Cher Public

That’s how they’ve done it

Così fan tutte, Mozart’s final Italian comedy with Lorenzo Da Ponte, is this season’s heaviest lift for Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA). Hell, it’s a heavy lift for any opera company, clocking in at three-plus hours, with formidable vocal and theatrical challenges for six principals. 

Yet that’s also why it’s such a good fit for rising young singers. Each and every role is a star part, really. The cast here was exceptionally strong, occasionally even revelatory—gratifyingly, this has become the AVA norm. Conductor Christofer Macatsoris delivered a propulsive, cogent reading of the score, and got very good playing from his orchestra (the winds especially).

As for Così’s considerable theatrical possibilities, the news was bleak.

The opera’s title (a good translation might be Every Woman Does It) evokes a suggestive sex farce and places fault with the female characters. Both things are true to an extent, but it’s not the whole story.

Everybody in Così (three men, three women) behaves badly. Da Ponte’s libretto, still brilliantly pointed, is a virtual compendium of the awful, silly, hurtful ways we all act when in the dizzying grip of desire. While the opera is a comedy for sure, it’s a complex, bittersweet one. The final moments find the entire cast praising reason—but the actual future is thorny and uncertain.

A number of smart recent readings have emphasized Così’s deeper subtext. Not here, though. Director Dorothy Danner’s antic production is content to skim across the surface, substituting hokey, tired stage business for actual exploration of character and motivation.

It’s a disservice not only to the audience, but also to the performers, who have little opportunity to find interesting colors and dimensions.

Fortunately, the singing is compensation. The six principal artists I heard, drawn from all four years of AVA residency, were up to their challenges (and what a pleasure to hear these refulgent voices in the intimate Helen Corning Warden Theater—a perfect size venue for Mozart opera).

The most fully realized performance came from first year Alice Chung as Despina—musically and dramatically engaged, always on the words, with the best diction in the company and real comic flair. It’s also fun to hear Chung’s plush, large-format mezzo in a role so often assigned to tinkly-voiced soubrettes.

Fourth-year Ethan Simpson (Guglielmo) and second-year Pascale Spinney (Dorabella) also impressed. He has an opulent baritone and consistently delivered the smoothest vocal line; Simpson also cuts a dashing stage figure. Spinney, too, is a good stage performer (she’s smart enough to underplay Dorabella, role often subjected to comic excess), and her well-knit mezzo is heard to advantage here.

Brent Michael Smith, a second-year bass, made a suave Don Alfonso, though I think he may be over-darkening his lyric voice to achieve a sense of the character’s age.

Second-year tenor Oliver Sewell was an ardent and musical Ferrando, though his voice could use more lightness and spin in the upper register. (Macatsoris’s speedy tempos, welcome elsewhere, put Sewell at a disadvantage in “Un aura amorosa.”)

Last but not least, Claire De Monteil was Fiordiligi. She’s a third-year artist of whom it’s clear great things are expected: her AVA roles so far have included Leonora in Il Trovatore, Strauss’s Ariadne, and the Rusalka Foreign Princess. De Monteil is, indeed, a generously gifted artist, and Così is the best display yet of those gifts.

Her substantial, vibrant soprano, even throughout a wide range, includes a powerful chest voice, but also has a special sense of loft in the upper range.

At times, I would have liked more repose in the long lines of “Per pieta,” but in many of the role’s most difficult passages—the closing trills of that aria, for example, or the triplets in “Come scoglio”—De Monteil was superbly assured, matching the best exponents I’ve heard live, including Carol Vaness and Renée Fleming.

In short, a particular triumph for De Monteil and Chung, but a promise of major things to come for all of them. Meanwhile, I’ll hope AVA’s next staged opera—Roméo et Juliette, in late April—finds a more compelling dramatic frame.

Photo: Don Valentino