Così fan tutte
Thru Nov 15
Wortham Theater Center
501 Texas Ave
If the funniest thing in an opera buffa is an accident, then there’s something wrong. First performed in 1790, Così fan tutte is the third and final collaboration between Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. It is perfectly paced with a smart libretto and sumptuous arias—pretty much a guaranteed home run. For some reason, though truly exceptional productions are hard to find. When one of the character’s wig slipped off in Act One at Friday night’s performance, it inspired the warmest laughter and applause I heard all night. As endearing as it was, that’s a problem. A major company like Houston Grand Opera should have knocked this out of the park.
From the simple opening double cadence that shifts quickly to a mocking figure tossed around the woodwinds, parody and sincerity are notoriously hard to tell apart in Così. The opera begins in a coffee house where two young soldiers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, brag about the faithfulness of their fiancées, the sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi. Their friend Don Alfonso laughs at them and calls them fools. He offers a wager that their lovers will betray them at the first opportunity. “A faithful woman is like a phoenix,” he sings. “All believe in it but none has seen it.”
Ferrando and Guglielmo disguise themselves as Albanians (usually a hilariously poor impersonation) and court each other’s lover. To win the wager, Alfonso recruits the sisters’ chambermaid Despina, who is equally disillusioned with love. Together they proceed to dismantle all romantic sentiment between the two couples by staging an increasingly ridiculous series of mock suicides and seaside serenades. By the end of the opera, even Ferrando and Guglielmo aren’t sure which sister they’re in love with.
From the opening set of terzettos, Jacques Imbrailo—a gifted South African baritone in the role of Guglielmo—and tenor Norman Reinhardt as Ferrando sang together as one vibrant instrument. Joined by the sonorous Rachel Willis-Sørensen and Melody Moore playing the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella respectively, as well as bass-baritone Alessandro Corbelli as Don Alfonso and Nuccia Focile as Despina, the intricate ensemble numbers were impressive. The tearful farewell quintet “Sento, o Dio, che questo piede” was well balanced, no doubt also due to conductor Patrick Summers’s adept direction, and the heavenly terzettino “Soave sia il vento” rang out elegantly.
But the solo numbers were not as crystalline. Reinhardt’s “Un’aura amorosa” stayed at a bland mezzo-forte, even in those tender lines “A loving breath from our beloved will grant sweet solace to the heart.” I would have melted under a whisper-soft piano, given how rich his tenor voice is, but alas. Willis-Sørensen, gifted with Fiordiligi’s blessed aria of steadfast love “Come scoglio immoto resta,” managed the expansive leaps and technical demands, and she hit the right emotional sentiment of the line “like a rock we stand immobile,” but the timbre of her opulent soprano voice didn’t ever find a vein of pure clarity.
Visually, this was a basic, traditional period piece. Three creamy marble arches framed a raked wooden stage. Benches, settees, and occasional props floated in and out between scenes. The lack of distractions was refreshing, but there was nothing particularly memorable in designer Carl-Friedrich Oberle’s set or costumes.
Was this a vapid performance? Certainly not—the cast played up the light humor, and the bright ensemble numbers attest to HGO’s overall talent and vision. Given the uncommon symmetry in the plot and the closely-knit characters, getting ensembles right is a praise-worthy accomplishment. It’s a huge part of why Così is such a timeless favorite. But overall it fell into the vanilla realm of Mozart productions. Adequate—pleasant, even—but not remarkable.