Opera Review: 'Così Fan Tutte' at Wolf Trap

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 29, 2009

Offering young singers professional experience in opera is a difficult proposition. Ideally you want to take advantage of youth, energy and spontaneity, but you also want experienced hands to guide young artists musically and dramatically toward growth.

Those experienced hands seemed to be lacking at the "Così Fan Tutte" that opened Wolf Trap Opera's season on Friday night. As a result, the performance was a bitter disappointment.

I'm all for updating opera to offer a new, fresh take on a familiar work. So I have nothing against the concept of Eric Einhorn, the stage director, which cast Don Alfonso as a scientist studying human behavior. The whole setup -- having two young men test the constancy of their girlfriends by pretending to leave town and reappearing disguised as other people -- became a laboratory experiment, the action videotaped and observed by white-coated lab assistants through one-way mirrors.

The problem was that in service of this idea, Einhorn allowed the singers to engage in a kind of hysterical overacting that would not be tolerated for a moment in a more traditional production. As a result, a concept that could have been quite funny became merely cheap.

And the constant motion did no service to the young artists, who may have been encouraged in the mistaken belief that incessant cuteness, mugging and shtick can constitute humor onstage. I've seen updated "Cosìs" that weren't so far from Einhorn's 20th-century setting or sensibility: Dieter Dorn's fantastic production in Munich comes to mind. That one worked because, while it offered lots of humor and even slapstick, the singers did portray believable characters rather than the empty caricatures we got on Friday night.

The incessant motion also kept the singers from focusing on their musical approach. And the conductor, Timothy Myers, wasn't able to help them much. He seemed to have his hands full simply trying to keep the small orchestra and the singers more or less together. Tempos were often ponderous, and some moments that could have blossomed into more -- like "Un aura amoroso" by the Ferrando of David Portillo -- fell flat.

It's conceivable that some of the singers could have done better with better guidance. Portillo showed a respectable tenor that could be more sensitive than the slightly leathery sound he offered in places. Alicia Gianni's Despina, played as a brassy Italian girl, sitcom style, was firm and sparkly, as much as could be discerned between all of the sex jokes. And Rena Harms's Fiordiligi showed tremendous promise; her voice could be strident, but was impressively easy in every register. Someone could draw a heck of a performance out of her by showing her how to sing the recitatives with some Mozartean style, for instance, rather than having her hurl them out in a wild-eyed frenzy.

The other three principles -- Jamie Van Eyck as Dorabella, Matthew Hanscom as Guglielmo and Carlos Monzón as Don Alfonso -- I found less promising. Monzón has Antonio Banderas-like looks, but almost no stage or vocal presence, so this central character faded away.

The second act was better than the first, perhaps because the action slows down and the singers could focus more on the mechanics of what they were doing. (It is pure conjecture that someone backstage at intermission helped them regroup, like a coach visiting the pitcher's mound; but nerves do always come into play at an opening.) Harms's "Per pieta" was her best moment, taking advantage of her big range; I personally wish she'd dig into her lower register a bit more, but she certainly showed she has the notes.

And Einhorn's best idea came near the end, when Fiordiligi, having finally succumbed to the disguised Ferrando, pursues him behind the scenes and, seeing him in conversation with Don Alfonso, realizes how she's been had. It made for a spirited and tumultuous ending that was perfectly appropriate. If only there had been a little more substance leading up to it.

Così Fan Tutte has a final performance Tuesday at 8 p.m. at the Barns at Wolf Trap.

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