A great many theatrical miracles combine to make Cincinnati Opera’s Cosi Fan Tutte the exhilarating, near stunning success that it is. Any production so sure of itself that it makes a 91-minute first act seem short has to be a miracle.
Cosi's success derives, in part, from six splendid young multi-taskers who prove that opera artistes can, in fact, sing and act simultaneously. Some can’t or don’t.
These six — an American, a New Zealander, a Brit, an Italian, a Frenchwoman and a Canadian — can and do. Holy Mozart, do they ever! More about their individual accomplishment in a moment.
In larger part, Cosi's success derives from the masterful control that director Alain Gauthier, who staged last season’s L’Etoile, exercises over every detail of the production. From concept through execution, he made the production truly, knowingly, deeply comic. That means considerably more than just inventing funny stage business, which he did, and tacking on some laughs here and there, which he did aplenty.
Gauthier discovered and displays the comic heart that beats inside librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte’s examination of how women, as a class, have trouble remaining faithful to their men — and how men, as a class, just can’t quit messing with success. Both Da Ponte and Gauthier notice that when a woman falls afoul of a vow there’s usually a man right there beside her, bemoaning her failure whilst aiding and abetting it. Da Ponte’s title is translated in the Opera program as School for Lovers, but it’s more usually translated as Women Are Like That — not to appear sexist or anything.
Gauthier, with conductor Stefan Lano and members of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in fine form, celebrates the intricate ebullience that makes Mozart’s score seriously more than froth. He staged the show’s movement so carefully that when those times come for us to just stop of listen to fine singers singing beautiful music, as happens a dozen times in this score, the play remains vital and in seeming progress, though close to motionless.
Example: The trio sung in a haunting blend by Dorabella (mezzo Mariana Pizzolato), Fiordiligi (soprano Alexandra Deshorties) and Don Alfonso (debuting baritone William Shimell) in the middle of Act One. Electricity seems to crackle around the triangle in which they stand.
Example: The shimmering sextet that rounds out Act One. Example: Deshorties’ long, languishing aria of self-exploration that high points Act Two.
At no time, even at its most quiet moments, does the production grow static. That’s a serious achievement in staging.
At the heart of things is master manipulator Don Alfonso (Shimell), who has no woman of his own, at least on view, but is determined to demonstrate to suitors Ferrando (American tenor Shawn Mathey) and Guglielmo (New Zealand baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes) that their betrothed (Pizzolato and Deshorties) will prove faithless. It’s he who manufactures the silly plot in which the men march off to war and then reappear disguised as mustachioed Arabians in desert drag. Each attempts and perhaps succeeds in seducing the other’s girlfriend.
Words on a screen are weak implements to convey sound such as the delicate, expressive control Shimell has over his powerful voice and over his sly manipulation of his friends. Mathey and Rhodes sing splendidly — Rhodes’ voice is particularly rich — but always plotting slyly, building character and furthering plot.
Pizzolato’s mezzo is here warm and soothing, there as imp-driven as her amusing character. Deshorties, who recently sang the same role at the Met, manages a limpid, springwater clarity even at the highest reaches of her register.
And then there’s soprano Nathalie Paulin. Imagine if you can a subtle Lucille Ball who also sings with the pleasing ease that comes only from masterful control. As red-headed maid Despina, then as a redheaded nurse who’s part cheerleader and then as a notary who’s pure Groucho despite being redheaded, Paulin is the happy punchline at the end of a number of Gauthier’s jokes.
The sets, borrowed from Seattle Opera, and the lighting (Thomas Hase, who lately lit the Tony-winning Cincinnati Playhouse production of Company on Broadway) supply beautiful support to the repositioning Gauthier has given Mozart’s 1790 original. Instead of Imperial Vienna, it’s sometime in the mythical 1930s in an equally mythical Hollywood.
Don Alfonso is now directing a glamorous movie version of Cosi. His singers are both their characters and occasionally themselves. Remember Valentino? Remember Vilma Banky?
It’s no new thing to impose alternate times and places on old scripts. Elixir of Love sometimes turns up looking like it’s happening just down the road from Oklahoma. Shakespeare winds up far and away from either Elizabethan England or the locales suggested by his scripts.
Sometimes these impositions of alternate times and places work. Often enough they are just that: impositions in which the play looks flummoxed and self-conscious. Not so,here.
Once again, it’s because of the control Gauthier exerted over both the original material and the time/place shift. This works. Holy Mozart, how it works! Grade: A+
CINCINNATI OPERA presents Cosi Fan Tutte again at 8 p.m. Saturday at Music Hall