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Washington National Opera’s ‘Così fan tutte’ is skillfully out of sync with the times

A fuss-free approach and a stellar cast save Mozart’s rom-com from itself

From left, Kang Wang, Laura Wilde, Ferruccio Furlanetto and Andrey Zhilikhovsky in “Così fan tutte” at Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center. (Scott Suchman/The Kennedy Center)
correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed the projection designs to Ehrhard Rom. They were designed by S. Katy Tucker. This article has been corrected.

“Così fan tutte” is a charming little comedy about two pairs of lovers caught in a whirlwind of passion and doubt, driven by devotion to deception and reconciled in the end by the power of love.

Or, in 2022 terms, it’s the story of two rich bros gaslighting their fiancees, catfishing them with false identities (fake mustaches, the whole bit), coercing them into infidelity, driving them to the brink of madness, claiming it was all a big joke, then blaming women for all the trouble. “Women are like that,” grumbles Don Alfonso, opera’s original mansplainer.

As returns to normal go, Mozart’s bubbly 1790 comedy is certainly a choice. On one hand, it’s one of opera’s most popular confections, a reliably seat-filling folly and a ribald laugh at the expense of our worst instincts as people desperately trying over the centuries to get with each other.

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On the other, it’s hard to imagine a “normal” we’re trying harder not to get back to. (That was hard to say.) What I mean is, when putting on a show such as “Così,” one might be tempted to pull some heavy moves on the material, demonstrate some brute agency over its tired tropes, maybe even retrofit it with new sexual politics — turn it into “Ferrando & Dorabella & Guglielmo & Fiordiligi.

Suffice it to say, an opera most commonly translated to “Women Are Like That” hits different in 2022. (Not to mention, if it weren’t for that pesky feminine plural, we’d have the more justly titled “So Do They All”!)

It pleases me to report that the Washington National Opera’s production of “Così fan tutte” — a carry-over from a 2020-2021 season postponement, now onstage at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater through March 26 — refrains from wrenching the opera out of its box. Rather, it gently removes it from its package, sets it upon the stage, displays its beauties like a precious antique, and polishes its flaws to a point where you can see your reflection in them.

Directed by Alison Moritz, this “Così” throws an extra frame around itself, in which the characters, left to suffer their own daftness and each other’s cleverness, move through the action with the comic doom of a silent film. Erhard Rom’s sets, too, strike a fine balance between caricatured opulence and comic minimalism, with S. Katy Tucker’s projections casting elegant filigrees to fill parlor walls, streaks of marble to conjure a garden. Now and then, a Monty Python-esque hand descends from above clutching flowers or a leg of chicken. The whole thing is enchantingly cheeky.

Led by conductor Erina Yashima, the WNO Orchestra performed with ramped-up vigor, riding Mozart’s melodic updrafts (the ones that counter the story’s downward spiral) and contributing some of the evening’s best comic timing.

Mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb is now one of my favorite Dorabellas, her eyes as expressive as her voice, and her timing just as pitch-perfect, well suited to her mercurial passions and fits. Soprano Laura Wilde sang a formidable Fiordiligi, her voice capable of hardening into stone (“Come scoglio”) and softening with longing (“Per pietà, ben mio perdona”).

Tenor Kang Wang and baritone Andrey Zhilikhovsky brought pathos, power and pure ham to their respective Ferrando and Guglielmo — Zhilikhovsky the bigger goofball of the two, Wang the bigger voice. (His “Tradito, schernito” was a highlight.) And Ana María Martínez (as the scheming Despina) and Ferruccio Furlanetto (as a the scamming Don Alfonso) made a (literally) irresistible duo of master manipulators.

As socially dissonant as Mozart’s rom-com (which is really more of a rom-con) may be, operating from a premise that men are trash does nothing to mar its merits. “Così” may be subject to postponement, but it will never be canceled.

“Così fan tutte” runs through March 26 at the Kennedy Center. Visit kennedy-center.org for tickets and information.

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