The second of four productions by the Opera Theatre of St. Louis this summer is Mozart's 1790 romantic farce Cosi Fan Tutte, which roughly translates as "so do they all" or, to steal the title of an early Irving Berlin hit, "Everybody's Doing It". The latter, while somewhat anachronistic, is probably a better fit for the cynical "moral" of the piece which is, quite literally, that neither men nor women are capable of fidelity, so we might as well accept it and get on with romance. At times like this, I'm glad that our nation's moral fascisti never attend the opera.
The plot of Cosi is and old one: two army officers, Fernando and Guilelmo, are so convinced of the faithfulness of their fiancees - Dorabella and her sister Fiordiligi, respectively - that they accept a bet from their cynical philosopher friend Don Alfonso that the women can't be seduced. Don Alfonso convinces the boys to go away on a mock military expedition and then return in disguise and attempt to seduce each others' fiancees. The usual complications result, helped along by the wily maid Despina. All ends happily, more or less, but only after the disillusioned officers are forced to admit, in the words of Sherlock Holmes, that "women are never to be entirely trusted--not the best of them."
This may sound like the basis for a somewhat cynical ":battle of the sexes" comedy, and most of the time it is, especially in this production, in which the direction (by David William) and translation (by Andrew Porter) emphasize the farcical aspects of Lorenzo Da Ponte's libretto. But Cosi sails deeper waters than that, and in Act II the comedy stops dead for some dramatic arias that point out the very real pain and guilt that come with betrayal. It's a difficult mix to maintain, and very challenging for the singers.
Fortunately, this cast rises to the challenge more often than not. The Candide-like innocence of tenor Harold Gray Meers as Fernando contrasts nicely with the macho swagger of baritone Richard Byrne as Guilelmo, and both are in fine voice. Mezzo Patricia Risley is a petite and mischievous Dorabella, which works nicely with Juliana Rambaldi's more regal and upright Fiordiligi. Rambaldi sounds a bit uncomfortable in the lower end of her vocal range, but otherwise both women produce some really beautiful music, both in solos and ensembles. Richard Stilwell is a foxy old Don Alfonso, and Cheryl Parrish steals more than her share of scenes as the maid, Despina. She also has the best sense of comic timing in the entire cast.
The orchestra sounded a bit ragged under Richard Bradshaw on opening night, but a few more performances should smooth out any remaining rough edges. In the final analysis, this production of Cosi Fan Tutte hits considerably more often than it misses, and if you're a fan of Mozart's operas I don't think you can go wrong with this one.
The Opera Theatre of St. Louis presentation of Cosi Fan Tutte runs through June 28th, in rotating repertory with three other operas, at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. Call 314-961-0644 for ticket information.