My German friend is still enchanted with a performance of Mozart’s "Cosi fan Tutte" that he saw last year in the 18th century Schwetzingen palace in south Germany. Set in an opulent garden of 180 acres with formal plantings and fountains, artificial lakes, and wide walkways, the complex evokes Versailles. Mozart visited the place three times, one of them the year of Cosi’s premiere. The rococo theater on the premises offers the intimacy that Cosi, with only six principal singers, demands.
The New Jersey Opera Theater’s production of Cosi in McCarter’s Berlind Theater demonstrates that a genuine palace is not necessary for a joyful, tightly-focused re-play of the comic opera. NJOT’s design team (Ron Kadri, sets; Patricia Hibbert, costumes; Barry Steele, lighting; and Sue Sittko Schaefer, make-up and wig design) worked in unison to evoke the 18th century. Their efforts provided airy physical settings for superb musical interpretation. Albert Sherman was the director for the tightly-focused reading of the opera.
Sets were spare and symmetrical, hinting at the rationality and order of the Enlightenment period. Pastel costuming, with just enough variation in color to catch the eye, implied aristocratic taste. Lighting provided a jewel-box atmosphere. The restraint of the design acted as a foil for the shenanigans on which the opera depends. Wigs and makeup added hilarity, when called for.
The worldly Alfonso (Matthew Curran) is determined to convince Ferrando (Fabian Robles) and Guglielmo (Jason Kaminski) that the sisters to whom they are betrothed, Dorabella (Fenna Ograjensek) and Fiordiligi (Emily Newton), will not remain faithful to them. Alfonso enlists the help of the sisters’ maid, Despina (Elisabeth Russ), in arranging opportunities for the sisters to betray their fiances. Ferrando and Guglielmo disguise themselves as Albanians and feign suicide in the attempt to challenge the sisters’ virtue.
The fast-paced vehicle calls for a finely-tuned sense of ensemble. Admirably, without letup, the NJOT cast met the challenge.
While the two betrothed couples were color-coded by their tawny costumes (even as Albanians the color scheme was only slightly modified), the aristocrat Alfonso and the maid Despina were color-coded as outsiders by the use of muted green in their costumes. The effect was to establish the betrothed couples as a group of four, no matter how their relationships played out, while Alfonso and Despina formed a separate couple with more freedom to act than the betrothed group possessed. Indeed, the costuming underlined the subtitle of the opera, "La Scholar degli Amanti," ("The School for Lovers"). In this school Alfonso and Despina teach that women are habitually unfaithful, that they all are like that ("Cosi fan Tutte"), and that prudence requires accepting the fact of infidelity.
Making a political statement, Mozart has the maid Despina assert that she is the equal of the aristocrats that surround her in the opera. Indeed, her role requires more versatility than any other role in the vehicle. Disguised as a doctor, she revives the supposed Albanians when they claim to be on the edge of death. Disguised as a notary, she intones the contract by which the sisters marry the fake Albanians.
The petite Elisabeth Russ, as Despina, flourished in her opportunities to portray the august members of society beyond the social level of the maid. Director Sherman took advantage of her small size by having her hide under a table during her stint as a notary. Although Russ does not have a large voice, it is unstrained and expressive.
Matthew Curran was a masterful Alfonso. His resonant bass voice and composed manner helped identify him as capable of creating large-scale mischief. He showed his vocal nimbleness in his patter duet with Despina in Act Two. Curran’s ensemble work at one point extended to the instrumentalists; pounding his staff on the stage, the sound was a percussive signal for the orchestra to enter.
The coordination of instrumentalists and singers invoked awe. Wind instruments have a considerable role in this opera. An oboe solo in the first measures of the overture, and a bassoon solo soon after inform the audience that wind instruments are an essential part of the work. Throughout the performance the balance of winds and vocalists was delicately poised. Fiordiligi’s "remorse" solo in Act II had her singing audibly in the company of clarinets, horns, bassoon, and flutes. A 1975 Keith Hill Italian harpsichord, amply audible with its one manual, contributed to the proceedings.
The July 13 performance was NJOT’s first Thursday evening summer opera. It attracted a number of children, who were treated like ordinary audience members. An attendant at the refreshment stand, addressing a couple of 12-year-old boys, asked them, "What can I get you gentlemen?"
Cosi fan Tutte, NJ Opera Theater, Berlind Theater at McCarter, Princeton, 609-258-2787. $42-$49. Saturday, July 22, 8 p.m.
L’Elisir d’Amore, Donizetti opera. Thursday, July 20, 7:30 p.m.
Puccini, Verdi, and Friends, Concert. $12 and $16. Saturday, July 22, 2 p.m.