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Pittsburgh Opera offers stylish presentation of Mozart's 'Cosi fan tutte'

| Monday, May 8, 2006

Saturday night's “Cosi fan tutte” at the Benedum Center was the most successful presentation of a masterpiece by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that the current regime at Pittsburgh Opera has offered. Music director John Mauceri led the uncommonly stylish and dramatically insightful performance, while the staging by Ron Daniels was the point of superiority over recent productions of Mozart.

The music Mozart wrote for “Cosi” exemplifies Giachino Rossini's observation that Mozart was the supreme opera composer because he combined the Italian gift for melody with the German mastery of harmony and polyphony. But the Da Ponte's story has been problematic right from the start. The opera is subtitled “The School for Lovers,” but audiences have tended to dislike Da Ponte's lesson. “Cosi” was even presented with new libretti pasted on to Mozart's music many times in the 19th century.

The opera is set in Naples, Italy, and begins with two young men bragging to the older Don Alfonso about their lovers and their devotion. Alfonso bets the guys that their girls, who are sisters, will be unfaithful if his directions are followed. Guglielmo and Ferrando then tell Fiordiligi and Dorabella that they have been called to war. After a tearful separation, the guys return as foreigners and hit on each other's girl. When the Fiordiligi and Dorabella don't fall for the foreigners, the guys pretend to take poison because their hearts are broken.

The second act opens with the opera's lesson sung by girls' maid Despina — be realistic about love and take delight when it presents itself. Dorabella is the first to have a change of heart and fall for Guglielmo. But after Fiordiligi falls for Ferrando and a wedding contract is signed, a drum roll signals the impending return of the young soldiers. All four lovers are unhappy at the reunion, but Alfonso's lessons include forgiveness, and the original romantic alignment is restored.

The idea that romantic devotion is a delusion, obviously false in many fortunate cases, is one of the elements that made Da Ponte's libretto controversial. Even the opera's challenge to look at and acknowledge our inner desires and fantasies is awkward for some people.

The four lovers are Alfonso's puppets, but Mozart's music makes us care about the characters much more than the farcical nature of Da Ponte's cynical plot suggests. This and the incredible speed with which hearts prove fickle have been the main problems for “Cosi” as an entity.

Carolyn Betty was the star of the cast, a fine ensemble of mostly good singers for an opera that is mainly ensembles. Betty rose to the occasion for the opera's greatest aria, “Per pieta,” singing with exquisitely emotive phrasing and tone production. Sandra Piques Eddy was the adorable Dorabella. The casting of these two singers was inspired, because their timbral qualities were so well matched they were sisters in sound.

Palle Knudsen's Guglielmo was thoroughly convincing both musically and dramatically in his ardor and other intense emotions. Tenor Bruce Sledge's voice opened up as the opera progressed and was most persuasive in Act II.

The conspirators were both good portrayals, with James Maddalena especially impressive in his acting, and Gruber seemingly unimpeded in movement and vocal support, despite her advanced pregnancy. However, a pregnant Despina also means that when she pretends to be a male doctor and notary, they are pregnant, too.

The set, rented from Arizona Opera, looks as if it had been purchased at Ikea, and money has run out before buying everything needed. It's quite a contrast with the lavish Zeffirelli production of “Tosca” seen here only a month ago. The most problematic elements Saturday night were ill-conceived lighting, especially use of spotlights, and distracting use of double scrims. Scrims are semitransparent curtains.

John Mauceri led another astonishing musical performance full of fascinating details such as splitting the two sections of violins and using harpsichord with the orchestra and not only for recitative. Apart from ultimately unimportant ensemble issues, this nearly ideal music performance featured dynamic pacing, superb articulation and warm, Viennese Mozartean stylishness. Additional Information:

Cosi fan tutte

Featuring: Carolyn Betty, Sandra Piques Eddy, Palle Knudson, Bruce Sledge, James Maddalena and Sari Gruber; Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra and Chorus; John Maurceri, conductor; Ron Daniels, stage director.

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

Admission: $16 to $125.

Where: Benedum Center, Downtown.

Details: 412-456-6666 or www.pittsburghopera.org .

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