Review | Wolf Trap’s bright and breezy ‘Così fan tutte’ is just goofy enough

On Friday night at the Barns at Wolf Trap, director Dan Rigazzi premiered Wolf Trap Opera’s bright and breezy take on Mozart’s “Così fan tutte,” one that made the well-worn favorite feel something like a blank slate.

Lawrence Moten’s set designs lean heavily on white — a white saloon, a white lounge, a white wedding. It’s an effect that vacuum seals “Così” from the sexual politics of contemporary life while turning the whole thing into a surface for projection. That is, this will take on any tint you give it.

It’s a wily way to approach Mozart’s perennially popular little treasure, which owes its endurance to the magnificent emotional weave of the composer’s score and its long-term relationship with the word “problematic” to Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto.

So much of the opera’s internal logic (if one could call it that) depends on a foundation that has been culturally ground to powder; the rest relies on a suspension of disbelief tantamount to a reversal of gravity itself: How do Fiordiligi and Dorabella not recognize their treacherous suitors? How do their affections sway so wildly within the course of a day? How do they not know that the mysterious notary is Despina? What is wrong with these people?

Rigazzi flips this fixer-upper into a sleek, unfussy update that keeps the guts of the opera largely in place while performing some key tweaks on the finishes. There are smartphones and selfies, graphic tees and Manic Panic dye jobs, adult toys and bumps of coke, implied f-bombs and a pair of (consequentially!) flipped birds. He slaps new scene titles over the stage — e.g. “The Bet,” “The Help,” “The Makeover” — lending the action more than a soupçon of sitcom.

But the most contemporary aspect to Rigazzi’s take is the way he gently turns up the opera’s own self-awareness — the characters growing weary of their own absurd ordeal, the story struggling against the current of its own cultural asynchrony. This is a production blessed with several singers who are just naturally funny, but it’s Rigazzi’s wry direction that hip-checks this “Così” from dramma giocoso (i.e. “jocular drama”) into pure comedy.

Soprano Renée Richardson brought formidable power and agility to her Fiordiligi; her “Come Scoglio” in Act I was an early thrill. And mezzo-soprano Erin Wagner made a delightful Dorabella, offering luxurious runs in an Act I duet with Fiordiligi that felt like a knife fight (“Ah! guarda sorella”) and bringing gorgeous lightness to her Act II aria (“E amore un ladroncello”).

I also loved their gleeful Act II duet (“Prenderò quel brunettino”), but mostly I enjoyed how funny they were. The chemistry of their pairing bubbled all night (a big plus for an overlong opera), whether they were mourning their fates in blankets and slippers or teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown at a wedding with all the solemnity of a reality show.

My favorite performance of the night was mezzo-soprano Emily Treigle as meddlesome maid Despina, rendered here as a lovably troublesome and vaguely goth pot-stirrer. Her splendid and spirited “In uomini, in soldati” felt emblematic of the entire show’s likable vibe, as well as her magnificent voice, which the comic calling of the role never managed to shrink. (She did, however, dispose entirely of proper diction when disguised as the notary, to perfectly hilarious effect.) A fabulous singer (she’s a grand finals winner of the 2021 Metropolitan Opera Laffont Competition) and a fine actress, Treigle is a key part of this production’s success.

I do wish the men were a smidgen funnier, even if they’re not really supposed to be. The trio of Guglielmo (baritone Kyle White), Ferrando (tenor Lunga Eric Hallam) and Don Alfonso (bass Wm. Clay Thompson) weren’t quite silly enough at the outset and left a little too much comic ice unbroken. (The addition of mustaches, wigs and leisure suits did help loosen things up a bit once the suitors resort to disguise.)

Hallam’s tenor had a beautiful gleam and flutter to it, its amber color a lovely complement to White’s rounder, more rustic baritone. Thompson’s rather wooden Alfonso eventually grew on me, but this is a role not as well-tailored to him as his turn singing Méphistophélès in the company’s 2023 production of Gounod’s “Faust.” Alfonso is somehow a bigger dirtbag, and Thompson’s voice felt too dry (read: not sticky) and distilled of a requisite toxicity.

Christine Brandes conducted the Wolf Trap Opera Orchestra with focus and intensity, finding particular clarity when it counted most during complex stretches of ensemble singing. (Shout-out to the acoustic embrace of the actual Barn itself for making such pristine balance possible at all.) Musically it was a night characterized by marvelous tangles of woodwinds, crisp statements of strings, and sturdy stage-side continuo furnished by Lori Barnet on cello and William Woodard on fortepiano.

Supplemental unsolicited percussion was provided by the audience, who dropped no less than five phones on the floor at adventurously arrhythmic intervals throughout the performance. You should see the look I’m giving you right now.

Without grand revision or intervention, Rigazzi’s refined “Così” plays it smart by leaning into the stupid — its goofy portrait a double exposure of the sexes that has us all wrong but gets everything right.

Wolf Trap Opera’s “Così fan tutte” runs through June 29 at the Barns at Wolf Trap,

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