THE BLOG
09/26/2011 05:34 pm ET | Updated Nov 26, 2011

Review: Così Fan Tutte at L.A. Opera

First published in the Los Angeles Downtown News

The current L.A. Opera production of Così Fan Tutte, Mozart's exquisitely problematic farce, is a special joy, and should be added it to the opera lover's not-to-be-missed list for the fall season. Those unfamiliar with opera may find it a good way to get hooked.

Così is not easy to pull off. Not only does it require a strong and cohesive crew of young Mozart specialists, but the serious undertones of the work must be brought out without spoiling the fun. Director Ashley Dean and conductor James Conlon find the balance with a gifted and committed ensemble drawn from the ranks of future European stars. Four of the six principals, including potential-superstar Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, make their Los Angeles debuts.

This is the finale of the three great operas created by Mozart with the brilliant librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. In many ways it's the answer to The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni -- both tales in which the males are generally cads and the females generally virtuous.

The unvirtuous in the present case are two sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella. When their fiancés are called off to war, these sisters' despair is undermined by the appearance of two handsome, if over-the-top "Albanian noblemen" intent on seducing them. What the sisters don't know is that the aggressive suitors are actually their disguised fiancés testing their fidelity -- on a bet offered by an aging cynic by the name of Don Alfonso.

2011-09-23-3116coz6052.jpg

Photo courtesy L.A. Opera.

This devilish Alfonso (wonderfully rendered as a dissolute rascal by Lorenzo Regazzo) wants to prove not only that così fan tutte, "all women are like that," but he wants to reveal a deeper truth about the illusions of human affection: often we are more in love with being in love than with one another. Alfonso succeeds both monetarily and philosophically: the women fall all too easily -- and the fiancés get a little too caught up in getting the other guy's girl.

Alfonso's final message: "Don't worry. That's human nature. Deal with it."

In its own time, the opera was a tad scandalous. Even Beethoven called it "amoral," and for a long time it was not performed. Today, the exquisite music and ambiguous comedy of Così make it a favorite in the canon... even as the ending, which leaves the outcome of all the affairs uncertain, continues to trouble modern audiences.

The Così now on at L.A. Opera brims with energy while making sure the buffo is mixed with just enough chiaroscuro to keep a Don Alfonso happy. It's just risqué enough for adults without threatening the psyches of children.

Similar Mozartian symmetries abound. The amoral friend, Alfonso, is paired with the amoral maid, Despina, played to the hilt by talented mezzo Roxana Constantinescu, perhaps the strongest singer among the women.

These unvirtuous sisters have some of the loveliest duets ever penned, and they are superbly delivered. Fiordiligi, the more sensitive and thoughtful, holds out against her "Albanian" the longest. Soprano Aleksandra Kurzak makes for an engaging Fiordiligi, and if, on opening night, she had a bit of trouble when the score called for sudden dips toward the low end of the scale, she handled the high cadenzas with aplomb. And if, on opening night, her famous aria, "Per pieta," was not the gripping moment it might have been, and did not create quite the emotional center of the opera, we did not mind.

Angelenos have seen Romanian mezzo Ruxandra Donose before -- she played the ill-fated Veronica in the ill-fated opera The Fly back in 2008. Here she plays a very different role with much better music, and brings us the more flighty (and if possible, more foolish) sister, Dorabella, with perfect musicality and comic energy.

Ildebrando D'Arcangelo has the presence, the looks, and a potent-but-crisp bass baritone that can fill the whole Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. He plays an intelligent, thoughtful, and honest Guglielmo with the grace of a true star.

A genuine Albanian, Saimir Pirgu, plays the dopily romantic Italian soldier Ferrando who is pretending to be a lascivious Albanian -- a nice mind-twister. Pirgu has a strong and sensitive tenor, and it would be great to see him in a truly romantic role.

His high-energy and comic pairing with D'Arcangelo is a delight. You can feel how much they enjoy working together onstage. Indeed the comfortable and kinetic relationship between everyone in this ensemble makes us feel as if they have been working together for years -- not just flown in for this production from six points around the globe.

Conlon directs Mozart with warmth, vigor, and emotion. Some may prefer a crisper, more "18th Century" approach, but he makes the work more accessible to modern ears.

Don't miss it.

Through Oct. 8. Tickets at L.A. Opera.com. More reviews and recommendations from Marc Porter Zasada on the classical season in L.A. at www.laopeningnights.com