It was a delightfully funny night of Mozart at the Maryland Opera Studio’s production of Cosi Fan Tutte at the University of Maryland on Friday, November 21, 2014. With only spartan sets and costumes, the skill of the students in both acting and song brought this slightly flimsy opera to life with substantial humor.
Cosi Fan Tutte tells the story of a pair of lovers who believe in the complete fidelity of their partners, to the amusement of their friends. The men’s friend, Don Alfonso, decides to show the men that their fiancées (and indeed no women) are ever complete loyal, so he and the men come up with a plan: the men will disguise themselves and seduce the women to see if they will abandon their fiancés and succumb to the seductions of the new men. The struggles of the women as they fight their attraction to these new men and the reactions of the men make up the rest of the opera, until the end when all is revealed.
Many productions of Cosi Fan Tutte choose to change the setting from 18th century Italy to present day, or with elaborate sets and costumes, anything to try and come up with a “fresh” or “new” take on this perennial favorite. Yet the Maryland Opera Studio’s production shows us just how entertaining the traditional production, with minimal sets and costumes, can be.
Director Nick Olcott chose to play the show for laughs, an extraordinarily effective choice. Fortunately, the 6 actors playing the main roles, are all very gifted at the comedic side of their roles. Jaely Chamberlain (Despina) and Loghan Bazan (Dorabella) were special standouts with regards to the physical comedy: Bazan’s facial expressions added a dimension of humor and complexity to otherwise standard scenes, while Chamberlain’s various voices for her various disguises had the audience in stitches. Hearing her sing opera recitative in a fake, high, nasally voice was quite amusing!
Yet, the humor only works because of the high quality of the singing. All six principal actors—Teresa Hitchcock as Fiordiligi, Sammy Huh as Ferrando, Gregory Voinier as Guglielmo, Ethan Lee Greene as Don Alfonso, and the previously mentioned Chamberlain and Bazan—sang beautifully. Hitchcock’s lovely soprano was in especial display on the many trills in her arias (during her lovely Act 2 aria “Per pietà, ben mio, perdona,” for example) as well as her crystal clear high notes. Voinier and Huh’s voices were resonant and full, and Greene’s bass was rich and warm. Their voices were especially evident in the aria “Alla bella Despinetta”, and in the finale. Such skillful singing throughout the show, backed up by the delightful chamber orchestra under the baton of conductor Craig Kier was charming.
One of the highlights of the night was Voinier’s second act aria “Donne mie, la fate a tanti.” In this humorous rant against the cruelty and infidelity of women, Voinier had the audience in the palm of his hand as he humorously scolded them. His voice was agile and clear, yet rich. The skill of Lighting Designer Connor Dreibelbis, was also evident: the spotlights were directed at the audience so it appeared as if Voinier’s character was singing to the women in the audience. The nature of the Maryland Opera Studio calls for minimal sets and costuming so that the focus is on the singers themselves; Dreibelbis use of the lighting to evoke both indoor and outdoor moods, as well as to depict windows was very well-done.
While some minimalist opera productions are unable to find the talent to sustain the production without the support of elaborate sets and costumes, Maryland Opera Studio has no such problems. With such proficient actors, with such beautifully trained voices, I found myself grateful that the songs and the story were allowed to stand on their own. It made the opera all the more enjoyable. Mozart is always lovely, but this production of Cosi Fan Tutte is especially both lovely to listen to and humorous to watch. Don’t miss it!
Running Time: Three hours, including a 20-minute intermission.
Cosi Fan Tutte plays through Tuesday, November 25, 2014 at Clarice Smith Center for the Performing Arts – University of Maryland Stadium Drive, in College Park, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 405-ARTS (2787) or purchase them online.