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Into the woods: San Diego Opera’s ‘Così fan tutte’ to take mismatched lovers into new territory

Tim Wallace's scenic design for San Diego Opera's "Così fan tutte"
Tim Wallace’s scenic design for San Diego Opera’s new production of Mozart’s “Così fan tutte,” which opens Feb. 12 at the San Diego Civic Theatre.
(San Diego Opera)

Director of company’s first indoor production since February 2020 has creative plans for Mozart classic

Two years ago this week, San Diego Opera presented its last pre-pandemic performance at the San Diego Civic Theatre. On Saturday, Feb. 12,, it will finally return.

The new production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Così fan tutte” will not only be the company’s first fully staged indoor production since February 2020, it will also mark a number of other firsts.

Acclaimed international opera director Timothy Nelson will make his company debut, along with four of the opera’s principal singers: baritones Reginald Smith Jr. and John Brancy, mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey and tenor Konu Kim. Soprano Sarah Tucker, who played Micaela in San Diego Opera’s 2019 production of “Carmen,” will be making her role debut as Fiordiligi. And this will also be an all-new production with scenery and costumes created in-house by San Diego Opera designers.

Finally, for many San Diego Opera ticket-buyers, this may be the first time they’ve ever seen “Così fan tutte,” which the company last produced in 2005. Nelson, who is directing “Così" for the first time, said he knows why the opera isn’t done more often. It’s tough to direct and even more challenging for its singers. But he’s excited that it will be the first opera to welcome audiences back.

“I think it’s the perfect opera to return to indoor performances with,” Nelson said. “They haven’t done it in 17 years, which makes it really special and this cast is just dynamite. It’s a tremendous opportunity for me as a director and also for audiences to experience a type of opera that’s really vivid and vibrant.”

Director Timothy Nelson, left, directs a scene for San Diego Opera's upcoming "Così fan Tutte."
Director Timothy Nelson, left, directs a scene for San Diego Opera’s upcoming “Così fan Tutte.”
(Edward Wilensky)

“Così fan tutte,” which roughly translates from Italian as “all women do the same,” premiered in Vienna on Jan. 26, 1790. It was the third and final collaboration between Mozart and his Italian librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte following the better known “The Marriage of Figaro” in 1786 and “Don Giovanni” in 1787.

The story begins when an old bachelor, Don Alfonso, bets two young soldiers, Guglielmo and Ferrando, that their fiancées, sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, won’t stay true to them. The soldiers test their women’s faithfulness by donning disguises and courting each other’s fiancées, only to discover they’re each better suited to the other’s fiancée. The sisters also lose their hearts to the disguised men.

Nelson, who is also a conductor, said Mozart’s opera-composing skills grew dramatically between “Figaro” and “Così" and that can be heard in the score.

“‘Figaro’ and ‘Don Giovanni’ are wonderful because their stories are so rich and their characters are so vivid. But by the time he gets to ‘Così,’ he has mastered the art of telling a story with music,” Nelson said. “Here he’s trying to create with music the universal emotional experience of what it feels like when your heart breaks for the first time and you realize love is not a fairy tale.

“It’s a whole different type of theater he’s inventing. It’s not about plot. It’s more about sitting in a moment and having it wash over you with the most incredible music,” Nelson said.

Timothy Nelson, director of San Diego Opera's "Cosi fan tutte."
(San Diego Opera)

Nelson has directed more than 70 opera productions worldwide and has served as an artistic director for four opera companies in the U.S. and Europe. His innovative new and contemporary reimagination of classic works have led critics at the New York Times and Baltimore Sun to call his work “the future of opera.”

But for all of his experience, Nelson said he wasn’t ready to tackle “Così" until now.

“I’ve danced around it for my my entire career,” he said. “‘Così fan tutte’ is by far my favorite Mozart opera, and I think the greatest Mozart opera, when he was at the pinnacle of his power as a classical composer. But I’ve had this nagging question of whether it can be staged in any way that doesn’t diminish its quality as an opera.”

Finally he came up with a creative solution. In “Così,” the story begins light and comic, then it takes a dark and introspective turn in the second act, where the heartbroken young lovers are exploring their hearts, disillusionment and nostalgia for what was lost.

Nelson said this shift from light to dark reminded him of the plots of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” where confused lovers flee into dark forests and undergo emotional trials to find their truth. So, working with San Diego Opera scenic designer Tim Wallace, Nelson has created a production with a forest that will grow darker as the plot thickens.

The production will be set in contemporary America and will begin in a locker room where the men make their bet. Then it will moves to what Nelson calls a “darkening forest of the mind.” He has also added a new character to the story: a weary, withered and wordless Cupid, whose presence in the story represents the loss of idealized love.

Nelson said creating a new production concept can be hard for veteran singers who have performed the same roles dozens of times. So he’s grateful to have a young and adventurous cast who are excited to explore “Così" in a fresh way. His favorite scene in the opera is Fiordiligi’s mournful second-act aria “Per Pieta,” which begins with the words “In pity’s name, my dearest / forgive the misdeed of a loving soul.”

Sarah Tucker plays Fiordiligi in San Diego Opera's "Cosi fan tutte."
(San Diego Opera)

That’s also the opera highlight for Tucker, San Diego Opera’s Fiordiligi. The Houston-based soprano is a Mozart specialist whose will follow “Così" with a run as Pamina in North Carolina Opera’s production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”

“The great thing about singing his music is he just puts it all in there for you, for moments like fear and anger. Even if you don’t know what she’s saying, you hear it in the music, you hear it in the coloratura and the contrasts,” Tucker said. “The music is just unbelievable. For me, choosing my favorite part, it’s a contest between the first act trio “Soave Sia il Vento” (“may the wind be gentle”) and “Per Pieta.”

“It’s hard and vulnerable and so satisfying. The music is just stunning,” Tucker said.

While her character has her heart broken in “Così fan tutte,” Tucker’s own love life has a storybook ending. Just before the pandemic, she met Japanese bass-baritone Hidenori Inoue in a Pensacola Opera production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” On the morning of their final performance, she worked up the courage to ask him out for coffee. The next day they went their separate ways but quickly reconnected by phone, and when the pandemic shut down the opera world, they had all the time in the world to get to know each other. They got married early last year.

“Long distance operatic romances are really tough,” she said. “You have to figure out when you can afford to invest in getting to know this person. I think if the pandemic didn’t happen, it would have taken a lot longer for us to get together.”

‘Così fan tutte’

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Feb. 15 and 18. 2 p.m. Feb. 20.

Where: San Diego Opera at the San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., San Diego.

Tickets: $35 and up

Phone: (619) 533-7000

Online: sdopera.org

COVID protocol: Proof of full vaccination or negative COVID-19 PCR test within 48 hours of showtime. Face masks required for all indoors.

“Così fan tutte” will be performed in Italian with English supertitles projected above the stage. The San Diego Symphony will be conducted by Bruce Stasyna, who is San Diego Opera’s chorus master and music administrator.


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