Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte is more than the sum of its parts
About a half-century ago I decided that if I was going to be serious about majoring in music, I’d better hear the Mozart operas. My first introduction to opera on vinyl was Carmen, followed by Die Walkure…somehow Mozart struck me as a little tame. Nevertheless, I dutifully plunged into the great trilogy he composed to the libretti of Lorenzo da Ponte: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte. I was a little surprised to discover that it was the latter that really captivated me, and indeed, “Cosi” remained my favorite Mozart opera for decades.
Reflecting on that circumstance some years later, I surmised that a large part of the reason was that it is an opera built on ensembles; something like nine out of the first ten vocal numbers range from duet to quintet. This makes “Cosi” an opera that, while it certainly benefits from fine singing, it is not a work that rises or falls on a great vocalist. The ensemble must work, and succeed, on many levels, or the fragile story of deceptive wooing falls apart.
Even in Mozart’s time, the notion that two young men, engaged to a pair of sisters, could successfully disguise themselves so as to woo each other’s fiancée, requires a significant suspension of disbelief. It can be downright silly, but Mozart and da Ponte use the scheme to explore searching questions about the nature of love, loyalty, betrayal and the difference between what we think we see and believe, and what we later perceive.
Cosi fan tutte only works with equally matched singers who are also on the same page in their emotional dynamics and sense of humor. There are only six characters required, but University Opera director David Ronis gave us a “six-pack” that could hardly have been a better fit. The gentlemen were played by Benjamin Hopkins as Ferrando and Kevin Green as Guglielmo, with the sisters portrayed by Cayla Roche (Fiordiligi) and Chloe Agostino (Dorabella). The ladies in particular have strong voices, but again the key was that in duos or quartet settings, the performers blended easily. The other two characters, while supportive in nature, are essential – and often miscast or misdirected. Don Alfonso is the older-but-wiser roué who challenges the young men to allow him to manipulate circumstances in order to test the ladies’ constancy, which of course the idealistic youths believe is beyond reproach. I have seen and heard a number of productions in which Alfonso is a much older man, but James Harrington looked and acted maybe twenty years older than his impetuous young friends. Harrington had a look of easy suavity, and sang with nicely understated inflection. Kelsey Wang was Despina, the ladies’ maid who becomes a willing accomplice to Alfonso’s scheme. This character, particularly when in disguise as a quack doctor and later a notary, often falls prey to cheap and clichéd vocalisms. Wang not only avoided those pitfalls, but time and again delivered phrases with sly cynicism.
Ronis again earns oodles of credit for molding his young artists into this cohesive unit. There were numerous original touches of humor that did not cross the line into easy slapstick or overly broad innuendo. Joseph Varga’s set design was bright and airy and spacious, with hints of art deco abstraction highlighted by Zak Stowe’s lighting design. Sydney Krieger and Hyewon Park gave the ladies costumes that hinted at Roaring 20s flapper sensibilities but retained a stylish elegance, and the young men were disguised in lumberjack attire, complete with lengthy locks and full beards.
Oriol Sans led 26 players of the University Symphony. The first impression he and the group made last fall in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a strong one; Mozart’s opening overture exposed the need for more refinement from the strings. But this is what Mozart’s transparent scores do to all manner of instrumentalists; more to the point is that Sans delivered a beautifully paced performance, and his players more often than not responded with genuine beauty and execution.
Ronis included an insightful note in the program focusing on the special problems today’s #MeToo movement poses for this story, but also pointed out how his cast, particularly the ladies, looked for opportunities to balance the scales, so to speak. One has to believe that the Tuesday night crowd at the Music Hall was convinced, for some casual eavesdropping at intermission and at the end gave clues that the audience — particularly the student-aged ones — were focused on the bigger picture dilemma. Indeed, while the full sextet sings a hollow paean to the reuniting of the original couples, the four continue to break away and re-seat themselves in both combinations of lovers. It was a beautiful way to emphasize Mozart and da Ponte’s point that the story is left with more questions than it answered.