A cozy Così at Opera San José

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The delectable charm of Mozart …

The second title for the Mozart–Da Ponte opera Così Fan Tutte is La scola degli amanti, or The school for lovers. It could just have easily been subtitled “Girls just want to have fun.” For although its premise is fraught with what we now think of as sexist attitudes and assumptions, the crux of the story has to do with whether or not girls get the fun they would like to have in life.

In Opera San José’s current production, which opened this past weekend at the California Theater, the girls do have fun, but the audience has even more fun – lots of it.

Unlike many contemporary stagings, this production is set in the 18th century, when the opera was written. And that serves this charming work well. The delicate and picturesque setting emphasizes the courtly graces of Mozart’s music and gives the twists and turns of Da Ponte’s libretto an elevated air of arabesques and inconsequential silliness. All of which lessens the cruelties inherent in the inequalities between the sexes that it amply illustrates. Everyone, male and female, is capable of being a fool, but no one is incapable of forgiveness or undeserving of the love it enables.

The opera opens in a fencing school where the two young heroes, Ferrando and Guglielmo, are defending their fiancées, the adorable sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, against the slurs of the jaded Don Alfonso, who claims that all women are fickle and untrustworthy. Foolishly, the young gallants propose a bet that Don Alfonso cannot prove the sisters to be anything other than paragons of what they believe womanly virtue and loyalty to be: faithful and chaste.

Don Alfonso sends his soldiers off, requiring that they follow his every instruction in this game of romantic roulette. He then visits the girls, telling them that their amanti have answered the call to soldierly duty and been sent to the front to fight. The sisters fall into transports of grief. Little do they know that their amanti are soon to return – this time disguised as mustachioed Albanians who proclaim their undying love for the adorable sisters, they of the many yards of silk and few brain cells.

The action gets more and more preposterous as the sisters struggle to maintain control over their hearts in the face of their Albanian swains increasing demands for their affections. The battle is helped along by the sisters’ clever and bold maid, Despina, who is an unfailing advocate of the girls-should-have-fun school of love and who Alfonso has bribed with gold to remain loyal to his plot.

Fiordiligi is admirably sung by soprano Amanda Kingston, who joined the resident company for 2017-18. Mozart’s arias for women are always demanding, and the role asks for a strong coloratura and a huge range. Dorabella’s role, sung by Cassandra Zoé Velasco, requires a strong middle and low range and is often sung by mezzos, though the two parts are not very different in highs and lows. Velasco’s voice is round and full and beautiful. The two were excellent in duets together.

The mischievous Despina was sung by soprano Maria Valdes, who is an Adler Fellow; as a member of the Merola program she recently performed Mozart’s other enviably clever maid, Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro.

Tenor David Blalock sang Ferrando, Dorabella’s (or is it Fiordiligi’s) heartthrob. And Colin Ramsey sang Guglielmo with a gorgeous big bass-baritone. Malcolm MacKenzie provided wry comic theater in his large-hearted portrayal of the cynical Don Alfonso.

Peter Grunberg conducted the orchestra with Veronika Agranov-Dafoe at the fortepiano. Direction was by Brad Dalton, and Steven Kemp designed the sets, which provided a series of arched doors that easily converted from fencing school to orangerie to sitting room, using a horde of costumed chorus and supernumeraries that gave a sense of 18th-century class society. Elaborate costuming was designed by Elizabeth Poindexter.

This fine production is a delight and would give joy and pleasure to anyone’s evening.

– Jaime Robles

Opera San José’s production of Così fan tutte continues through September 24. For information and tickets, visit operasj.org.

Photo: Cassandra Velasco as Dorabella and Colin Ramsey as Guglielmo in Opera San José’s production of “Così fan tutte.” Photo by Robert Shomler.