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Staging operas allows the University of North Carolina School of the Arts to make the fullest use of its many divisions involved in training tomorrow's artists and technicians. Top solo roles are often taken by post-graduate members of the A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute while secondary roles can be filled with promising undergraduates from the School of Music. The latter provides finely honed instrumentalists for the pit orchestra. The School of Design and Production supplies stage designs and sets, lighting, costumes, etc. Prospects for adverse weather delayed my coverage of opening night but since the last performance is now over the review may now mention of what would otherwise have been a spoiler concerning the new staging by director Steven LaCosse.
My reviewing credo takes a dim view of a stage director who views himself as an auteur, tossing a composer's stage directions in favor of some far-fetched fantasy shoe-horned into a classic, too often at cross-purposes to the opera's drama. Piedmont Opera's 2007 staging of Così fan Tutte by Chuck Hudson was a classic traditional staging which I praised fulsomely (http://cvnc.org/reviews/2007/032007/Cosi.html). My review of the Mozart opera staged by Pierre Constant at the 2002 Spoleto Festival USA is an example of failed directorial meddling (http://cvnc.org/reviews/2002/features/DoublyHot.html). Most of Constant's Act I had the sisters in nightgowns dashing around a huge mattress. UNCSA's Stage Director Steven LaCosse's up-dating of Così, from the composer's Europe in the 18th century to the United States in 1968, at the height of the countercultural revolution, will join my very short favorable list of such creative license re-stagings.
This plot to Così has been adapted from the very useful Crowell's Handbook of World Opera. Ferrando and Guglielmo make a bet with their cynical friend, Don Alfonso, that their fiancées are trustworthy even to the point they could not be swayed by their own lovers disguised as strangers. Don Alphonso purchases the cooperation of Despina, the fiancées' enterprising maid. After the girls have said their tearful good-byes when their lovers are called off to war, the guys, disguised as Albanians, are introduced to the girls by Don Alphonso. After varying degrees of resistance, the girls promise to marry their new suitors. The latter change back into their uniforms, make an angry show upon discovering the fake wedding, and pay Don Alphonso's wager. The lovers usually return to the original pairings in most productions. LaCoose's men are Marines and their lovers are wealthy debutantes. The soldiers seduce each other's fiancée in the guise of hippies, instead of Albanians, and the girls take up the "flower-child" life-style under Despina's tutelage.
Conductor James Allbritten led his able student orchestra in an alert, taunt, and stylish playing of Mozart's infectious and richly melodious score. There was some fine solo playing from oboist Michael Dwinell and principal horn Jessica Appolinario. Woodwind contributions were strong, and the level of string playing was very impressive. LaCosse had plenty of stage business going on during the Overture. Hippies milled about a fire in a trash can. Did the guys toss in draft notices? Five women meandered about with signs bearing one word in four languages. When they lined up as the Overture ended, their signs spelled out "All You Need Is Love!" The opera was sung in Italian but the supertitles were not some prim version of the Ruth and Thomas Martin English translation: in harmony with LaCosse's 1968 concept, it burst with such gems as "hot chick," "foxy lady," "make love like rabbits", "and Castro." The chorus sang about "the Halls of Montezuma and the shores of Tripoli" as the Marines left for the supposed battlefield, and the men's duet included "oh baby, light my fire." This bra-burning production alluded to "two hot mountains of Love." I let my attention wander during the famous episode where the disguised Despina usually uses Count Mesmer's giant magnet to pull the poison from the gents. Glancing back to the action I saw Despina swinging something like a priest's censer while the supertitle mentioned something to do with "Winston" and "Salem."
LaCosse's cast members were uniformly strong in their vocal abilities and their comic timing as actors. Tenor Marvin Kehler portrayed Ferrando and sang with an even, mellifluous, warm tone. His singing of "Un aura amorosa" ("A breath of love") was superb, with ideal dynamics and phrasing. Ted Fererle's firmly supported and projected lyric baritone was welcome in his role as Guglielmo. His aria "Donne mie, le fate a tanti" ("I would like a word with all you lovely ladies") aptly melded comedy and real frustration. Dressed in a Nehru jacket with some sort of New Age necklace, bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba had far more than enough vocal heft for the role of the men's mentor, Don Alphonso. Mozart composed the role for an over-the-hill singer and it is too bad he never composed alternate arias for the part, which rarely rises above a parlando.
Soprano Amanda Moody combined vocal power and precision with considerable interpretative depth as Fiordiligi, the more tradition-bound of the two sisters. She nailed her juicy dramatic Act II aria "Per pieta, ben mio, perdona," and her Act I aria "Come scoglio immoto resta" ("Strongly founded, a marble tower") was aptly fiery. Mezzo-soprano Katherine Ardoin brought plenty of sparkle to the role of the flirtatious sister Dorabella, and her delivery of the aria "E amore un ladroncello" ("I know a naughty fellow") was strongly characterized and beautifully phrased. Raleigh native and Carolina alumna Catherine Park's bright and focused soprano voice added spunk to the role of the world-wise maid Despina, whose advice could be summed up with "Love the One You Are With." She brought just the right blend of spice and opportunism to her aria "Una donna a quindici anni" ("Any girl fifteen or over").
The opera began with baritone Guglielmo betrothed to soprano Fiordiligi and tenor Ferrando betrothed to mezzo-soprano Dorabella. In LaCosse's production the final pairings are teased during the last scene until Dorabella leads Ferrando to Fiordiligi. Dorabella turns and walks past Guglielmo and leaves on the arm of an Army officer with whom she had flirted during the stage business enacted during the Overture! The Stevens Center audience gave the cast a prolonged and hearty round of applause for an effective evening of singing and comedy.
Memories of Rowan and Martin's Laugh In and the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover came to mind as the myriad of '60s costumes came into view. Costume designer Dina M. Perez's designs ran the gamut from Marine dress blues, blue pill box hats, the iconic Beatle's suits, to rainbow-hued robes for the Flower Children. Scenic designer Charles Murdock Lucas' sets ranged from a sidewalk restaurant table to bright, mod furniture for the sisters. Among wig and makeup designer Necole E. Bluhm's creations was a beehive bun! Nancy E. Goldsmith's supertitles contributed much to the humor by pulling out all the stops to fit LaCosse's 1968 update.