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Unstaged "Cosi " All One Could Wish For

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Jun 12, 2006 - 12:00:00 AM in reviews_2006

"Cosi fan tutte," Mozart’s witty send-up of romantic love, proved that less is more Sunday afternoon in Patricia Corbett Theater at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.
   Curtain raiser for the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra’s Mozart Mini-Festival, the performance showed what can be done without sets, costumes and all the complexities and expense of staged opera.
   Led by music director Mischa Santora, the 33-piece CCO was seated onstage to the left. the singers on the right, allowing them to enter, exit and utilize their dramatic skills, just as in a staged production. A pair of chairs, a table and a screen set the scene, updated from 18th-century Naples to the present, leaving the rest to the imagination.
   The cast wore contemporary clothes except actor Buzz Davis, who was dressed as Mozart’s librettist Lorenzo da Ponte in white wig and period costume. Davis, acting coach at Moeller High School, delivered a lively narration by stage director Robert Neu compiled from the opera’s recitatives. The opera was sung in Italian, with no surtitles.
   The singers, all graduate students at CCM, displayed exemplary voices, both individually and in the opera’s bountiful ensembles. There was no chorus.
   Santora presided from a stool in front of the orchestra, setting a vivacious tone at the outset in the brisk, note-perfect Overture.
   The story, considered immoral for over a century after Mozart’s death, is about two men who accept a friend’s wager that their fiancées will betray them if they go away for a while. The leave the heartbroken women on the pretext of going to war and return in disguise – here funny hats and wigs to woo each other’s bride-to-be. Egged on by their housemaid and impressed by a hilarious suicide attempt, the women agree to marry their new lovers and sign marriage contracts, whereupon the men "return" undisguised. The plot is revealed and everybody kisses and makes up, but who finally ends up with whom is left open.
   Neu hinted at this early on in his insightful characterization of the lovers. Dorabella grabbed more tissues to weep over Ferrando than Fiordiligi did for Guglielmo. She was also more giggly and cuddly, responding to her new suitor’s attentions more quickly than the strong-willed Fiordiligi.
   For their part, Ferrando was hurt when Dorabella yielded to Guglielmo, while Guglielmo demonstrated anger and wounded pride when he saw Fiordiligi kissing Ferrando.
   Vocally, it was a dream cast. Soprano Alicia Gianni displayed a remarkable voice in the taxing role of Fiordiligi, warm and strong at both ends of its over two-octave range, with a flexible coloratura. Brendan Tuohy as Ferrando flaunted a big, bold tenor edged with silver. Their duet "Fra gli amplessi" (where Fiordiligi finally succumbs) was the single most beautiful moment in the opera.
   Mezzo-soprano Soon Cho was delightfully melodramatic in Dorabella’s "Smanie implacabili," while Josh Jeremiah’s mellow bass proved convincingly irresistible later as he wooed her away from Ferrando.
   Baritone Jacob Lassetter was gleefully misogynistic as Don Alfonso (maker of the bet) and soprano Ellen Wieser floated a lovely lyric soprano as the maid Despina, who sashayed stage right during her flirty "Una donna quindici anni" to make a pass at Santora.
   Santora kept a tight rein on the CCO throughout, bringing out all the delicious details in the wind-rich score.
   Neu didn’t let the opera end without a nod to true (?) love. As the couples left the stage, having (apparently) paired up as they were in the beginning, Ferrando and Fiordiligi clasped hands and exchanged longing glances.
   The CCO’s Mozart Mini-Festival continues at 3 p.m. Sunday with Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto, Wind Serenade, K.388, and Symphony No. 36 ("Linz"). Final concert is 3 p.m. June 25 with the Piano Concertos No. 9 and 11. Both are in CCM’s Corbett Auditorium. All seats are $10. Call (513) 723-1182.
(first published in The Cincinnati Post June 12, 2006)