Local opera companies serve an important role, bringing opera to their communities in smaller venues, closer to home (the suburbs), and at lower prices. Opera Theatre of Northern Virginia has been doing just that for 44 seasons now, with interesting, scaled-down productions of perennial favorites, as well as lesser-known works that major companies are unlikely to touch, like the company's planned May production of Haydn's La Canterina and Donizetti's Le convenienze teatrali -- and the Haydn is a Washington-area premiere. True, the difference in ticket price means a difference in the quality of music made, inevitably so when you have a chamber ensemble of 11 instruments instead of a full orchestra and singers hired from farther down the roster performing in a middle school auditorium. Those reservations aside, OTNV has done a good job with its latest production, Mozart's Così Fan Tutte, which we thought would appeal to more people looking for an affordable opera experience, at least more than showed up Friday night at the Thomas Jefferson Community Theatre in Arlington.
Mozart's last five years on this planet were time of which any opera composer would be proud: Le nozze di Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787), Così fan tutte (1790), and La Clemenza di Tito (arguably the only one that might be described as less than a masterpiece, perhaps a failure) and Die Zauberflöte (both in 1791). Of the big four, Così Fan Tutte, ossia La scuola degli amanti (libretto in English) is probably the least known and loved, with an odd libretto that is a kooky sex farce on the surface and possibly something much more profound on a deeper level. On second thought, maybe it's just silly. This production trims down not only the orchestra, but in another cost-saving move it also eliminates the chorus. This is not that important in the first act, where there is only the chorus of soldiers who serenade the two men going off to war. However, in the second act, I for one missed those chorus numbers, although reducing the opera to a series of ensembles and a few arias did make it into a leaner dramatic exercise.
The singing was a mixed bag, led on the plus side by the solid soprano of Lisa Archibeque as Fiordiligi, ostensibly the lead female role, for the sort of soprano voice Mozart liked, with equally strong low and high registers. Baritone John Dooley brought a smooth and supple voice and a confident, even swaggering, stage presence to the role of Guglielmo. Mezzo-soprano Elaine Dalbo was visually a winner as the second, decidedly sluttier sweetheart, Dorabella. Bass Lewis Freeman had a good resonant sound as Don Alfonso; however, a lack of attention to detail led to a dropped or botched line here and there, and he sometimes rushed ahead, seemingly oblivious of the conductor. Freeman sang with some of the worst Italian pronunciation -- all diphthongs and American r's -- I have heard in a while, to the point that I was unsure if it was an intentional parody, although I have no idea what possible purpose that could have served.
The production was directed by Joe Banno, who in addition to a long record of directing work in regional theater and opera is one of the classical music critics for the Washington Post. OTNV's artistic director, John Edward Niles -- coincidentally, the son of John Jacob Niles, American composer and folk song collector -- also claimed some of the credit for the staging, which transposes the action in a cute and entertaining way from Mozart and Da Ponte's Naples to "Anytown, USA" in the present day. We find the story told in the modern old boys' club of business hell, and so Fiordiligi and Dorabella become office workers in identical cubicles with identical computer screens. Despina, instead of being their chambermaid, is the trashy bartender at the upscale martini bar they spend time in after work. In their business suits, Ferrando and Guglielmo, with their older boss, Don Alfonso (no longer a meddling philosopher), are men in need of sensitivity training, drinking and looking at girlie magazines in the office. The tragic bet is, by extension if not literally, a bit of water cooler braggadocio.
Mark J. Estren, Fiddling With 'Cosi' for Better and Worse (Washington Post, March 8)
One word to the wise: Così is a sex farce, and this production pulls no punches. If you are tempted to take a youngster to see this opera -- the final performance is tomorrow, Sunday, March 5, at 2 pm -- be aware that there is more dry humping and bare skin here than you might associate with opera. If you don't want to explain to Junior what Despina and Don Alfonso were doing off stage, and why he hands her back her own red underwear after that, wait for another opera. As for the conclusion, the two women do not go back to their respective original lovers, as Da Ponte clearly indicates in the libretto, but switch for the men who seduced them in disguise. I agree with the brief program notes that Mozart's vocal casting -- soprano ends up instead with tenor, mezzo with baritone -- could support this inversion of what Da Ponte wanted.