A Walk on the Wild Side
In Phelim McDermott’s production of Così fan tutte, the quartet of young lovers and two cunning tricksters at the heart of the story share the Met stage with sword swallowers, fire-eaters, and a live Burmese python. Set in a carnival fairground inspired by 1950s Coney Island, the director’s imaginative vision of Mozart’s opera—featuring Kelli O’Hara as Despina, Christopher Maltman as Don Alfonso, and David Robertson on the podium—explores love, temptation, betrayal, and reconciliation amid the spectacle of the sideshow. By Jay Goodwin
Mozart’s Così fan tutte begins with a bet. The besotted young officers Ferrando and Guglielmo boast to their friend Don Alfonso that their fiancées, the sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi, are paragons of female virtue and constancy. The older, perhaps wiser, and certainly more cynical Alfonso argues that such perfect faithfulness does not exist, and that he can prove the sisters are just as fickle as all other women if Ferrando and Guglielmo will agree to do exactly as he says. Battle lines drawn, the men make the wager that sets in motion the rest of the opera’s action, which revolves around the officers’ disguised attempts to seduce one another’s girlfriends.
“One of the challenges of Così fan tutte is to create a situation in which the audience will go along with the idea that two guys are able to disguise themselves enough for their girlfriends not to notice,” says Phelim McDermott, director of the Met’s production. “When you’re watching the opera, it’s very easy to think ‘How on earth are they not noticing who’s behind that mustache?’” McDermott’s solution to this problem was to choose a setting with a built-in sense of fantasy and suspension of disbelief: a carnival-esque, sideshow environment inspired by 1950s Coney Island. “There’s an idea of being away from home, and of the fairground being this magical place in which the rules are not quite the same as they are in everyday life,” the director explains. “It’s a slightly altered world to begin with, and the deception becomes part of the fantasy of that world.”
The men behind the mustaches at the Met when the production premiered in 2018 were tenor Ben Bliss as Ferrando and bass-baritone Adam Plachetka as Guglielmo. In keeping with the concept, they disguise themselves not as Albanian soldiers, as Mozart indicated, but as “dirty, sexy carny workers,” as McDermott puts it, “which, for some reason, seem to be what the girls like.” Soprano Amanda Majeski as Fiordiligi and mezzo-soprano Serena Malfi as Dorabella joined Bliss and Plachetka to form a quartet of bright young stars as the lovers. But it is Don Alfonso and the sisters’ maid, Despina (in this production, a maid at the seedy Skyline Motel, where Fiordiligi and Dorabella are staying), who pull the strings behind the scenes and truly drive the action.
Taking on the role of Despina in 2018 was Tony Award–winner Kelli O’Hara—famous for her performances on Broadway in The King and I, South Pacific, The Light in the Piazza, and others—who made her second Met appearance, following her 2014 turn as Valencienne in Lehár’s The Merry Widow. “I absolutely had a dream when I was younger to sing at the Met, and the fact that I get to do it is not lost on me,” says O’Hara, who trained as an opera singer before changing course and focusing on musical theater. “I want to bring to this space every ounce of everything that I’ve learned over the last 20 years,” she says, but she also doesn’t want the audience thinking about her Broadway work when she’s on the Met stage. “Hear my Despina. Don’t think of my other things,” she says. “Be in the present with me.”
Christopher Maltman, who played Despina’s mentor in mischief, Don Alfonso, imagines that his character is driven to “lift the scales from the eyes of the young lovers,” as Maltman puts it, by firsthand experience with the sting of betrayal. “Alfonso is a bitter, hurt man, who unfortunately wants to take everybody else with him,” says the baritone, who has appeared frequently at the Met in recent seasons, including as Mark Rutland in the premiere of Nico Muhly’s Marnie. “By the end of this opera, everybody’s been taught a lesson. Whether that lesson will stick with them—who knows? Most of us get burned by the flames of love, and then we keep coming back for more.”
This universal relatability goes to the heart of Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte’s genius in Così fan tutte and their other two collaborations, Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni. On the surface, all three operas are fast-paced, fun-loving, plot-driven works, enlivened throughout by laugh-out-loud moments of humor. But woven into that bright and beautiful fabric is profound social commentary, biting satire, and some of opera’s most sophisticated examination of fundamental human motivations and fears.
Even among its Mozartean peers, Così is particularly direct and particularly easy to translate to contemporary life, as Maltman and O’Hara both point out. “We can all learn lessons from these characters because these things are timeless,” O’Hara says. “People succumb to pressures or seductions, especially when they are pushed. We have to watch out for people who try to bend our minds to think certain ways or make choices we might not have meant to make.” And there are no barriers to entry for the audience. “It doesn’t require any historical context or knowledge of Mozart or of the opera,” Maltman says, “but simply a love of good music and good drama.”
McDermott hopes to deliver both the surface-level hijinks and the deeper significance of the opera with his carnival production. The concept provides particularly fertile ground for the former. “We’ve probably got a lot more scene changes than might normally happen in Così,” McDermott says. “In the second act, for instance, when we go into the fairground, we have a whole series of different rides.” To accomplish that frenzied stage activity, conjure the proper atmosphere, and lend the setting real authenticity, the Met assembled a skills ensemble made up of actual sideshow performers, including some who work at Coney Island. This ensemble—featuring performers of all shapes and sizes, from less than four feet to more than seven feet tall, and including strongmen, sword swallowers, fire eaters, a contortionist, and the Met’s very first onstage Burmese python—is responsible for carrying out Don Alfonso’s tricks, wherein he hopes to catch the conscience of the lovers. As McDermott puts it, “If Alfonso were Oberon, they’re his fairies. They’re facilitating the magic to happen.”
McDermott is especially proud to be bringing together the worlds of the Met and the carnival sideshow. “Something that was really exciting,” the director recalled, “was that a fair few of these performers, who are highly tattooed and swallow swords and have snakes, came in and said, ‘You know what my favorite thing is? Opera.’ And some of them were nearly in tears at the idea that they might be on the Met stage.”
Ultimately, though, the setting is just that, an environment within which the drama and Mozart’s music can take flight. And McDermott is careful to emphasize that his directorial choices simply reflect what he thought would be most effective in helping to tell the story, rather than any attempt to draw attention to his own cleverness. “Once the show is up and running, I don’t want the audience thinking too much about the setting, but rather to just be swept along,” he says. “I hope the audience get exactly what they want and that they have an exciting time. And I hope that it’s fun, and funny, and beautiful—but most of all, that it’s atmospheric and magical, because of course it’s a show about love.”
Jay Goodwin is the Met’s Editorial Director.