No Surtitles Required
The last time Houston Grand Opera staged Mozart's Don Giovanni, in the fall of 1999, audiences were treated to baritone Bo Skovhus's overly hammy Don Juan. That production, though similar in concept to HGO's current staging of Così fan tutte, offered a less-than-satisfying experience compared to this Così, the far more maligned of the composer's two operas.
Unlike the Don Giovanni production, HGO's new Così offers no big-name draws. Its plot, which alternates between the serious and the comical, promises none of the suspense or intrigue that we love in the tale of the poisonous lady-eating Don Juan. Even the opera's title isn't easily translated. Some say it means "All Women Do the Same," while others translate it as "Thus Do All Women." Neither gives us any clue about the story line.
Anyone who witnessed Così on opening night caught what may be Mozart's purest example of music-making for multiple voices, something we catch only a glimpse of in Giovanni. Amid a few sublime arias, Mozart unleashes a pristine parade of melody for two, three and even six blended voices.
HGO music director Patrick Summers and the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra superbly interpreted Mozart's ingenious ensemble work, both musically and theatrically. The six lead performers, under the deft direction of Harry Silverstein, added their astute comic timing to a production that fully realized the potential of the late Swedish director Göran Jarvefelt's inventive, multiple-use staging.
The story, written by librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, hinges on a bet. Ferrando and Guglielmo, two young soldiers from Naples, make a wager with their cynical friend Don Alfonso for 100 gold pieces. The two propose that if they pretend to leave home for war, their girlfriends will remain faithful in their absence. Ferrando and Guglielmo disguise themselves as Albanians, and each tries to woo the other's fiancée. At first, their hunch is right. The women, sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, barely give their disguised suitors a second look and grow furious with their advances. But slowly they give in.
The plot feels silly, but Mozart shapes it into a tour de force. What starts off as an innocent game develops into a serious challenge to the fidelity and expectations of these lovers. In Act I, as Don Alfonso and Despina do their part to dupe the unsuspecting pair, the music remains as light as the laughter. But after Dorabella gives in to a stranger's advances, the music sounds deeply bittersweet.
Soprano Christine Goerke as Fiordiligi and mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Dorabella performed well as the tricked sisters. While stunning in harmony together, Goerke and DiDonato sketched different portraits as individual siblings, and it was Goerke whose depiction warmed us. Compared to DiDonato, Goerke was more convincing as a woman who bitterly struggles to resist the advances. As Fiordiligi slowly fell off her pedestal, the atmosphere became sad and poignant. Her fall seemed so slow, in fact, that when she finally dissolved into her new lover's arms, the moment was profound, a sentiment wonderfully echoed in the melody.
The two wagering suitors didn't hit their stride, however, until they went under cover. At first, baritone Nathan Gunn fell short of impressive as Guglielmo, but when he switched into his Albanian disguise, his strains grew robust. Similarly, tenor Richard Croft seemed to find his true voice during his second-act arias. Ironically it was Italian bass-baritone Alfonso Antoniozzi in the role of crafty Don Alfonso who frequently outshone both Gunn and Croft. Mezzo-soprano Judith Christin offered up just the right amount of slapstick while singing the role of Despina, the maid who helps Don Alfonso mastermind the deception of her two mistresses.
To the critics of this opera, the idea that two conniving males would trick their fiancées into infidelity and then turn around and marry them as a sign of forgiveness is untenable. But it's the genius of Mozart's music that makes these events palatable -- and even welcome by the final curtain.
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