CosÌ fan Tutte
Opera ApertaBy Jonathan Richmond
Directed by Drew Minter
Orchestra of Emmanuel Music conducted by Craig Smith
Boston University Tsai Performance Center
685 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston
Reviewed August 4. Remaining performances August 10 and 12 at 8 p.m.
(781) 899-3112 or <http://www.opera-aperta.org> for information.
Opera Aperta’s production of Mozart’s CosÌ fan Tutte is unlikely to be beaten this summer for its pure slapstick entertainment value. At the same time, it captures the essence of humanity with profound depth.
CosÌ juggles a troupe of puppets: two guys who are apparently in love with their fiancees, but are in fact in superficial relationships, are challenged by the cynical Alfonso to prove their ladies’ fidelity. To do this, they dress up as Albanians and seduce each other’s lovers. While this is happening, however, the puppetry stops, and they discover they have found true love in each other’s betrothed.
The current production is set in Connecticut and sung in English. The English language cannot convey the musicality of the Italian, but the dramatic impact of enabling the audience to understand every word, together with the cleverness of the translation, makes the decision pay off. This is a show where the director, renowned countertenor Drew Minter, made sure that the action is snappy, and the sense of timing kept the audience glued to their seats for the full three and a half hours of the evening. And everyone laughed, though the laughter was tinged with grief for lost innocence. The production worked well because Minter understood that every movement, every breath, had to take its cue from the underlying music, so that music and action functioned together as a whole.
CosÌ can be seen as a Mozart concerto, a work which moves from a jolly opening to a shattering slow movement, before returning to the surface for its resolution. The actors not only behave superficially to begin with, but continue game playing after the seduction has begun. Then the slow movement takes us unawares as the appalling but beautiful truth about the developing relationships hits us.
Leslie Bennett was the all-round star of the evening. She plays Despina, the coffee-shop attendant who is pure trouble. Farcically funny every minute, her voice showed sharp control as well as a clarity that made the humor ring true. Her gestures and expressions had perfect timing and made her music come alive. David Kravitz was a fine Alfonso, making the character a truly nasty piece of work, and singing with distinction.
As to the quartet of lovers, all acted magnificently and sung with much expression, but Ryan Turner, as Ferrando, had trouble in smoothly delivering some of the more nearly impossible passages of his singing. Still, who is to deny the beauty of his Un’ aura amorosa?
Sarah Pelletier did not manage to electrify with the pyrotechnic vocal acts demanded from Come scoglio, but sang Per pietÀ ravishingly. This is a key aria, for it is here that Fiordiligi discovers within herself that the love of her would-be seducer is too much to resist as, alone, she begs her old love for forgiveness. Pelletier performs it as a nun in prayer, melding themes of human frailty and the hope for redemption in a performance of such unlikely honesty as to make us believe in her goodness at heart.
Pamela Dellal was consistently good as Dorabella, the flirt who we all suspect is better suited to that joker Guglielmo than to the rather over-serious Ferrando she is originally supposed to marry. Attractive vocal coloration went hand-in-hand with a keen dramatic presence. David Giuliano, the Guglielmo, was very much her match, and the two of them duetted sublimely in Il core vi dono, where the music tells us that this relationship goes beyond the sharing of genitals to a fusion of souls.
In Mozart, music counts for everything, and Craig Smith made every instrument in his orchestra an accomplice to aid and abet the action on stage. Mozart’s music never lies, and Smith took us deeper and deeper in search of the truth until the play-acting on stage could resist the music no longer as, for example, Ferrando’s heart is impaled on shrill strings when he learns that Guglielmo has successfully seduced Dorabella, and that life will never be the same again.
Smith knows that a Mozartian orchestra must show unity in ensemble but differentiation in instrumental voices, and built sublime string legatos from which woodwinds emerged to capture our imaginations and play on our heartstrings. It all sounded so effortless, but every element of phrasing was imbued with subtlety to send both shivers and delight through the psyche.
Sarah Sullivan has produced an attractive set; K. J. Gilmer’s costumes are well thought out. It is no accident that the impish Dorabella first appears in a saucy tennis outfit, while Fiordiligi’s sober-grey Wellesley College t-shirt is of the type to warn MIT boys not to try anything too fancy. It’s these sorts of things that quickly make us wonder why Dorabella is paired with the over-sincere Ferrando or Fiordiligi with the clownish Guglielmo.
There are divided schools of thought about how this opera should end. Can these lovers forgive each other and return to their original pairings when these seem so unnatural after deceit has shown the way to true love? The unsettled passages in the concluding music make such a cynical ending credible and disturbing. Yet there is another path, in which forgiveness transcends the need to stick to conventional morality and anchors it, instead, in cementing relationships of newfound truth. Drew Minter has devised the most eloquent ending yet, one in which the lovers say goodbye to the mistakes of the past and we are left at the opera’s conclusion with two couples setting off into a new and rapturous beginning.