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Summer Opera: Wolf Trap's Coozey 'Così'

(L to R) Rena Harms (Fiordiligi) and Jamie Van Eyck (Dorabella) in Così fan tutte
Wolf Trap Opera, 2009 (photo by Carol Pratt)
Mozart's evergreen Così fan tutte is one of the most often produced operas on the modern stage, officially ranked as the 15th most often performed opera in North America. In the past three years alone, we have reviewed productions at Santa Fe Opera, the Munich Opera Festival, the Washington National Opera Young Artists, and Opera Theater of Northern Virginia. Add to that a fifth one this summer, the first production of the summer by Wolf Trap Opera, heard in its final performance on Tuesday. Some early critics found the mildly salacious libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, which concerns two men seducing one another's fiancees, beneath the composer's noble genius, which is absurd. The opera asks more questions about the nature of love, attachment, and sexual desire than it answers. In fact, modern stage directors fail with it when they try to make explicit what Mozart and his librettist left, quite brilliantly, subtle and ambiguous. Do the lovers want to return to the relationships as they were at the opera's opening or not? It is a question that does not necessarily require an answer.

Director Eric Einhorn, who meddled just a bit too much with Handel's Alcina last year at Wolf Trap, seized on the theme of wife swapping and set the opera in a white-walled sex clinic (sets by Erhard Rom). A lab-coat-wearing Don Dr. Alfonso takes the role of a slightly kinky, voyeuristic Alfred Kinsey, conducting an experiment on the two couples as the chorus of lab assistants takes notes behind two-way mirrors. The prim, begloved women and straight-backed men in plain black and white gradually let go of their inhibitions and embrace the role-playing, complete with colorful costumes (designed by Mattie Ulrich). Nothing wrong with time or location transpositions in opera productions, of course, but while this concept had possibilities, it mostly just did not make sense. Why were the men going to a sex clinic and signing a contract to do this experiment, apparently without the consent of their fiancees? Why would the women show up at the clinic on their own, without knowing why they are there? Who was Despina, since she was not the womens' servant and clearly not their friend?

available at Amazon
Mozart, Così fan tutte, B. Fink, V. Gens, W. Güra, Concerto Köln, R. Jacobs
Musically, the evening was more satisfying, with a cast selected, or so it seemed, more as an ensemble than as individually striking voices -- which plays to the opera's strengths. The voices were all appropriately balanced with one another, although both Matthew Hanscom's Guglielmo and especially Carlos Monzón's Don Alfonso were overshadowed. Tenor David Portillo sang with a resonant ping as Ferrando, giving a tender performance of Un aura amorosa. Rena Harms showed a potent, if edging toward too nasal soprano as Fiordiligi, with smooth crossing of registers in Come scoglio immoto resta. Mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck built on the promise showed in a smaller role in last year's Ariadne auf Naxos. Her voice had a warm, bountiful sound, especially when combined with other voices, as in the smooth, sotto voce rendition of the trio Soave sia il vento (which lost most of its meaning, without a ship to bear the men away). Alicia Gianni got in touch with the virago side of her soprano to bring off this ballsy, sexually frank Despina.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, New 'Così,' Fresh Troubles (Washington Post, June 29)

T. L. Ponick, Musicians put fun into 'Cosi' (Washington Times, June 29)

Tim Smith, Wolf Trap Opera takes clinical look at 'Cosi fan tutte' (Clef Notes, July 1)
Timothy Myers led a generally fine performance from the pit orchestra, with especially agile playing from the paired woodwinds. Even though the two trumpets and timpani were located in a tiny room just off the already crowded pit, they kept themselves admirably together with the rest of the group. Cuts were made to the score (the usual ones, plus a couple more) to keep the overall performance time, with one short intermission, to just over three hours. Even so, the constant puzzlement about the director's reworking of the story made the opera seem longer than ever. In general, if a director feels the need to dress up an overture -- especially Così, perhaps Mozart's finest -- with invented supernumerary stage business, it is a sign of weakness, that the director does not trust the work on its own, and from the overture on, this Così struck the eye as over-manipulated. It was telling that the few moments where the busy silliness stopped and Mozart's music was allowed to stand on its own -- like the end of Un aura amorosa (where Ferrando sang to Dorabella on the other side of a door) and Fiordiligi's Per pietà -- were the most captivating ones in the production. With a great opera like Così, one is often better off just getting out of Mozart and Da Ponte's way.

Many of the cast members will return later this month in the company's second production, Monteverdi's Il Ritorno d'Ulisse, which we expect to be the highlight of the season (July 24, 26, and 28). Finally, we get to find out what all those Penelope references in Così were about.

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