Aspen 14: Singing Prevails in Madcap Così

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival (14): Mozart, Così fan tutte: Soloists, Jane Glover (conductor), James Robinson (director). Wheeler Opera House, Aspen, Colorado. 19.8.2015 (HS)


Fiordiligi: Yelena Dyachek
Dorabella: Samantha Hankey
Despina: Sofia Selowsky
Ferrando: Paul Han
Guglielmo: Geoffrey Hahn
Don Alfonso: Fan Jia

Director: James Robinson
Conductor: Jane Glover

A superb Mozart conductor, an energetic and vocally accomplished cast, an amusing setting, and mostly sharp direction added up to a terrific opening performance of the Mozart-da Ponte opera Così fan tutte. The nearly full Wheeler Opera House audience laughed heartily at the situations and responded raptly to the many musical highlights. With Jane Glover leading an all-student orchestra and keeping an ideal balance, the singers produced one glorious moment after another in a score enlivened by iconic arias, wonderful duets and ensemble scenes.

Visiting director James Robinson, who often works with the Opera Theater of St. Louis, updated the time and scene to a sort of late 1950s-early 1960s “Mad Men” vibe. In this setting Don Alfonso, a cynical gray-haired advertising executive, bets two young friends (Ferrando and Gugliemo) that he can prove their fiancées aren’t as faithful as they believe. He sets the men to wooing (in disguise) their opposite fiancées. Fiordiligi and Dorabella are Pan Am stewardesses (the gender-neutral “flight attendants” would be years away) and their maid Despina is portrayed here as a world-weary, hard-edged character like Thelma Ritter played in many films of that era. Here, the women get the short end of this story, just as the men do in Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro.

The updating worked, thanks in part to liberal interpretations of the Italian libretto in the projected titles—appropriately vernacular, and with a few sly inside jokes. Throughout most of the opera the action responded to the music in often hilarious detail—musical legerdemain working magic on one comic moment after another. The final scene of Act I went full-on Marx Brothers, with Ferrando and Guglielmo channeling Groucho and Harpo at their most libidinous. When the soprano’s leg was the object of attention, her sudden forte shriek was perfectly timed.

Though technically an all-student cast, several singers have sung or covered important roles at major opera companies, and it showed. They physically inhabited their characters, and sang with individually distinctive personalities.

As Fiordiligi, dramatic soprano Yelena Dyachek unleashed volcanic but richly burnished fortes that could recede into creamy soft phrases in a heartbeat. The character’s octave-plus skips held no fear for her, and the showcase arias (“Come scoglio” and “Per pietà”) reached dizzying heights of expression.

As her sister, Dorabella, mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey used supple tone that could raise the intensity level when needed. Duets with Dyachek were keenly balanced and beautiful, and her romantic temptation for Guglielmo felt real.

In the roles of Ferrando and Guglielmo, respectively, Paul Han and Geoffrey Hahn made the most of their increasingly conflicted feelings and put on a smirk-worthy show in their scenes as faux-Albanians. (For those too distant from the stage to read it, the logo on the back of their painter’s overalls read “Albanian Décor.”) Han’s sweet lyric tenor smoothly caressed “Un aura amorosa.Hahn, identified in the program as a bass but singing like an excellent lyric baritone, made a virile presence, especially in “Donne mie, la fate a tanti,” when Guglielmo realizes Don Alfonso was right about supposed fidelity.

Fan Jia, listed as a baritone, sang the bass role of Don Alfonso with seething anger that eventually resolved into satisfied worldliness. He displayed a full range and plenty of character. His suave bottom line completed the incomparable trio “Soave sia il vento,” as Dyachek and Hankey gracefully carried the top lines.

Though sometimes mezzo-soprano Sofia Selowsky missed the lilt in Despina’s music, she made the character, usually played cute, into an amusingly grumpy maid with hard-edged singing to match. She got big laughs for her turns as a yellow-gloved and booted doctor, and as the fussy notary in the faux-wedding finale.

Glover’s conducting couldn’t have been better. She perfectly caught the naturalness and flow of the score, and had the stage and pit blending seamlessly. The orchestra kept getting better as the evening went on.

Despite the expert stage direction, the ending left an unsatisfying taste. Most productions either reunite the original betrothed or have them switch partners, and it’s become fashionable to have them all turn on Don Alfonso. Here they just dispersed, with unclear effect.

But as it should be in opera, the music prevailed.

Harvey Steiman

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