News Column

AVA pulls off a fine 'Cosi fan tutte'

November 7, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 07--How often -- during wildly operatic declarations of love -- have you wondered what the characters were smoking?

In Academy of Vocal Arts' production of Cosi fan tutte, the Nic Muni production is updated to the Vietnam War era and indeed explains such moments with marijuana. Should we be surprised? Of all the major Mozart operas, Cosi has long lent itself to fast-and-loose interpretations -- its war-of-the-sexes comedy is quite flexible -- with surprisingly little damage.

Here, AVA took a significant leap away from prosaic stage values of years past but with innovations that weren't just cosmetic. It altered the text, some of the characters, and ultimately the outcome of this plot about three men betting on the fidelity of their fianc es and testing it with extravagant acts of seduction. Conductor Christofer Macatsoris maintained strict musical integrity along with good to excellent singing at Tuesday's opening, but the theatrical aspects of the piece were used mostly as a template.

The maid Despina, normally not seen until well into Act I, was there from the beginning, prostituting herself with soldiers and medicating her anguish with alcohol. Among the two romantic couples, the boyfriends pretend to go off to war, but come back disguised as druggy hippies, romancing each other's girlfriends with much to smoke. As the comedy plays itself out (there is plenty of wit from singers and director along the way), the always-ambiguous ending has an original twist: One couple survives but the other does not.

The surtitle translation was more about the production's update than the literary Lorenzo da Ponte's libretto. But would an English-speaking audience, in the thick of performance, appreciate da Ponte anyway? Are such observations best left to home listening with the Italian original in front of you?

On balance, the AVA production was justifiable -- and fun. Muni is a thoughtful, resourceful director and worked wonders with the tiny Helen Corning Warden Theater stage. The cast seemed uniformly ignited by the concept, projecting a clear sense of what they were about. Vocally, the singers were less uniform. Tenor Mackenzie Whitney was a blunt Ferrando, but rich-voiced, theatrically adept Michael Adams was all you could want as Guglielmo.

The two women, Jessie Nguenang and Julia Dawson, had voices of similar weight, with Nguenang navigating Fiordiligi's wide-ranging arias with particular artistry. As Despina, Sydney Mancasola almost stole the show with unusually full-bodied singing in what is normally a soubrette role; as a woman of many disguises, she played everything for truth rather than laughs. Daniel Noyola didn't need a beautiful voice for the older Don Alfonso character, but had terrific language skills in recitatives.

Best of all, the sets contained and focused the sound so much that, in the opening moments, the normally dry acoustic was on the verge of glowing. All the better to hear conductor Macatsoris, who burrowed at least as deeply into Mozart as he does into Verdi.

Additional performances: Thursday and Saturday at Helen Corning Warden Theater; Nov. 13 at Centennial Hall at the Haverford School; Nov. 16 at Central Bucks South High School, Warrington. Information: www.avaopera.org

dstearns@phillynews.com.

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