- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Washington National Opera debuted its new “black box” performance space, “the Studio,” during the weekend with a sprightly presentation of Mozart’s always popular comic opera, “Cosi fan tutte” (“They all do it”). The venue is carved out of the company’s facilities on Willow Street Northwest, just a short walk from the Takoma Metro stop.

This bare-bones version of “Cosi” was designed to attract new opera fans by showcasing the talented young singers, conductors, directors and associated artists currently participating in the company’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.

“Cosi’s” silly-yet-timeless plot revolves around a bet placed between the wily, world-weary old rake Don Alfonso and two starry-eyed friends, Guglielmo and Ferrando. Alfonso wagers that the pair’s girlfriends, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, will cheat on them at the first opportunity, since, in his opinion, “they all do it.” Soon the game is afoot, aided and abetted by Alfonso’s witty maid, Despina.

With limited scenery, designer and stage director Andrea Dorf chose to update the opera to modern times, which, with the youthfulness of the singers and the frothiness of the plot, actually worked quite well, particularly when Guglielmo and Ferrando reappeared on stage as a pair of wild and crazy guys right out of a vintage “Saturday Night Live” episode. (In the original, they are love-crazed Albanians.) With the audience arranged on both sides of a jut-stage, surtitles were provided on TV monitors, which was generally effective, although two of the TVs were placed a bit too low to be effective and the surtitles were scrambled up for about the first five minutes of Friday’s performance.

As Dorabella, mezzo-soprano Claudia Huckle displayed a powerful instrument with an intriguing burnished-brash edge that gave it considerable carrying power as well as expressiveness. Soprano Aundi Marie Moore’s Fiordiligi was also impressive. Miss Moore navigated Mozart’s tricky ornamentation flawlessly, and was astonishingly accurate in leaps that swooped from the edge of the baritone register right up to normal soprano range. Many sopranos are nearly inaudible on the low notes, but Miss Moore’s were clear and accurate, a considerable feat.

As Despina, a role that’s nearly as fun as Cherubino in Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” Elizabeth Andrews Roberts had a great time singing with bell-clear top notes while mugging away in her various disguises like a jolly vaudevillian.

Baritone Obed Urena wisely portrayed Don Alfonso as the opera’s straight man, setting the plot in motion, manipulating the players with backstage precision, and enabling Miss Roberts’ goofy comic antics. His method was sure, and his singing was steady, with a slight, occasional problem with intonation.

As the hapless lovers, tenor Greg Warren (Ferrando) and baritone Trevor Scheunemann (Guglielmo) showed great poise and ability. Mr. Warren was slightly inaudible in the beginning, perhaps due in part to the tricky acoustics of the performance space. But he adapted and his voice bloomed in the second act. Although it was announced before the performance that Mr. Scheunemann was under the weather, about the only way one could tell was that he never quite operated at full throttle on Friday evening. That said, his voice displayed such impressive sensitivity and range that any underlying issues were not obvious to the listener.

This delightful production was accompanied effectively by a mostly string quintet, with added piano and harpsichord continuo, all ably directed by young conductor Benjamin Makino.

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WHO: The Washington Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists

WHAT: Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte”

WHERE: The Washington National Opera Studio, 6925 Willow St. NW

WHEN: Wednesday and Friday at 7:30 p.m.

TICKETS AND INFORMATION: Call the WNO box office at 202-295-2400

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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