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July 1, 2009

Wolf Trap Opera takes clinical look at 'Cosi fan tutte'

The idea loudly espoused in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte – that women can’t help being unfaithful to their men – is hard to swallow under normal circumstances. Encountering the work while Gov. Sanford’s confession of serial line-crossing is all over the news requires even more indulgence than usual.

Wolf Trap Opera’s intriguing production, which had its final performance Tuesday night at the Barns, emphasized the darker side of Cosi fan tutte, treating the wager that sets the plot in motion as a kind of calculated scientific experiment, set in a pristine clinic. Folks in white lab coats peered through two-way mirrors and secretly taped everything that went on as two couples were gradually torn apart, thanks to Don Alfonso’s wager with Ferrando and Guglielmo that their fiances will betray them if given half a chance.

It is possible to question various elements in director Eric Einhorn’s concept, especially 

the uneven balance between broad slapstick and a gentler sitcom approach, but he managed to pull off this updating of the plot in often compelling, not to mention humorous and some ever so slightly vulgar, ways.

He’s not the first director to put an unhappy, unsettled spin on the opera’s ending, but Einhorn strongly underlined how none of the four central characters would ever be the same, how deeply wounded each one was by what happened during the experiment. In a persuasive touch, Einhorn showed one of the women ... 

 discovering the wicked scheme earlier than the libretto has it.

The look of the staging – Erhard Rom designed the sleek lab/office set, complete with a magazine-stocked waiting room and restroom (the latter used for more than freshening up) – created a neat, cohesive package. Mattie Ullrich’s predominantly black and white costumes added an extra dash of visual style.

Wolf Trap Opera’s young, eager cast offered a true ensemble effort and uniformly effective acting, something this company routinely generates. The participants did not all sound like stars in the making, but there was abundant personality in the singing, as well as a good deal of style.

David Portillo (Ferrando) proved particularly promising. The tenor’s soft notes had a tenderness not often encountered today among young singers; he was capable of truly lyrical vocalism. There is more strengthening of the voice to be done, but his musicality is already impressively developed. Matthew Hanscom (Guglielmo) produced some lovely tones and vivid phrasing, too. Rena Harms (Fiordiligi) encountered brittleness at the top, and her coloratura was not always effortless. Still, the soprano’s passionate singing had an effective impact. Jamie Van Eyck (Dorabella) did generally firm, colorful singing.

Alicia Gianni, as the servant Dorabella, was made up to look like a pampered rich girl, which didn’t quite make sense with the plot, but she certainly got into the spirit of things with panache. She also brought a strong, warm, colorful soprano to the assignment. Carlos Monzon was a vocally lightweight, yet spirited, Don Alfonso. Conductor Timothy Myers led a basically breezy, yet often quite sensitive, performance (the Act 1 trio was allowed an affecting breadth). The lively orchestra could have used firmer strings and a bit more discipline.

Next up for Wolf Trap Opera: Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses.


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:51 PM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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