper truths the opera seeks to impart.