The setup: Among all of Mozart's splendid operas, perhaps Così is most special because it has taken the most lumps. Cut short of performances when Emperor Joseph II died during its Vienna premiere in February 1791, when the theaters were shut for mourning, the opera returned for five shows through August, and then, except for a few scattered performances, was forgotten for over a century. Hard to believe that a work with such mastery, wit and finesse could be shoved in the closet, unloved, but it was. Well, times change, and now Mozart's third-final opera, a comic sex masquerade, is regarded as a masterpiece. Opera in the Heights delivers Mozart's genius -- and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte's, too -- with a genius all its own. Could this be the company's best production ever?
The execution: When Ferrando and Guglielmo, two army officers, crow of their lovers' faithfulness, old cynic and friend Don Alfonso bets them that within the day, their fiancées, sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi, will be unfaithful. In his plan, the men pretend that they're called to the front (Austria was still mired in the feeble Austro-Turkish War of 1787), but immediately return in disguise as two "Albanians," with great plumed moustaches, to each woo the other's betrothed. Needless to say, the women prove inconstant. The title freely translates to "they're all alike." At the time it was gleefully shocking with its ultramodern theme of infidelity and casual sex, with an irreverent saucy maid, Despina, added to mock her employers. Così is a sophisticated ensemble piece unlike anything that had been seen before on the opera stage. You can hear Mozart purring in the background as he adds his unique voice to give his characters weight and emotion. The whole affair bubbles.
Everybody gets to shine in the opera, that's what makes it so grand. The two sets of lovers are offset by Don Alfonso and Despina, and even their voices, while distinct, blend in ensemble passages of aching beauty. In arias, duets, trios and more, you have the standard array of voices -- soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, bass, coloratura -- all arranged by master Mozart to fit perfectly on the ear. The teary trio "Soave sia il vento" ("May the wind be gentle"), sung by the women and smug Don Alfonso waving "goodbye" as the men sail away, is a lilting farewell plea full of gentle sadness. You feel the balmy Naples air in it -- Così takes place at the sisters' seaside Italian villa. The opera's filled with such pleasures. As the plot comes to fruition and Fiordiligi hits an impasse that compares her deep feelings for this new lover with her regret at not remaining faithful to the old one, Mozart ups the ante as emotion and complexity ride through the score. Music and words meld just so in this opera.
Opera in the Heights has it right, too, with a flawless ensemble cast and an intelligent, witty staging from director Lynda McKnight, who gracefully applies layers of irony and smartness to Mozart and Da Ponte's artifice. Nothing is overplayed, overwrought or overthought. Maestro Enrique Carreón-Robledo conducts orchestra and chorus with a jaunty passion, and the singers romp through Mozart with vigor and elegance, tuning his phrases into electricity. (Even the famous quack Mesmer -- he of hypnosis fame, and an early patron of Mozart -- makes a cameo appearance in the opera, or Despina in disguise does, to cure the Albanians when they take poison after their initial advances are rebuffed. The doctor's machine is wired with bathroom plungers that Despina applies to either elbows or butts, and the fakers get lightly electrocuted. Mozart has a laugh in the orchestra with trilling woodwinds as the guys shake and shutter.)
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The cast is a most gifted ensemble: Emily Newton (Fiordiligi), Ann Sauder (Dorabella), Jennifer Whalen (Despina), Emanuel-Cristian Caraman (Ferrando), Kevin Wetzel (Guglielmo) and Erik Kroncke (Don Alfonso). From the lovely seaside vista painted on the curved background wall to the arrangement of six garden chairs, everything serves the work. The simple, refined setting, able to be reconfigured quickly, is by Rachel Smith, period costumes by Dena Scheh and painterly lighting by Kevin Taylor. McKnight's work is sophisticated and full of charm, and the singers play it with the dimensions of Shakespeare, which this masterpiece of adult operatic comedy most resembles.
The verdict: Even if you don't know Mozart from Mussorgsky, this sublime musical bauble is a must-see. This could make you a believer. If you're already an opera queen, this production will confirm your passion. You will smile in triumph and joy.
Mozart's ravishing comedy of manners runs November 17 through 20 at Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Blvd. The ruby cast with Sarah Beckham (Fiordiligi), Rebecca Heath (Despina), Zach Averyt (Ferrando) and Brian Shircliffe (Guglielmo) sings November 18 and November 20. Buy tickets online at www.operaintheheights.org or call 713-861-5303. $10-$55.