A composer who had, in his own life, wooed one sister but married another, Mozart could hardly keep the personal out of "Cosi fan Tutte." In his last and wisest Italian comic opera, he put two sisters to the test. Their lovers leave and reappear disguised to seduce opposite partners. The sisters resist at first but not finally. They are mortified when their inconstancy is revealed, but, in the last bars, they ask forgiveness in music so divine no man can resist.
Women, after all, are like that. Or so the title suggests.
"Cosi," taken at face value--and that is exactly how Opera Pacific took it (despite Postmodern sets) in its new production unveiled Tuesday night at the Orange County Performing Arts Center--is obviously offensive. Mozart's wife, Constanze, wasn't pleased, nor were the first audiences. But it has also never been a secret to anyone who considers the implications of the profound music that this is not farce, but metaphor. It is an opera that ranks commitment as more important than romance.
Once that is understood, the sexually subversive nature of the opera becomes clear. The men in "Cosi" are one-dimensional, their purpose only to seduce; the women are thoughtful, deep, wise. (Michael Dibdin's witty new detective novel, "Cosi fan Tutti," interestingly points this out by modernizing the plot and switching sexes.) Most modern productions do value this and find in "Cosi" a scary emotional chaos that challenges rational thinking and leaves us with questions, not solutions. By these deceptions the lovers are changed and have to understand who they are before entering into marriage. Simple forgiveness is empty gesture.
In this production, originally staged by Mark Lamos for Portland Opera but now adapted as if for a television sitcom by Ned Canty, Guglielmo and Ferrando are imbeciles, worthy of a fraternity party. There is no ambiguity. Fiordiligi and Dorabella fall for the men who disguise themselves as absurdly as possible as Albanians. But once Brenda Harris (Fiordiligi) and Margaret Lattimore (Dorabella) overcame their initial unsteadiness (this was an under-rehearsed premiere with butterflies in its stomach all around, especially on the part of the stagehands), they rose soundly and even spectacularly to the second-act music. Robert Swensen (Ferrando) and Andrew Schroeder (Guglielmo) are less compelling musically, and in duet they seem weirdly less powerful than in solo.
There are many ways of considering Don Alfonso, who puts the whole scheme into motion. The most interesting is as a trickster god, above morality. Another is as a more menacing character, someone burned by love and getting revenge on it. Michele Bianchini in this production is an uncharming brat. Kathleen Brett is an overly cute Despina, a common but not insoluble problem with the role of the pesky maid.
But "Cosi" is mainly an ensemble opera, and the company is fortunate to have John DeMain as its new music director. He brings a strong musical cohesion. The pace is brisk and sure, the phrasing warm. If ultimately the music takes, it is DeMain who makes it happen. The orchestra, too, is a relief. "Cosi" is long, and while the playing may not have offered the last word in finesse, it remained secure and centered all evening. A half-hour's worth of cuts, however, were unfortunate; each one takes something away from characters and helped create the feeling of cardboard.
Pop Art sets by Loy Arcenas added more cardboard sensibility, rather than a postmodern veneer. Here lime Jell-O grass, a red sky, cutout fern trees, a beach ball, deck chairs, blue arcades, yellow umbrellas all felt no different from the slightly surreal decorative painted flats of a century ago. Catherine Zuber's costumes updated the 18th century, but nothing visually was either functional or subversive. This even could be said of the backdrop rendering of "Gabrielle d'Estrees and One of Her Sisters," the risque painting in the Louvre of two topless women by an unknown artist, circa 1590, that first greets the audience and returns as leitmotif. It, too, in these circumstances, meant nothing.
* "Cosi fan Tutte" continues tonight and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., $28-$93, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, (800) 740-2000.