Review: Madcap and impressively sung ‘Così fan tutte’
August 29, 2015
A superb Mozart conductor, an energetic and vocally accomplished cast, an amusing setting and mostly sharp direction added up to a terrific opening performance Tuesday of the Mozart-da Ponte opera "Così fan tutte." A nearly full Wheeler Opera House audience laughed heartily at the situations and responded raptly to the many musical highlights. The final of the three performances is on Saturday.
With Jane Glover leading an all-student orchestra and keeping an ideal balance, the singers produced one glorious moment after another in a score enlivened by iconic arias, wonderful duets and ensemble scenes that invigorate the score.
Visiting director James Robinson, whose work is often seen at Opera Theater of St. Louis, updated the time and scene to a sort of late 1950s-early 1960s "Mad Men" vibe. In this setting, Don Alfonso, a cynical gray-haired advertising executive, bets two young friends (Ferrando and Gugliemo) that he can prove their fiancees aren't as faithful as they believe. He sets the men to wooing (in disguise) their opposite fiancees. Fiordiligi and Dorabella as Pan Am stewardesses (the gender-neutral "flight attendants" would be years away) and their maid Despina, portrayed here as a world-weary, hard-edged character of the sort played in many films of that era by Thelma Ritter, get the short end of this story, just as the men do in "Don Giovanni" and "Le Nozze di Figaro."
The updating worked, thanks in part to liberal interpretations of the Italian libretto in the projected titles. They were appropriately vernacular and with a few sly inside jokes. Throughout most of the opera, the action responded to the music in often-hilarious detail. This sort of musical legerdemain animated one comic moment after another. The final scene of Act I went full-on Marx Brothers, with Ferrando and Guglielmo channeling Groucho and Harpo at their most libidinous. A sudden forte shriek in the soprano's music was timed perfectly to her leg being felt up.
Though technically an all-student cast, several have sung or covered important roles at major opera companies, and it showed in their work. They inhabited their characters physically and sang with individually distinctive personalities.
As Fiordiligi, dramatic soprano Yelena Dyachek unleashed volcanic but richly burnished fortes that could recede into creamy, soft phrases in a heartbeat. The character's octave-plus skips held no fear for her, and the showcase arias ("Come scoglio" and "Per pietà") reached dizzying heights of expression.
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As her sister, Dorabella, mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey used supple tone that could raise the intensity level when needed. Duets with Dyachek were keenly balanced and beautiful, and her romantic temptation to Guglielmo felt real.
Paul Han as Ferrando and Geoffrey Hahn as Guglielmo made the most of their increasingly conflicted feelings and put on a smirk-worthy show in their scenes as faux-Albanians. (For those too distant from the stage to read it, the logo on the back of their painter's overalls read "Albanian Décor.") Han's sweet lyric tenor caressed "Un aura amorosa" smoothly. Hahn, identified in the program as a bass but singing like an excellent lyric baritone, made a virile presence as Guglielmo, especially in "Donne mie, la fate a tanti," his aria directed at the audience when he realizes Don Alfonso was right about supposed fidelity.
Fan Jia, listed as a baritone, sang the bass role of Don Alfonso with seething anger that eventually resolves into satisfied worldliness. He displayed a full range and plenty of character. His suave bottom line completed the incomparable trio "Soave sia il vento" as Dyachek and Hankey carried the top lines gracefully.
Mezzo-soprano Sofia Selowsky's sometimes missed the lilt in Despina's music, she made the character, usually played cute, into an amusingly grumpy maid with hard-edged singing to match. She got big laughs for her turns as a yellow-gloved and -booted doctor and fussy notary in the faux-wedding finale.
Glover's conducting couldn't have been better. She caught the naturalness and flow of the score perfectly and had the stage and pit blending seamlessly. The orchestra kept getting better as the evening went on.
As pinpoint as much of the stage direction was, the ending left an unsatisfying taste. Most productions either reunite the original betrothed or have them switch partners. It's become fashionable to have them all turn on Don Alfonso, but here they just dispersed with unclear effect.
As it should be in opera, the music prevailed.
NOT TO MISS IN THE COMING DAYS
Tonight's Chamber Symphony program features violinist Stefan Jackiw in works by Mozart Lutoslawski, and more voices from the Opera Theater Center in Beethoven's Choral Fantasy. The phenomenal pianist Marc-André Hamelin plays Mozart, Debussy and Schubert in Harris Hall on Saturday plus his own kicky Variations on a Theme by Paganini. Sunday's season finale features music director Robert Spano conducting Susanna Phillips in Mozart and Ravel before turning to Mahler's super-serious Symphony No. 6, with its thumps of fate.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 21 years. His reviews appeared twice a week in The Aspen Times.
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