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Review: Pittsburgh Opera’s ‘Cosi fan tutte’ delights

Mark Kanny
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Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
The cast of the Pittsburgh Opera's production of Mozart's 'Cosi Fan Tutte' as photographed at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Oakland on Monday, Oct. 26, 2015. Pictured from left are Christopher Tiesi as Ferrando, Jennifer Holloway as Dorabella, Danielle Pastin as Fiordiligi and Hadleigh Adams as Guglielmo. The show runs from Nov. 7th to Nov. 15th, 2015 at the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts in Downtown.
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Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Director and actor Sir Thomas Allen as Don Alfonso, left, and Sari Gruber as Despina in Pittsburgh Opera's production of Mozart's 'Cosi Fan Tutte' as photographed at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Oakland on Monday, Oct. 26, 2015. Sir Thomas Allen, the real life inspiration for the character 'Billy Elliot' of the play and movie of the same title, is both directing and acting in the opera.
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Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Christopher Tiesi as Ferrando and Jennifer Holloway as Dorabella in Pittsburgh Opera's production of Mozart's 'Cosi Fan Tutte' as photographed at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Oakland on Monday, Oct. 26, 2015. The show follows two sets of lovers along the Italian seaside testing each others faithfulness.

Smart staging and effective musical performances are wed in Pittsburgh Opera’s delightful production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte,” which began a run of four performances Nov. 7 at the Benedum Center, Downtown.

All three — sadly, only three — operas Mozart wrote with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte are masterpieces filled with extraordinary music perfectly tailored to the stories they carry forward. Yet, “Cosi” is a masterpiece with a problematic story, one that Pittsburgh Opera’s staging by baritone Sir Thomas Allen goes as far to ameliorate as possible.

The plot is set in motion in the first scene when two young men brag about every aspect of their girlfriends, including their constancy, to Don Alfonso, a much older and cynical man. He quickly challenges them to a bet that will disprove their assertion.

During the rest of the opera, we see these women as pawns in a charade. Allen sets the opera on an Italian beach and creates a breezy staging with lightness that disguises the nastiness of Alfonso’s machinations. Alfonso’s lesson in what Mozart subtitled “The School for Lovers” begins with the men called off to war. They return in costume as foreigners, Albanians, and successfully switch women for their romantic pursuits.

Allen commanded the stage as Alfonso, a portrayal by turns elegant and decisive, and brimming with knowing details. His hand movements while speaking rapid Italian intensified the rhetoric. He cued musical details, even conducted a bit. His asides to himself (and the audience) were hilarious. And, at 71, his voice retains its smooth richness and still has plenty of power.

Soprano Danielle Pastin, an alumna of the opera’s resident artist program, gave a superb performance as Fiordiligi, the more principled of the two women. Mozart’s great operas feature inspired and dramatically sympathetic music for his leading ladies, however difficult they are in the required vocal technique. Pastin rose to the challenge posed by Fiordiligi, which requires a soprano with a strong low register. The aria “Come scoglio” in the first act is filled with dramatic leaps up and down, which Pastin handled with aplomb except briefly in a passing note. She was even more effective in her second act aria, “Per pieta.”

Mezzo soprano Jennifer Holloway, another resident artists program alum, was superb, too. Holloway conveyed Dorabella’s more spirited personality, one more prone to flirtatiousness, with lively and beautifully centered vocalism.

If the women are the dupes in “Cosi,” the men are the fools for taking Alfonso’s bet and deceiving the women they say they adore. Tenor Christopher Tiesi, in his company debut, gave a compelling performance as Ferrando, the high point of which was the second act aria “Ah lo veggio quel’ anima bella.” His ardent and well-sustained delivery of the aria’s long lines was warmly applauded by the audience.

Hadleigh Adams, also making his debut, was delightful as Guglielmo, who is originally paired with Dorabella. He has an attractive, light baritone voice, nicely open on the top but undernourished on the bottom.

Sari Gruber brought just the right spirit to Despina, who is the maid to Fiordiligi and Dorabella. Despina takes a much more practical approach to love and life than the aristocratic women she serves and helps Alfonso in his machinations. She appears twice in disguise, the first as a physician curing the two men who have pretended to take poison out of despair at being rejected. Gruber saved the comic pinched tone used by Despina for the second act in which she pretends to be a lawyer in order to get marriage contracts from the reshuffled lovers.

That’s the crux of the problem that leads modern productions of “Cosi” to reconsider the romantic pairing at the end of the opera. In place of either the original pairing being resumed, or the pairing that develops in the second act, Allen ends the opera with both men being scorned by the women. It’s the same denouement employed by stage director Wolfgang Weber with Pittsburgh Opera resident artists in 2000.

Music director Antony Walker led a crisp and sensitive performance. The orchestra played with a natural singing style. The clarinet parts, which are unusually prominent in “Cosi” were exquisitely played, while the horns were not only excellent throughout but especially delightful in “Per pieta.”

“Cosi fan tutte” will be repeated at 7 p.m. Nov. 10, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 13 and 2:30 p.m. Nov. 15 at the Benedum Center, Downtown. Admission is $12.75 to $157.75. Details: 412-456-6666 or pittsburghopera.org

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or [email protected].

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