As I find my seat, somehow, I’ve been transported through space and time to an ancient amphitheater in the heart of Rome. The ceiling, gaping wide open and blue, ushers the breath of the earth into the structure and sends the music up to the sky. Crumbling brick walls loom over the courtyard on all sides. But this amphitheater is neither ancient nor Roman. The sun casts golden rays over the rusted pipes and dusty gray bricks that give Minneapolis’ Mill City Ruins central courtyard—the result of an explosion in the flour mill in 1878—its distinct, distressed appearance.
Since 2012, the Mill City Summer Opera (MCSO) has staged unique, semi-outdoors (and sometimes mosquito-bitten or rain-washed) summer operas. Unfortunately, this summer marks your last chance to see the Opera in the ruins before they move the tradition to a new location, at St. Paul’s Paikka, in 2020. The Minnesota Historical Society, which owns the Ruin Courtyard, did not give a reason for not renewing the contract, according to the MCSO. But the opera’s new space will maintain the open-air vibes: Starting next year, it will occupy a space that opens onto a patio.
That’s all the more reason to catch Così fan tutte this weekend. As the show begins, the wind rustles through the Ruins’ open windows, ruffling hair, clothing, and greenery, a reminder that the audience and performers are at the mercy of the natural elements.
The orchestra hovers just behind the stage, blending into the shadows cast by a towering brick wall. A hush falls over the crowd as the strings begin to hum the first phrases of Mozart’s opera. Its short title literally means, “So do they all,” in Italian, but it’s often translated into English as, “Women are like that,” indicative of some of its more controversial themes.
Before the performers appear on stage, a scene of mid-WWII Italy has already been carefully constructed. The stage incorporates the mill ruin, with dilapidated antique furniture, fallen candelabra, distressed Roman-style columns, and a classical marble statue in the center of a quaint flower garden. The gentle green waterfall of vines and hedges tie the ancient and the living together.
Because of the Ruin Courtyard’s size, neither the performers nor the orchestra use speakers to project, bringing the audience up close and personal to strong acoustics.
Director Crystal Manich has taken the music, lyrics, and emotions of Mozart’s 1790s opera and placed them in 1940s Italy, complete with soldiers’ trench coats and shiny high-heeled shoes.
In an Italian bar, soldiers Ferrando (Javier Abreu) and Guglielmo (Sidney Outlaw) believe that their fiancés will be faithful no matter what, so they place a bet against their pessimistic and troublemaking friend, Don Alfonso (Andrew Wilkowske), to prove it. Their ladies, sisters Dorabella (Sarah Larsen) and Fiordiligi (Karin Wolverton), mope hysterically once their men get called to war. But Despina (Heather Johnson), the flamboyant and promiscuous maid, encourages them to have fun while their fiancés are away.
In keeping with their bet, Ferrando and Guglielmo return to their fiancés, disguised as ridiculously fringy and colorful “Alabaman” cowboys in huge hats and curly mustaches. Somehow, their disguises fool the sisters, and the odds seem to be in their favor. Dorabella and Fiordiligi initially resist the two “Alabamans’” advances, but, slowly, the women are tempted and give in. The twist is that each falls for the other fiancé. Needless to say, chaos ensues.
Manich and the MCSO have taken a risk choosing this show. Known even during Mozart’s time as his most controversial opera, Così fan tutte has not-so-subtle misogynistic themes. As many operas do, it exaggerates the drama of relationships. But it also exaggerates stereotypes for humor, portraying women as hysterical and silly caricatures and men as lustful and risky pranksters. In the end, the opera walks a fine line between satire and sexist clichés. To enjoy the drama, you have to keep its historical context and satiric tone in mind.
With a running time of nearly three hours, Così fan tutte also requires a strong attention span. Unsurprisingly, many of the young children and their parents left after intermission. The opera is sung in Italian, and, while there are subtitles, sometimes they disappear for an entire song, making it tough to pay close attention.
However, in those moments when I couldn’t understand the language, I found myself focusing on the facial expressions and soaking up the raw emotion deftly expressed by a local and national cast.
Così fan tutte captures the raw, messy, and fun flirtations of romantic relationships, the struggles of heartbreak, and the confusion that love can bring. Even if you can’t understand the words, you’ll find yourself smiling and laughing along with the characters. Eventually, the world outside the brick walls is forgotten as this little courtyard travels through time on the musical wings of Mozart. We’ll think of you fondly, Ruin Courtyard.
Così fan tutte
July 18 | July 20 | July 22 | July 24
Mill City Museum Courtyard Ruins
704 S. Second St., Minneapolis 55401