Passion puts ‘Così fan tutte’ over the top

Harvey SteimanSpecial to The Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

Aspen Opera Theater scored a hit last week with “Così fan tutte,” Mozart’s comic opera, mainly because the sheer energy and passion that went into it exceeded the sum of its parts.Despite an uneven cast, orchestral playing that can best be described as scrappy, and a clever directorial conception that took a few steps too far, the performance Thursday succeeded mainly on the experienced conducting of George Manahan and sharply drawn characterizations in all six major roles.Director Edward Berkeley staged the opera on a unit set that suggested a circus, and dressed Don Alfonso, the cynical old man who sets the complicated plot in motion, as the ringmaster, in red vest covering a false paunch, top hat and tails. Played by Korean bass Hyong Sik Jo, Alfonso strides on stage during the overture, faces the audience and mouths “così fan tutte” (“so do all women”) when the music for those words crops up. That was a nice touch. So were the clowns that served as his assistants and stagehands, and turned out to be the chorus.The clowns interacted with the cast, commenting silently and comically on the action and plot twists. That was fine, but things got out of hand when the characters themselves started to act like they had escaped from a Marx brothers movie, or broke into a stage dance when the music got lively. Uh-uh. That’s what the clowns were for. And for Pete’s sake, even a flibbertigibbet pair like these two girls would not permit a young man to crawl up under her dress.The plot of “Così” begins when two young men, Ferrando and Guglielmo, praise the fidelity of their girlfriends, Dorabella and Fiordiligi. Alfonso laughs at their naiveté. He bets he can prove them wrong in one day if the boys will cooperate fully with him. Along the way, he enlists the help of Despina, the girls’ maid. As wily as Alfonso in her own way, Despina doesn’t realize until too late that she’s been had, too.The boys pretend to ship off with the army and return disguised as mustachioed Albanians, each to woo the other’s lover. At first the girls refuse, but who can resist a persistent Albanian for long? They succumb. They sign marriage contracts. The plot is unmasked, and they try to sort things out.Soprano Tamara Wilson made the strongest impression vocally as Fiordiligi, strong, secure and arresting of tone. She was solid in “Come scogliio,” but the real triumph was “Per pietà,” in which she wavers after spurning the attentions of the disguised Ferrando (who is actually Dorabella’s fiancé). Tenor William Ferguson, who has sung lead roles at New York City Opera, seemed to be having vocal troubles, especially in the higher range, but he carried it off with musical guile and good acting.As Guglielmo, baritone Craig Verm, an Aspen opera regular, led the male contingent with muscular singing. Jo, as Alfonso, wielded a lighter sound but managed to be the center of gravity with his stage presence. Mezzo soprano Sarah Elizabeth Wolfson stopped just short of overmugging as Despina, investing the character and her music with plenty of personality.Manahan held it all together in the pit, bringing a sure sense of tempo, timing and balance to the proceedings. He got good balances in the ensembles, especially the gorgeous trio “Soave sia il vento.” Articulation was a problem for the orchestra, however.The big question in any production of “Così fan tutte” is who ends up with whom after the disguises are unmasked. Once fooled, would the girls want to go with the guys who wooed them, or their original lovers? Modern girls would tell them both to get lost, of course, but there’s that final sextet to sing, and who pairs up with whom? In this production, they go back to their original partners but they don’t look too happy about it. For the curtain calls, they pair up the other way.And that makes sense, After all, the soprano goes with the tenor and the mezzo with baritone. It’s opera, isn’t it?