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Opera review: RPO performs 'Così fan tutte' 

click to enlarge Once derided because of its “cynical” tone, “Così fan tutte” has now joined the ranks as one of  Mozart’s great operas. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Once derided because of its “cynical” tone, “Così fan tutte” has now joined the ranks as one of Mozart’s great operas.
Love triangles are not rare in opera, but “Così fan tutte” presents a love rectangle: two rather naïve sisters suddenly find themselves attracted to each other’s fiancé when, to win a bet, the men assume a disguise and attempt to seduce the other’s partner, and, to their surprise, succeed. But all is set right at the end. Or perhaps it isn’t.

That really is all you need to know going into the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra’s presentation of Mozart’s masterful comic opera. His librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, worked out this premise from every angle. The purposefully vague title can be translated as “Women are like that.” But the clear-eyed assumption is that, given the opportunity, everybody’s like that — capable of swearing eternal love, but equally capable of a roving eye. The sadder-but-wiser ending, with its tone of forgiveness, has the feel of an awfully serious Shakespearean comedy, but with a happy ending. The members of the forgiving foursome are truly graduates of “the school for lovers,” which also serves as the opera’s subtitle.

If you find this conclusion somewhat sour, it is sweetened by some of Mozart’s most delicious music. Once derided because of its “cynical” tone, “Così fan tutte” has now joined the ranks as one of Mozart’s great operas.  And by the way: We can all be grateful that the libretto was turned down by Da Ponte’s first choice as composer – Antonio Salieri.

Mozart’s surpassingly beautiful score and mere six principals make the opera an excellent choice for a semi-staged performance, the latest in an annual RPO event that has included “La Traviata”, “La Bohème”, and “Carmen”, all conducted by Ward Stare.

“Così fan tutte” lends itself to directorial nuances and interpretations of all sorts, and can be performed with a tone ranging from slapstick to near-tragic. Director Grant Preisser kept things simple and straightforward, with an emphasis on comedy and music. This approach would be a bit thin for a staged performance. But for a concert production, the broad comedy worked just fine on the large Kodak Hall stage, and definitely kept the crowd amused.

It is a tribute to the skill of the cast of excellent young singers that I think of them as an ensemble of equals: soprano Rebecca Farley and mezzo Sofia Selowsky as the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella; tenor Jonas Hacker and baritone Craig Verm as their fiancés Ferrando and Guglielmo, respectively. Defying operatic logic, Mozart pairs the soprano with the baritone and the mezzo with the tenor.

There are two other principals: bass-baritone Sam Handley’s Don Alfonso, generally referred to as “a cynical old bachelor” who proposes the bet to the young men; and Despina, the girls’ young but wise-and-worldly maid, played to the hilt by soprano Maria Valdes. There’s also a somewhat under-employed chorus, provided by the very capable singers of Madrigalia, but the spotlight is on the six characters.

The score of “Così fan tutte” is not overflowing with arias. Ferrando’s melting “Un’aura amorosa” is the one “love song” in the piece. It’s deceptively difficult, and Hacker sang it beautifully. Verm had a strong baritone — most effective in his angry outbursts in the second act — and a flair for physical comedy, a nice combination for a Guglielmo.

Fiordiligi gets not one, but two set-piece arias: defiant in Act I and eventually yielding to temptation in Act II. Farley handled the jagged leaps and coloratura of the Act I aria confidently, but she gave a really special account, both singing and acting, in Act II’s “Per Pieta.” In fact, Farley and Selowsky really seemed to warm up and open their voices in the second act, with beautiful singing throughout.

Don Alfonso, who sets up the plot, gets the “dry” comedy, and Despina the zanier stuff. She has to dress up as an aged doctor and a notary. Handley and Valdes handled their characters well, though they would probably have been more satisfyingly developed in a staged production.

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra was pushed to the back of the stage. It is not an acoustically ideal setup. The overture sounded lively but opaque to me, but my ear soon adjusted. A few woodwind details in the delicious orchestration were swallowed up, but most of the time the RPO sounded precise, colorful, and truly Mozartian. Stare’s command of the drama and pacing of this lengthy score was extremely satisfying. I wish Stare and the RPO did more Mozart together, but for now, this “Così fan tutte” will do admirably.

Reviewed on Thursday, May  9, the RPO will repeat its presentation of “Così fan tutte” on Saturday, May 11, 8 p.m. at Eastman Theatre's Kodak Hall, 60 Gibbs Street. $24-$106. 454-2100. rpo.org.

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