Life with 'Così' - Baritone Richard Stilwell has gotten to know Alfonso inside out

Richard Stilwell has had a long and felicitous relationship with Mozart's "Così fan tutte," the next production in Seattle Opera's 2005-06 season.

The baritone debuted in the role of the youthful Guglielmo in "Così fan tutte" at the San Francisco Opera in 1973 and the Metropolitan Opera in 1975 - only a handful of years after starting his opera career when he scored the Fisher Foundation Award at the Metropolitan Opera Auditions.

By the time Stilwell made his Seattle Opera debut in 1992 singing the part of the older Don Alfonso in "Così," he was just entering what he call his "mature years" and "switching over from doing Guglielmo." Seattle Opera audiences have now enjoyed Stilwell in several roles, most recently that of the Music Master in Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos."

Making the transition musically from Guglielmo to Don Alfonso isn't a stretch, according to Stilwell.

"The range vocally is about the same between Guglielmo and Don Alfonso," Stilwell said of the two baritone roles. "Mozart wrote all his roles that way - the Count and Figaro [in "The Marriage of Figaro"] are about the same; one is a little higher - which enables a voice like mine to do both Guglielmo and Don Alfonso, and Don Giovanni and Mazzetto in 'Don Giovanni.'"

The characters are, however, quite dissimilar, Stilwell pointed out. The suave, worldly Don Alfonso regards women as faithless creatures. His naïve young friends Ferrando and Guglielmo fiercely believe the opposite of their fiancées, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, and, full of bravura, take Don Alfonso's bet that the women cannot remain true. Don Alfonso then manipulates the proceedings so that Guglielmo and Ferrando, while in disguise as visiting Albanians, succeed in seducing their brides-to-be.

Having sung the role of Don Alfonso at several operas, including San Francisco and the Metropolitan, Stilwell has changed his concept of Alfonso's motivation since performing the part in Seattle.

"In 1992, I was thinking of Don Alfonso more simplistically. Then, I saw him as wanting to teach his friends a lesson about love. I didn't think of him in terms of being hurtful."

Now, Stilwell sees his character as far crueler, driven by a painful past.

"My guess is that Don Alfonso was wronged greatly in some love relationship. What he does doesn't make sense unless someone in his background really hurt him. In a way he's a tragic figure, probably not that happy. If he has any jovial quality, it's put on."

Arriving at an entirely new conclusion after singing the role for so long is one of the pleasures Stilwell, who has been an opera singer for 35 years, continues to find in his work.

The baritone also appreciates famed British director Dr. Jonathan Miller's modernization of the Seattle Opera production.

"These days 'Così' is almost always updated. Here, people are on cellphones and text messaging, things that the audience can relate to."

Stilwell agrees with Miller's understanding that Wagner and Beethoven were off the mark when they deemed "Così fan tutte" utterly frivolous.

"[Miller] has told us it's not going to be a happy ending. At the end, Don Alfonso basically says, 'Let's kiss and make up and go on,' but it can't be. Their lives have been turned upside down, their feelings riled up. They can never really trust each other again."

Freelance writer Maggie Larrick lives in the Seattle area and is the former editor of the News.

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