Take one of Mozart's most good-natured operas, "Cosi fan tutte." You know, that ever-popular 18th-century comic confection where two wild and crazy guys disguise themselves as exotic Albanians, then try to trick their girlfriends into cheating on them to win a bet with a worldly old-timer.
Now, transport the whole thing into a 20th-century setting that looks a lot like the Kinsey Institute. What do you get? The Wolf Trap Opera Company's update of an old favorite that, alas, gets rather badly scrambled up somewhere in the transporter beam.
Occupying the entirety of the Barns at Wolf Trap's small stage, Erhard Rom's clever set is a masterpiece of efficiency that maximizes this space. A large meeting room at center stage is flanked on stage right by a waiting area and on stage left by a sort of control room complete with video monitor and reel-to-reel tape recorder. The central room is surrounded by a series of two-way mirrors, and the whole shebang is painted an antiseptic white.
This is the turf of Don Alfonso (bass Carlos Monzon), the experienced womanizer who bets our two naive young heroes, Guglielmo (baritone Matthew Hanscom) and Ferrando (tenor David Portillo), that their lady friends, sisters Fiordiligi (soprano Rena Harms) and Dorabella (mezzo Jamie Van Eyck), will betray them at the least provocation because, well, "Cosi fan tutte" — "They all do it."
In this update, however, Alfonso (Dr. Kinsey?) and his medical staff (aka, the chorus) clad in white lab coats, hover about in the background to observe, record and take notes on the two couples' mating behavior under stress.
The lab research conceit was initially promising. Given the opera's plot, it really wasn't much of a stretch, actually. But in the end, it didn't work.
The talented young cast — with the notable exception of the madcap servant Despina, energetically sung by soprano Alicia Gianni — seemed flummoxed by director Eric Einhorn's ham-fisted, overly cynical vision, which included an ambiguous and unhappy surprise ending that betrays Mozart's well-known sense of tolerance and forgiveness. This, in turn, led to technically correct but uninspired singing and pokey pacing. The final product ultimately lacked the light, comic ambience that usually makes this opera so enjoyable.
One bright spot in this performance was the sprightly accompaniment provided by the pit orchestra under the baton of conductor Timothy A. Myers. Unhampered by the plodding stage direction, the musicians, at least, managed to have fun with Mozart's bubbly score — including a sneaky, unscripted Wagnerian intrusion in the continuo harpsichord. That single phrase of antic improv somehow captured Mozart's genial goofiness in a way the stage production never did.
WHAT: Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte"
WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday
WHERE: The Barns at Wolf Trap
TICKETS: $34 to $68.
WEB SITE: www.wolftrap.org
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS