Buffalo Opera Unlimited is on an upward curve. Every production seems to be a little better than the last.
This weekend, the company is presenting an English-language, 1950s staging of Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte.” The opera does not call for a large cast and lends itself well to a chamber setting. But, as has been said of many a love affair, it’s complicated.
The title means, more or less, “They’re All Like That,” and the premise is that no woman can be faithful. You have two couples, Guglielmo and Fiordiligi, and Ferrando and Dorabella.
A cynical bachelor, Don Alfonso, makes a bet with the guys that they can trick the women easily into being unfaithful: The guys leave on a pretext that they have been called to war. Their sweethearts weep, to the tune of some of the most sublime music Mozart ever wrote. Then the gentlemen return, in disguise, and woo each other’s sweethearts.
It’s built into the libretto, by Lorenzo da Ponte, that the men are uncomfortable with this bet, once it gets underway. But old Don Alfonso is right: The women do cave – first one, and then the other. Needless to say, many over the centuries have found this story insulting.
On the bright side, “Cosi” has a marvelously seductive score. Mozart must have enjoyed writing it. And the singers in this production are excellent. Tenor Robert Zimmerman sings Ferrando and baritone Nicholas Kilkenny is Guglielmo. Mary Kate vom Lehn sings Dorabella. And Fiordiligi is Rebecca Witty, the Niagara Falls singer who won a prize recently in the regional Metropolitan Opera Council Auditions.
Zimmerman has a bright, bold voice full of ardour. His voice blended beautifully with Kilkenny’s. (“Cosi” is full of enchanting duets between not only the couples but between the men and the women.)
Witty was wonderful. Her performance had beauty and gravity. Vom Lehn, too, was confident and competent.
Alfonzo Tyson put his own spin on Don Alfonso. He sort of commanded the stage, as Don Alfonso should. You could understand everything he sang, and though he’s funny, he gave the character an attractively dangerous and brooding edge.
The opera is set in the 1950s and the sets, by David Butler, are colorful and creative. The prettiest suggests a roof garden overlooking a city. It’s simple but ingenious and very effective.
You could catch most of what the singers were singing, which is high praise.
“Cosi” is a tall order, though, and in some ways the production fell short. The company, as it goes forward, will need to work on its orchestra. Tim Kennedy, its artistic director, is a good conductor, and he kept it together and followed the singers well. But some of the musicians, particularly the strings, were struggling.
Also, as good as the singers were, the production wasn’t sexy. The comedy was broad. Important music in the second act was cut, and the cuts hurt the characters. In particular, not only did we not get to hear as much of Witty as we might have liked, we didn’t get to hear much of Fiordiligi’s anguish over the conflicts she faces. It wasn’t fair. I wish they could have cut some of the silliness instead.
The omissions also took away from the chemistry. I am not the first Mozart fan to believe that Ferrando, wooing Fiordiligi on the command of Don Alfonso, sort of falls in love with her because of her more steadfast nature. That’s one of the intriguing things about the opera, one of the things that throws things thrillingly off balance.
Because of the lack of emotional engagement, the opera was kind of slow moving.
It did, however, offer good laughs. I laughed out loud a number of times. There were hilarious touches. Amy Teal reveled in the part of the maid Despina, and Friday’s crowd got a kick out of her.
And just the singing, the incredible writing – basking in it, marveling at it, is a great way to spend a couple of hours. This is enchanting, top-rate Mozart, terribly passionate. At times it sounds like his sublime church music. You hear hints of the Requiem. All I can think is that Mozart intended us to get caught up in this weird story, swept off our feet the way his characters are. Get to know this opera. It’s weird, but it rewards you.
“Cosi Fan Tutte” repeats at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Drama Theater at UB’s Center for the Arts.