Music review: Virginia Opera's 'Cosi Fan Tutte'

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 5, 2010; 9:31 PM

"They're all like that." That's an approximate translation of the title of Mozart's opera "Cosi Fan Tutte," which demonstrates that all women are fickle and will betray their lovers, and which the Virginia Opera brought to George Mason University on Friday night.

But at the Virginia Opera, the title might be taken as descriptive of the vagaries of opera companies. The company found itself in veritably operatic circumstances during the past couple of months when the question of how to take leave of its 36-year artistic director, Peter Mark, erupted in public and was finally answered when the company terminated Mark's contract last month. The move occasioned much hue and cry from Mark's supporters, but a quiet sense from many corners of the industry that the action was, if anything, overdue.

The Virginia Opera is doing everything it can to signal that business is continuing as usual. It has appointed an interim artistic adviser: Robin Thompson, the former director of artistic administration at the New York City Opera who lost his own job in the company's bungled leadership transition in 2008 ("They're all like that," indeed). And the opera proceeded as planned with "Cosi Fan Tutte," which opened in Norfolk on Nov. 13, came to Richmond on Nov. 26 and concluded its run in Fairfax this past weekend.

"Cosi" was conducted, as scheduled, by the opera's associate artistic director, Joseph Walsh, a Mark protege whom Mark strongly wanted as his successor. Walsh's current contract expires at the end of this season; he will conduct "Madame Butterfly" in March and April, and his loose, emphatic gestures should fit that opera quite a bit better than they fit Mozart on Friday night.

"Cosi" itself is not the blood-and-guts melodrama of operatic stereotype; you could even call it an acquired taste. It's got a lot of exquisite music wrapped around a pretty silly plot: Two men, goaded by a third, test their girlfriends' fidelity by pretending to go off to war and then reappearing in disguise as two exotic foreigners ("I don't know if they're Slavs or Turks!" exclaims the maid, Despina) who improbably manage to snare the women's affections.

Dealing with this farcical plot is a challenge for a stage director - it's hard to make credible characters out of these frivolous figures. Lillian Groag offered some nice touches, making abundant use of the six-member chorus as silent extras - fellow guests at an inn, a team of servants - and placing the supertitles in an ornate box above the proscenium as if setting the action in a period frame, like the old masterpiece it is. She also worked to delve into the drama on its own terms; this meant, though, that the characters' silliness was pretty much unalleviated, but she did cast into doubt the happiness of what is sometimes portrayed as a pat ending, when the suitors return in their original guises and everyone is faced with the consequences of what they've done.

Vocally, the men had the edge on Friday: The two deceitful boyfriends were the strongest singers of the evening. David Portillo, who also sang Ferrando in the 2009 production at Wolf Trap, has a solid light tenor and willingly played the straight-man buffoon to Timothy Kuhn's macho Guglielmo, who backed up his sometimes shirtless antics with a rich baritone voice. Their girlfriends were less assured: Jan Cornelius had some nice moments as Fiordiligi but lacked the low notes for the role; and Katharine Tier, as Dorabella, had a stridency to her mezzo-soprano. Camille Zamora was assured as Despina, though perhaps overplayed the comic shtick; as Don Alfonso, the cynical instigator of the plot, Todd Robinson sang in a rather undistinguished mumble.

"They're all like that" may apply more to opera companies than to women: lots of drama backstage, an earnest mixed bag on it. As Virginia Opera deals with the new gusts of wind currently wafting its way, its challenge will be to distinguish itself from the "tutte."

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