NEW YORK — Pity the Metropolitan Opera’s social media team, forced on Valentine’s Day to promote Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte” on Instagram as an “enchanting romantic comedy.”
“Così,” which opened the following afternoon, is no such thing. It is one of the bitterest works in the repertoire: the story of two young men who test their fiancées’ fidelity by disguising themselves and seducing each other’s girl. The title translates roughly to “all women are like that.” Enchanting!
But the Met’s marketers aren’t entirely to blame. Phelim McDermott’s production — updated to mid-20th-century Coney Island, first seen in 2018 and revived with an excellent cast Saturday — goes more for starry skies, ocean breezes and slowly rotating Ferris wheels than stark suffering. It seems unlikely that many in the audience left questioning the stability of their relationships and the reality of human connection: the test of a great “Così.”
Like too many Met updatings — another 1950s show, the company’s current “Rigoletto,” comes to mind — McDermott’s staging seems like a fresh take when you see the advertising images, but it offers an ultimately old-fashioned vision of the opera. His main intervention is the introduction of a troupe of sideshow performers — including the requisite knife swallower, snake handler and bearded lady — who bustle around the action, gently adding atmosphere and charm.
The staging briefly, barely suggests that these members of “Jungleland: Strange Beings From Every Clime” incite the lovers to their adulterous sexual adventures. A 2016 French production, set in 1930s colonial East Africa, went all the way down that road, explicitly, courageously and movingly tying the work’s gender dynamics to racial ones. But McDermott is not really interested in teasing out any kinky implications of exoticism. He’s just putting on a carnival.
If this remains a mild “Così,” with the occasional sigh of melancholy, it has a better cast now than at the premiere two years ago, and the general feel of the performance is more relaxed and confident.
Bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni, sounding rich and suave as Guglielmo, has the juiciest voice onstage, but tenor Ben Bliss sings Ferrando with poised sweetness. Nicole Car confronts the challenge of Fiordiligi with a full yet flexible soprano, its tone soft around the edges, and a modest yet honest approach to her arias; this is not a commanding portrayal, but a sympathetic, fluent one. She blends intriguingly with the Dorabella of Serena Malfi, who has a lithe, slightly wiry mezzo-soprano.
Soprano Heidi Stober has been away from the Met for a few seasons but returns with a cheerfully bright, natural, unexaggerated Despina. Gerald Finley’s bass-baritone is of modest size but precise, focused deployment as a rueful Don Alfonso, the older man who spurs the plot’s cruel games.
In Handel’s “Agrippina,” running through March 7, conductor Harry Bicket’s triumph is the richness he draws from the Met Orchestra. In “Così,” he does the opposite. I can’t remember ever hearing this ensemble sound so light, almost insubstantial — and I mean that as a compliment. This music, which for all its sublimity can sometimes drag, didn’t rush — at least not after a bracingly brisk overture — but never lagged, the textures as airy as a June morning on Coney Island.
‘Così Fan Tutte’
Through March 14 at the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center; metopera.org.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .