Fort Worth — The Fort Worth Opera is on a roll. The third opera of the 2014 festival, Mozart’s Così fan tutte, opened on Saturday evening and is as successful as the other two we’ve seen so far, Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers and Daniel Crozier's With Blood With Ink). There is one more to go, Kevin Puts’ Silent Night, and there is every reason to suspect that it will only add to the luster of the season: four for four.
Così fan tutte is the last of the three magnificent operas Mozart wrote with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte (the other two being The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni). It opened in 1790 and would have had a successful run except that the death of Emperor Joseph II put the court in mourning. Così fell out of favor in the very proper 19th century. It was considered to be risqué, what with its plot of fiancée swapping—which was hardly its first appearance on the stage. Besides, the broadly comic manner in which the subject is treated could never be mistaken for serious commentary. The Metropolitan Opera didn’t present it until 1922, but once revived, Così has steadily moved up in popularity. It now occupies the 14th spot in the Operabase list of most performed operas (a fascinating resource, BTW).
The plot is slim. Two couples are about to be married. The idealistic young suitors think that their intendeds are paragons of virtue. Their world-weary friend Don Alfanso bets them that he can prove they are not and, as Sherlock Holmes would say, the game is afoot. The two guys take their tearful goodbyes, supposedly to go to war. They quickly return, but disguised as Albanians in silly Aladdinish costumes and fake moustaches, to woo each other’s fiancée. Alfonso enlists the lady’s maid, Despina, to help advance the scheme. At first, the girls remain steadfast, but eventually give in—first one then the other. Just as they are about to be married to the Albanians, the guys duck out, change costumes and return as themselves. They are mock horrified to see how quickly they were forgotten and replaced. But, they reveal their Albanian disguise, the women take the joke with grace and the men shrug their shoulders and say “così fan tutte” (“women are like that”). Happy Ending.
Part of the attraction of Così as an opera is that it is a virtuoso showcase for six singers and, as such, a successful performance, properly cast, allows the audience to revel in some magnificent singing. The FWO has put together just such a cast of young singers. All six are in complete command of their technique and Mozart’s style. They easily surmount the many difficulties in the score. Quite honestly, none of the six would be out of place in any major opera house.
A successful production must also walk a fine line between comedy and banana-peel slapstick and stage director David Gately does a wonderful job of that particular balancing act. The ridiculous scenes, such as Despina’s outrageous disguises, are played to the hilt but he gives the interaction between the two couples an overlay of believability that makes the characters more than caricatures.
Although Mozart states that all three of the women are generic sopranos, in modern times the roles are sung by contrasting voices. Dorabella is usually sung by a mezzo-soprano, which allows for a contrast with her compatriot (the other financé), Fiordiligi. Despina, their maid, can be (and has been) cast in many different ways, from a light soubrette to a mezzo. Here, she is a lyric soprano with a bit more heft than usual.
Of the men, Ferrando is always a lyric tenor but of his counterpart, Guglielmo, and the wily Don Alfanso, there is more of a question. Guglielmo’s music is lower than Alfanso’s but they are usually cast opposite of that with Guglielmo being the higher voice, a lyric baritone, and Alfanso being a bass. This is the way this production is cast.
As Fiordiligi, soprano Jan Cornelius is as good as the best of them. Mozart gives her music of such extreme range that few sopranos can sing it as evenly as Cornelius, who never resorts to chest voice. You could wish that Kathryn Leemhuis had a little more of the mezzo quality about her voice, for contrast purposes, but vocally she is a perfect Dorabella.
Librettist Da Ponte paints Fiorfiligi as the more prim hold out and Dorabella as much more open to the idea of a dalliance while the men are away. Although both singers deliver the vocal fireworks, it is in the creation of these two different two characterizations that Cornelius and Leemhuis really shine. Without making Firodeligi a prig and Dorabella a flirt, the two singers perfectly capture the difference in the characters.
This duality is also contained in the role of Despina. Kerriann Otaño is a full-throated soprano with little of the soubrette about her. Mozart asks her to portray Despina and later, Despina in two outrageous disguises. When she is Despina, she is matter-of-fact, deriving the humor from her deadpan delivery. When she is in costume as two other characters, she plays it as broadly as she can with one even being a hiccupping drunkard. The role doesn’t have all the spectacular music the other two women get. Despina’s arias are more expository and Otaño captures just the right touch of impatience with the two women as she explains how things are in the real world.
Tyler Simpson is a different Don Alfanso than usual. More often then not, the role is cast with an older and rotund buffo basso of the Don Pasquale sort. Simpson, while still on the bass side of baritone, is the opposite. He is tall, handsome and distinguished—a statesman perhaps, and not all that much older than the two guys. In his portrayal, staging the test of the two women is a fleeting idea tossed out when the three of them are visiting. But once he sees the naïve and impassioned defense the men make of their fiancées’ steadfastness, he throws down his gauntlet and the men pick it up. In Simpson’s portrayal, Alfanso warms to the joke as it progresses and the whole ruse proves to be a lot more fun than he expected.
As the two hapless men, Scott Quinn’s Ferrando and Paul Scholten’s Guglielmo, are so fresh faced that Alfanso can hardly resist teaching them a lesson. Both are fine singers and have the acting skills to pull off such unrealistic roles. Quinn’s tenor voice is well-produced and he has the technical prowess to sing Mozart’s music with ease. However, occasionally his chin rises and then the sound lacks depth, as though the lower overtones are missing. Scholten’s creamy baritone voice is much more even but he sounds a little underpowered.
The production is moved from Mozart’s era to the 1920’s for no apparent reason. The director doesn’t appear to be making a directorial comment. However, it does give the costumer the chance to design some terrific flapper-era dresses (costumes and set are from Opera Carolina). The men are changed from infantry to sailors, also for no apparent reason. But the white uniforms are very sharp. The Albanian getup is terrific, an explosion of gilded scarves. This is even funnier when the ladies show up in the same garb for their wedding.
The set is very serviceable and subtly implies “rich people live here.” It is a mesh of golden metal arches and alcoves, reminiscent of a large greenhouse or winter garden. There is also grand staircase. All together, it implies a fancy hotel in some ritzy European resort. The various locations, (parlor, garden, bedroom etc.) are indicated by set pieces that the maids and butlers (hotel staff perhaps) move in and out. Its elegant vagueness works quite well in this situation. In fact, it would work quite well in many different operas, from Traviata to Fledermaus.
On opening night, conductor Garrett Keast had trouble staying with the stage all evening. It is all the rage to take the quick tempi in Mozart as fast as possible these days so it wasn’t a surprise that the overture pushed the players just a hair past what is desirable, or even possible. However, tempi continued to be rushed. Further, when a singer would catch a breath or give the end of a phrase some room, he frequently went on and thus found himself slightly ahead. Other times, his large energetic beat pattern caused some confusion, resulting in ragged entrances in the orchestra—right up to the introduction of the finale. Surely, these problems will not be present in subsequent shows, but his performance on opening night was not up to the standards set by the singers.
Other reviews from the 2014 Fort Worth Opera Festival:
- Bizet's The Pearl Fishers
- The popera outfit Forte, featuring Sean Panikkar
- Daniel Crozier's With Blood, With Ink
- Kevin Puts' Silent Night
Remaining Schedule of 2014 Fort Worth Opera Festival Performances
Tuesday, May 6 7:30 p.m. McDavid Studio With Blood, With Ink
Wednesday, May 7 7:30 p.m McDavid Studio With Blood, With Ink
Thursday, May 8 6:00 p.m McDavid Studio Frontiers Showcase #1
Friday, May 9 3:00 p.m. McDavid Studio Frontiers Showcase #2
Friday, May 9 7:30 p.m. McDavid Studio With Blood, With Ink
Saturday, May 10 2:00 p.m. McDavid Studio With Blood, With Ink
Saturday, May 10 7:30 p.m. Bass Hall Silent Night
Sunday, May 11 2:00 p.m. Bass Hall Così fan tutte