Cosi fan Tutte – JSO Opera review

by Jeff Grove
The Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra’s annual foray into fully staged opera brought Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte’s acid romantic comedy Cosi fan Tutte to the stage of the Moran Theater in the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts on Feb. 13. The performance deftly melded musical and theatrical values in a perfect pre-Valentine’s Day treat.
The opera, whose politically incorrect title roughly translates as All Women are Like That, tells the tale of a cynical bachelor, Don Alfonso, who believes all women to be faithless. Tired of hearing the young officers Ferrando and Guglielmo extol the virtues of their sibling fiancees, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, Alfonso offers the men a wager: if they follow his orders for twenty-four hours, he will prove that their girlfriends’ hearts can easily be turned toward new lovers.
Alfonso directs Ferrando and Guglielmo to pretend that they are being deployed overseas. They soon return, however, disguised as foreigners, and each is given the task of wooing the other’s sweetheart. The women resist at first, but Alfonso enlists the help of their maid, Despina, and the sisters eventually succumb to their new suitors’ charms, only to be surprised by the “return” of Ferrando and Guglielmo, who have lost their bet with Alfonso.
The opera’s conclusion, as written, is ambiguous, allowing for several possible interpretations. In Mozart’s time, it was almost certainly staged with the couples returning to their original configurations, sadder but wiser. These days, productions often have the couples exchange partners, as if they realize that they are better matched this way, and that was the case here. Stage director A. Scott Parry even posited a third couple at the end, as Despina threw herself into Alfonso’s arms and kissed him enthusiastically.
Cosi fan Tutte is a demanding farce, both as theater and as music. There are no supporting parts to pick up the slack, and there is very little for the chorus to do, so the six principals must come off well as individuals and as a team. The Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra put together an impressive ensemble that was up to the task.
As Alfonso, bass-baritone Stephen Bryant proved an effective ringleader and puppeteer. In a role that is often assigned to aging veterans whose voices are well past their “sell by” dates, Bryant instead offered full, ringing tone, nicely inflected with the character’s certainty that he is right about everything. Bryant was a responsive actor, as well, always listening to the other characters and letting his face say as much as his voice.
The young officers, identically uniformed at first, were nevertheless well contrasted in voice and manner. Baritone Philip Cutlip sang Guglielmo with firm focus and a meaty, masculine color. Tenor Matthew Garrett may have brought a lighter voice to Ferrando, but he projected well just the same, and held his own in ensemble numbers. The differences in the two men’s voices helped to separate their characters, and Cutlip and Garrett easily generated the special kind of chemistry that distinguishes comrades in arms.
Fiordiligi is a killer role, as Mozart deliberately forces interpreters to leap over huge intervals from one note to the next for comic effect, but soprano Barbara Shirvis had no reason to shrink from the part. In both of her showpiece arias, she tossed off high-flying vocal acrobatics and cavernous low notes with equal ease – sometimes having to switch from one to the other almost instantaneously.
Christine Abraham sang the part of Dorabella. Christine began her career as a mezzo-soprano but has now styled herself upward in range as a soprano and sang with a rich, earthy timbre, happily avoiding the fruitiness that afflicts some women in this repertory. While her voice had the fullness required of this slightly lower role, she still sounded as young and beautiful as she looked.
Rounding out the cast, soprano Stacey Tappan presented a dramatically spunky, vocally sparkling Despina. In Tappan’s hands, the character rose above being Alfonso’s pawn, and took on a strong inner motivation when she realized that her view of men had much in common with Alfonso’s view of women.
Twenty members of the Jacksonville Symphony Chorus made the most of their several short appearances. Dr. Jon O. Carlson, who prepares the chorus before its final rehearsals with the music director, had clearly worked out issues of balance and blend, allowing the choristers to cut loose onstage and have fun without sacrificing musicianship.
Scenery (by David P. Gordon) and costumes (by Howard Tsvi Kaplan), borrowed from the Sarasota Opera, faithfully reflected the opera’s intended setting in eighteenth-century Naples. A curved colonnade bounded a warmly tiled ellipse that could quickly be redressed to represent various locales with no break at all, giving the opera an almost cinematic flow.
That speed was abetted by JSO Music Director Fabio Mechetti’s choice to follow the fairly common practice of omitting one of Ferrando’s arias and another of Dorabella’s, as well as to tighten up many of the secco recitatives – those harpsichord-accompanied, swiftly declaimed passages that link the main musical numbers of so many operas composed before the mid-nineteenth century.
The recitatives were fleetly, skillfully accompanied by Scott Watkins, whose instrument, elevated on a platform within the orchestra pit, carried well into the vast space of the Moran Theater.
Mechetti, meanwhile, paced the fully orchestrated passages beautifully, often dovetailing them so seamlessly with the surrounding recitatives, as the score demands, that the audience often seemed unsure about whether it was all right to clap at the end of a number, lest its applause drown out the beginning of an ensuing scene. The mostly string-based orchestra supported the singers very well, with woodwind and brass players adding nicely pointed bits of color.
Since Jacksonville remains the largest city in America without a full-scale professional opera company of its own, and since many smaller cities manage to support professional opera, too, it’s important that the JSO continues to devote at least one weekend a year to this grandest of art forms – and that it does it so consistently well.