For the past 25 years or so, it’s been in vogue for daring theater and opera directors to yank the works of the masters from the settings they were intended and explore their eternal truths in new contexts.
We’ve seen Shakespeare’s plays set in art deco mansions and antebellum plantations and Verdi’s operas sung in grungy diners and seedy nightclubs. But, regardless of the context, the themes remain just as compelling and relevant.
Mozart’s opera, “Cosi fan Tutte,” which opened this weekend at Miami’s Arsht Center and transfers next month to the Broward Center, is the latest work to receive this treatment. In this original production for Florida Grand Opera, director Bernard Uzan places the story in modern day Monte Carlo, an appropriate setting for Mozart’s 1790 opera buffa, with libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte.
Two young soldiers, Ferrando and Guglielmo (portrayed on opening night by Jason Slayden and Jonathan Beyer) are convinced by their friend, Don Alfonso (Arthur Woodley), that their fiancés, like all women, are fickle and will eventually stray, given the chance. The men make a wager and then decide to test the sisters, Fioridigli and Dorabella (portrayed on opening night by Sari Gruber and Brenda Patterson).
The men march off to war, but secretly return, disguised as bearded Turks, determined to prove their lovers loyal. Meanwhile, the crafty Don Alfonso enlists the ladies’ maid, Despina (portrayed on opening night by Ava Pine), to convince them they should take advantage of the opportunity to seek true love. The girls spurn the advances of these suitors at first, but eventually give in, and only in the final minutes do the men come clean after Despina is discovered impersonating the notary enlisted to marry them. All is forgiven and they laugh it off, acknowledging that love and marriage should never be taken too seriously.
At first, Monte Carlo seems a brilliant setting. Italian is one of the languages of choice in the wealthy city-state and the opera is sung in Italian. The action takes place within extravagant chambers adorned with a gold leaf proscenium designed by Riccardo Hernandez. But, the costumes by Howard Tsvi Kaplan don’t stand up to the concept and execution.
In the opening scenes, the men are appropriately dressed in stylish European cut suits and cool Panama hats. As the show progresses, the costumes seem increasing out of place: The soldiers are uniformed in brilliant blue Napoleonic jackets and Prussian helmets, instead of the camouflage fatigues worn by soldiers going to war. The sisters wear sheer gowns that went out of style in 1963. As the disguised suitors, the men are dressed in satin, jewel-bedecked Technicolor coats and turbans.
But the most egregious moment, in what starts as a serious approach, occurs when Despina arrives disguised as a doctor to revive the men who have downed arsenic in desperation. She wears oversized glasses, a goofy wig and cartoonish robe, stuffed with a pillow. The premise would still have been very funny—but equally believable—had such a silly departure been avoided.
Criticisms aside, opera is ultimately about the music and the opening night cast was marvelous (they will be alternating performances with Daniel Bates, Isaac Bray, Hailey Clark, Carla Jablonski and Rebecca Henriques during the run).
Slayden and Beyer are dashing as both the young soldiers and their alteregos, tackling their arias with gusto. Gruber and Patterson demonstrate the perfect blend of technique and artistry throughout. Most importantly, they all exhibit rare chemistry, whether singing as comrades and sisters or paired as lovers.
Woodley and Pine as the wily foils mix musicality with a fine grasp of their characters, never overplaying their roles (except when Despina is dressed as the comic doctor).
Conductor Ramon Tebar does double duty, performing on the harpsichord during the baroque-style recitatives, and leading the orchestra, punctuated by outstanding woodwind and horn solos throughout.
Florida Grand Opera presents Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” at the Arsht Center in Miami, Jan. 30-31, and at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale, Feb. 12 and 14. Tickets start at $19 at FGO.org.