FGO’s “Cosi” fizzles with uneven singing and slapstick staging

By Lawrence Budmen

(left to right) Jason Slayden, Sari Gruber, Brenda Patterson and Jonathan Beyer in the FGO production of Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte." Photo: Rod Millington

(left to right) Jason Slayden, Sari Gruber, Brenda Patterson and Jonathan Beyer in the FGO production of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte.” Photo: Rod Millington

Mozart’s Così fan tutte is both a comedy of manners and a tale of the foibles and frailties of the human heart. With librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart crafted one of his most subtle theatrical creations, musically complex and dramatically multifaceted.

Despite some lively moments in the staging and fine vocalism from some of the cast, the Florida Grand Opera production, which opened Saturday night at the Arsht Center, is something of a dud, failing to do justice to this late Mozart masterpiece.

In the opera’s opening scene, the world weary Don Alfonso wagers a bet with the youthful Ferrando and Guglielmo that their fiancés (who are sisters) would not be faithful if the men were to suddenly disappear and leave the women to the risk of romantic temptation. Aided by the maid Despina, Alfonso arranges for the men to feign being called off to war and then return in disguise to romance each other’s sweetheart. The women eventually succumb and, after disguises are revealed, all is forgiven . . . or is it?

Director Bernard Uzan has updated the action to a resort in contemporary Monte Carlo. Don Alfonso is a wise and crafty dandy and Fiordiligi and Dorabella are arty types who paint their lovers’ portraits. Adapting the spare sets designed by Ricardo Hernandez for FGO’s 2007 production, Uzan fills the stage with lots of new props and costumes. Initially eye catching, the concept soon palls.

Moments of slapstick and over-the-top farce are followed by solo arias staged with solemn formality, the pacing too often slow and flat. The happy ending is problematical but Uzan’s solution of having the men switch women and remain with the lady they romanced in disguise does not really work either. Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s new costumes vary from the men’s sporty look to some retro 1960’s movie star gowns for the women.

Musically the production suffers from some of the same problems as the staging.

As Fiordiligi, Sari Gruber is a veteran performer yet clearly still a soubrette voice here attempting a grand Mozart soprano role. Gruber’s weak lower register, wobbly high notes and approximated trills made the two great arias—“Come scoglio” and “Per pietà, ben mio”—a trial to listen to.  Jason Slayden’s raw tenor as Ferrando was constricted in the top range, and his “Un’aura amorosa” emerged more forceful than lyrical, lacking beauty of tone.

Ava Pine was a lively and perky Despina with the bright timbre to match. A born performer, she stole every scene, especially in disguise as a notary and quack doctor.

The lower voices fared best. Arthur Woodley made the strongest impression as Don Alfonso. His warm baritone voice is consistently strong and blended artfully in the ensembles.  Jonathan Beyer brought a  firm, virile baritone and dashing stage presence to Guglielmo. As Dorabella, Brenda Patterson displayed an attractive and secure mezzo. Patterson and Beyer’s voices blended to fine effect in their Act II duet.

Conductor Ramon Tebar favored hectic extremes, driving the overture at a rapid pace. While his approach is generally lively, at times the momentum falters, with the tempos for some of the arias drooping. He drew consistently fine playing from the orchestra, the crucial wind and horn parts assayed with precision and the strings’ spare vibrato suggesting the timbre of period instruments. Tebar also proved a deft keyboard accompanist for the recitatives. Brett Karlin’s small chorus sang with vigor and style.

The subtly balanced and swiftly timed ensemble that concludes Act I formed the evening’s high point. The production overall could have used more of that comedic spirit and vocal consistency.

Così fan tutte runs through January 31 at the Arsht Center in Miami and February 12 and 14 at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale. Hailey Clark, Carla Jablonski, Rebecca Henriques, Daniel Bates and Isaac Bray sing the lead roles on January 25 and 30 and February 14. fgo.org; 800-741-1010.

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Sun Jan 25, 2015
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