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The Western Opera Theater's touring production of Mozart's Così fan tutt e, presented by UNC's Performing Arts Series in Memorial Hall on November 5, was a total delight from beginning to end. This was the company's sixth touring production on the Chapel Hill series - they have also appeared on the Duke Artists Series - and it was the strongest complete theater experience of any of the WOT's operas that I have seen. Always strong as an ensemble company, Monday night's cast was the most evenly matched vocally, and there were no clearly weak singers. That is a very rare state of affairs in any opera production.
A nimble and stylish performance of the bubbly Overture by the polished 33-member orchestra was an appetizer for the many delights to follow. There was no hint of the routine in the alert playing. The woodwinds were particularly strong, and all sections were unusually well blended. The brasses were models of sensitive phrasing and restraint. The attentive conductor, Ari Pelto, served as an Assistant Conductor at the Spoleto Festival USA from 1994-8, was named Assistant Conductor of the Florida West Coast Symphony during the 2000-2001season and was one of nine music-director finalists to conduct the Atlanta Symphony. The ability to conduct Mozart isn't encountered everyday and yeoman work in the opera pit has always been the training ground for conducting. Clearly he is a young conductor with potential.
In Famous Mozart Operas , Spike Hughes wrote that "the phrase 'Così fan tutte' is not untranslatable. for it means literally 'Thus do all (women behave),' but nobody has so far succeeded in finding anything but clumsy equivalent(s)." Così, which Hughes said is "perhaps most nearly perfect of the three librettos Da Ponte wrote for Mozart," only came into its own during the mid-20th century. Earlier, audiences were uncomfortable with the sexual implications or thought the subject too trivial. Late 20th-century feminists fault it for placing the onus of fickleness upon women. The WOT's production tried to balance these issues with two bits of stage business: before the two officers parted from their loves, they showed rather too much interest in a comely wench in the chorus; and, later, when disguised as two "Turks," their lovers' maid, Despina, was on the receiving end of their wandering hands.
Scenes were evoked by simple but suggestive sets. In Act I, the café was a table with a few chairs and props before a drop curtain painted with a view of the harbor. A few trellises and benches served as the garden. The costumes were much more elaborate and more than suitable for the 18th century.
Most of the singers are members of the Merola Opera Program of the San Francisco Opera Company. Several of Monday night's artists have also been associated with two favorite companies of opera connoisseurs, Glimmerglass Opera and the Opera Company of Saint Louis.
The singer who created the role of Don Alfonso, the cynical philosopher of women, had very few vocal resources so Mozart composed only a short arioso for him. It's too bad that he did have available as firm and fleet a bass as Matthew Trevino, who took the part in Chapel Hill. Don Alfonso's enamored officer friends were of equal mettle. As Ferrando, who is smitten with Dorabella, Ryan MacPherson easily projected his role with a clear even pleasing tenor voice that was well supported and had a fine ring to its high notes. The solid, firm baritone of Gary Moss conveyed the more down-to-earth character of Guglielmo, who loves Fiordiligi. The darker mezzo-soprano voice of Valerie Komar, the Dorabella, contrasted well with the flexible and florid soprano of her sister Fiordiligi, sung by Stephanie Dawn Johnson, who was well up to the fiorituri of her role. Soprano Saundra DeAthos was firm-voiced and witty in the role of the world-wise serving maid, Despina, and her voice contrasted sufficiently with the two sisters. The WOT casts its touring company in repertory that allow the soloists to take turns as members of the chorus when not singing principal roles. In addition to their sterling qualities in the well-known solo arias, all the singers blended perfectly in the duets and larger ensembles. I have rarely had so fulfilling an evening at the opera.