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San Diego Opera is back in person this weekend

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Roland Lizarondo
Bariton Reginald Smith, Jr. sings the role of Don Alfonso in San Diego Opera's production of Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte." Feb. 8, 2022

Mozart's 'Così Fan Tutte' welcomes audiences back to Civic Theatre after an almost two-year absence

San Diego Opera is back to in-person productions at the Civic Theater after experimenting with drive-in performances during the pandemic. Mozart's "Così Fan Tutte" arrives just in time for Valentine's Day.

San Diego Opera back in person with 'Cosi Fan Tutte'

If there's anything the pandemic has taught us, it's that we need to be flexible and just roll with whatever life hands us. In a way, that’s what Mozart’s "Così Fan Tutte" is also about.

"It’s about when your heart breaks for the first time and you realize that life is not going to be as simple or as plannable as you imagined it," said Tim Nelson, director of "Così Fan Tutte."

"So I think it's a particular resonance coming out of this time where all of a sudden all of our lives were shattered in a way that we couldn't have imagined. And you realize how vulnerable you are and how unpredictable life is going to be," Nelson added.

"That's one of the best things about art is that it imitates life," baritone Reginald Smith Jr. said. "And so it's very much that sense of we all had our own individual plans and things are great and everything's going to work out.

"But now, I think, even still in the middle of this pandemic, we all have a heightened understanding and awareness of ourselves, of space, of washing our hands, but also a greater appreciation for relationships and connections and friendships. I think there's definitely a lot of life lessons that we can apply or transfer from this opera into our current situation."

For San Diego Opera’s general director David Bennett, returning to live performances needed to take into account not only artistic concerns but practical ones as well.

"It's a small opera," Bennett said. "It has a cast of six, has a relatively small chorus, and in our production, which is a new production, the chorus is off stage the entire time. So all of that, it's part of why we chose it. But it’s Mozart."

And Mozart serves up a story of transformation, which audiences can identify with especially now.

Roland Lizarondo
Mezzo- soprano Samantha Hankey, South Korean tenor Konu Kim, baritone John Brancy, and soprano Sarah Tucker play the quartet of lovers in San Diego Opera's production of Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte." Feb. 8, 2022

In "Così Fan Tutte," two sets of lovers discover that the course of true love never does run smooth, prompting Nelson to take his design cue from Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night’s Dream."

"The metaphor that Shakespeare spins out in 'Dream,' along with a lot of his plays, is of going into the woods, of going into a dark, scary place where one goes through a transformative experience and comes out on the other side different than the way they went into it," Nelson said. "The way this production will look is actually very much like a production of 'A Midsummer Night’s Dream.'"

So an idyllic poppy field where we first meet the lovers transforms into a wooded forest where Don Alfonso (sung by Smith), a confirmed bachelor, tries to prove that all women are fickle.

"So every director has a decision to make as to who is the smartest character on the stage," Nelson explained. "Whose show is it? So it's a great joy to be doing it with Reggie and having someone who's able to own not only his role, but his show, and to lean into being the mastermind and the puppeteer, the Oberon of our 'A Midsummer Night’s Dream' in a way."

Smith does command the stage as he literally steps in to direct the action.

"Of the things that makes it a more challenging role is that because he is the puppet master, much like Iago in 'Otello,' there's always this sort of little whisper going on. So he's always around and so there's a sense of you always have to be on," Smith explained.

So even when he’s not singing, Smith's Don Alfonso is busy on the periphery of the stage, bringing in trees, making it rain, and just making sure things are going according to his plans.

Nelson turned to vaudeville to add levity to some of the action on stage.

"So one of the things that we've done, conception wise, particularly in the design, is to lean into stage magic, old-fashioned vaudeville stage magic, because we're using as a central metaphor of the piece, being in a performance, being on stage," Nelson stated.

So don't be surprised when Don Alonso wipes up some rainfall from silver streamers or Despina dons a pair of Groucho Marx glasses with a fake nose and mustache and uses a giant magnet on the lovers.

But none of these antics detract from the music.

"There's something about the music of Mozart that just speaks right to your heart," Smith enthused.

What better way to spend this Valentine’s weekend than with Mozart’s playfully romantic opera, which reminds us that in matters of both the heart and life we need to be ready to roll with the punches.

"Così Fan Tutte" has four performances at the Civic Theatre starting this Saturday, Feb. 12. As a complement experience to the opera, there is a 1996 Australian film called "Cosi," directed by Mark Joffe with a screenplays by Louis Nowra who also wrote the 1992 play it was based on. Both the play and film offer a modern take on Mozart's opera. The film stars Toni Collette and Ben Mendelsohn.

"We are not selling at full capacity. We're not even selling it at half capacity. So there's a lot of opportunities to be comfortable," Bennett said.

"We are requiring proof of vaccination or proof of a negative COVID test within 24 hours of the performance. And that's part of the check-in process is to provide that to us. And then also we are requiring masking. Masking, as we all know, is going to be lifting very soon, but we sold these tickets with an audience that's anticipating being in an environment where they're all masked."