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Monday, 04 June 2012 19:04

Flaws and all, Opera Theatre's 'Cosi' is a gem

Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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experienceopera.org / Ken Howard
experienceopera.org / Ken Howard

Would we still be doing "Cosi fan Tutte" if it didn't have music by Mozart? Sure, Da Ponte’s libretto has a cynical modern edge, but its casual sexism is pretty grating to a contemporary audience.

Director Michael Shell nevertheless makes a good case for it right up to the final ensemble, when his deliberately revisionist take lost me completely. Still, it’s beautifully sung and played and intelligently acted, and that’s what really matters.

“Cosi fan Tutte” roughly translates as "all women are like that". The excellent modern English rhyming translation by British composer and director Jeremy Sams tries to take a bit of the anti-woman sting out of it by translating it as “we’re all like that”, but there’s no getting around the fact that the libretto is far more critical of the constancy of women. The guys get a free pass.

For those of you new to it, the plot of “Cosi” goes like this: two army officers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, are so convinced of the faithfulness of their fiancées—Dorabella and her sister Fiordiligi, respectively—that they accept a bet from their cynical philosopher friend Don Alfonso that the women can't be seduced. Don Alfonso convinces the boys to go away on a mock military expedition and then return in disguise and attempt to woo each other’s fiancées. The usual complications ensue, helped along by the wily and very practical maid Despina. It’s all wrapped up with a not entirely convincing happy ending in which everyone rather improbably agrees to forgive and forget, but only after the disillusioned officers are forced to admit, in the words of Sherlock Holmes, that "women are never to be entirely trusted—not the best of them."

This may sound like the basis for a romantic comedy, and most of the time it is. But “Cosi” sails deeper waters than that, and in Act II the comedy stops dead for some dramatic arias that point out the very real pain and guilt that come with betrayal—a subject very much on Mozart’s mind at the time. Mr. Shell and his excellent cast make no attempt to sugar-coat any of the drama, which works very well, but faced with the abrupt shift to a happy ending, he has chosen to have them play against the text and make it plain that the women are still justifiably resentful and their fiancées still suspicious. I understand the logic, but to me if felt no more satisfying than playing the finale as written.

Part of the problem, I think, is that this “Cosi” is beautifully set and costumed (by James Schuette) as a late 18th-century period piece, so having Dorabella and Fiordiligi respond to the abusive behavior of Ferrando and Guglielmo as modern women would seems jarring. It would have made more sense, I think, to do the whole thing in modern dress (which, after all, is how it was done in 1790) and adopt a 21st-century attitude from the start. Jonathan Miller famously (or maybe infamously) did that back in 1995, but as he got roasted by most critics, others might be reluctant to follow his example.

Still, for the three hours and ten minutes preceding that final ensemble, Opera Theatre’s "Cosi fan tutte" is firing on all cylinders. The comedy of the first act is hilarious and precise, the dramatic scenes in the second act are played with great feeling, and the voices of this very strong cast are solid. Mr. Shell is a bit overly fond of having his cast stand on furniture and roll around on the floor (although less so than in last season’s “Don Giovanni”), but on the whole he keeps the action plausible and motivated in ways that more opera directors would do well to emulate.

Tenor David Portillo and baritone Liam Bonner make a great “Mutt and Jeff” comedy duo as Guglielmo and Ferrando. Mr. Portillo has a very impressive head voice, which he uses to great effect in the more dramatic moments in the second act, while Mr. Bonner’s instrument is clear and powerful voice throughout its range. They blend nicely in their ensembles.

Soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen makes an impressive Opera Theatre debut as Fiordiligi. The role is a challenging one, with some heavy dramatic lifting in the second act and florid passages throughout. She handles it all with ease. Mezzo Kathryn Leemhuis, who has done such fine work here in the past, continues her winning streak with an impeccably sung and acted Dorabella.

As the indispensable Despina, Soprano Jennifer Aylmer steals every scene she’s in, especially when Despina is passing herself off as a doctor or lawyer. Ms. Aylmer has terrific comic chops and a voice to match. It’s hard to imagine this role being done better.

Baritone James Maddalena is all manipulative insincerity Don Alfonso, a man in whose mouth butter would not only not melt but probably freeze solid as well. His voice seemed a bit lacking in power compared to the rest of the cast, but his acting was beyond reproach.

Robert Ainsley’s chorus is, once again, a model of precision and clarity. The orchestra sounded great under Jean-Marie Zeitouni, with an especially fleet-footed reading of the overture. I would have preferred it if Mr. Shell had refrained from filling the stage with business while the overture was playing, although I must admit Shaun Sheley’s fight choreography was impressive.

So, yes, I have some reservations about Opera Theatre’s "Cosi fan tutte" but they’re so minor in comparison to all the things that work in this production that I have no hesitation in recommending it. The comedy is uproarious and the drama is affecting. It is, in short, the crown jewel of the season so far.

Performances continue through June 22nd at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For more information, you may visit experienceopera.org.

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