The set-up: If you want to know all about sex, why read Masters and Johnson when you can go to the opera and hear Mozart. What better primer than Così fan tutte (1790), the third collaboration between Mozart and urbane librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. The masterpieces Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni preceded this classic.
The execution: Loosely translated as "All women are like this," if you change tutte's "e" to an "i" you get "all men are like this." That title would be just as appropriate, for the opera skewers the male point of view with an equally jaundiced eye. Suffice it to say, the battle of the sexes has been raging long before and far after this work from the late 18th-century, but there hasn't been anything new. It's comforting to know that some things remain the same.
In this bittersweet opera buffa, woman's faithfulness is tested, but so is man's. On a bet, disguised as exotic "Albanians" with mustaches "like plumes of love," two best friends, Guglielmo and Ferrando (baritone Jaques Imbrailo and tenor Norman Reinhardt), do their best to seduce each other's financées, the sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi (sopranos Melody Moore and Rachel Willis-Sorensen). To their horror and blows to their vanity, they succeed - spectacularly so in under 24 hours - but they get as much heartache as they give, and then realize that women are no more suited to a pedestal than men. Everyone's only human, accept the faults and go on. Don't worry, be happy.
This refreshingly modern view from Da Ponte is catnip for Mozart, who sets the fable to some of his most sublime melodies, both comic and dramatic. Most definitely a court composition, Cosi is refined, stylized, and heightened by artifice. In structure the very picture of balance and control, its parts contrast and compare: two guys, two sisters, the roue, the flip servant. As the opera takes place in Naples, the musical atmosphere is filled with lilting breezes and sunshine. Mozart uses a lot of woodwinds and triple rhythms to achieve this effect, unique of all his operas in its expressively liquid tone.
The overture bubbles with gaiety, a taste of the farce to come. Although there are coloratura outbursts from stoic Fiordiligi, whose aria "Like a rock" ("Come stoglia") has been a showpiece of technique and vocal prowess ever since the opera's Vienna premiere, and a grand, old-fashioned throwback "How will I live now that he's gone" number for the more pliant Dorabella, the opera is awash with ensemble singing: duets, trios, sextets. This is an opera about conspiracies and masquerades, so it's only logical that the co-conspirators sing together whenever possible.
The sisters prop each other up when their defenses are under assault from the guys; while the guys boast of their soon-to-be success, or mock the other's apparent lack of testosterone in the art of seduction when the women don't fall as fast as they should. Of course, there's the saucy maid, Despina (soprano Nuccia Focile), the wisest of them all, who doesn't see what the women are fussing about since there are so many men in the world from which to choose.
The whirligig plot is set in motion by crafty philosopher Don Alfonso (bass-baritone Alessandro Corbelli), who's fed up with the men's starry-eyed, naive view of how pure their women are. He's been around the piazza too many times to fall for that line. The bet is on.
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Houston Grand Opera uses the sparse and clean Goran Jarvefelt production that was commissioned for the company's triple Mozart/Da Ponte celebration, which debuted in 1988 with Don Giovanni. Resembling an antique Baroque stage, the unit set with its receding perspective is ultra chic in its clutter-free look. The scenes are redressed by stagehands in livery. A harpsichord with painted lid remains stage-left throughout, in homage to Herr Mozart. Carl-Friedrich Oberle's rich period costumes add eye-catching luxury.
The cast is elegant, too. Vibrant and spry, with luxurious voices that wrap Mozart in velvet, they throw themselves into this divine, stylized comedy of manners. With her droll characterization, Ms. Moore is a particular standout as the first sister to succumb.
The verdict: Neglected for over a century, Mozart's most sophisticated opera is wry indeed, as it winks at these unfaithful lovers with timeless appeal and forgiveness. We wink right back.
Cosi fan tutte continues on November 8, 13, 15 at the Houston Grand Opera at Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. Purchase tickets online at www.hgo.org or call 713-228-6737. $15-$345.50.