Cosi Fan Tutte in SF

Cosi Fan Tutte 07-Cory Weaver

Faith and pheromones at the Opera House.

Hijinks and low cunning filled the stage of the San Francisco Opera last Saturday night for one of the most delightful endeavors of the season, Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte.

In this third and last collaboration between Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte (following Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro), Cosi fan tutte couples transcendent vocal writing with a thorny libretto.

While chemists routinely test a substance to destruction, Mozart and da Ponte created a more unusual experiment, testing fidelity and love to their near-destruction. The plot opens with two young men boasting of the faithfulness of their intended loves to the wrong man, Don Alfonso, who then wagers that he can prove them “like all other women, that is to say, faithless.” It is an awkward premise, and nearly too risqué for its time.

Pretending to leave for war and then returning in bearded disguises, each woos the other’s intended, adding fiancée swapping to a volatile mix.

This revival of the 2004 Cosi by John Cox and designer Robert Perdziola, and currently directed by Jose Maria Condemi, employed young and agile voices strengthened by believable acting. While individual solos were acquitted with panache, the strength of this production lay in the duets, trios and many sextets, with careful balance winning the day. From the opening men’s trio of tenor, baritone and bass to the sublime Il soave for bass and two sopranos, not to mention the ensemble writing for the six principal characters, Mozart dishes up enduring melodies with a genius for harmony.

Mozart took this light-hearted story and then wrote music for it of such tenderness and truth that it transforms into a deeply sympathetic look into the human condition. In the first strains of his overture a blast of strings, forceful and dignified, are followed by a lone oboe, fat and vulnerable. And so began his spell of power and fragility, into which he weaves gossamer strands of youthful promises and ardor. Conductor Nicola Luisotti was an excellent balance point, seldom overselling his premise.

As Fiordiligi, soprano Ellie Dehn proved her star power in Come scoglio (Like a rock). With demanding vocal leaps she created a persona of extremes and of a faith that proved brittle, constructing the complex character that Mozart demands.

Her sister, Dorabella, was played by German mezzo-soprano Christel Lötzsch, with uncanny acting to supplement a voice that was as supple as it was richly hued in cinnabar and spice.

Her intended, tenor Francesco Demuro, gave a bright and very Italian complexion to his portrayal of Ferrando. In his later duets with Dehn he plays at being as earnest as any suitor, an act that ultimately confuses his own heart.

Rounding out the foursome, French-Canadian bass-baritone Philippe Sly performed the role of Guglielmo, by turns passionate and heartsick. An Adler fellow, he is increasingly in demand after winning the 2011 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and both vocally and otherwise, the strapping 24-year-old “was adorable,” according to my wife.

The evolution of the two swains is a painful lesson, from stiffness and soldier’s garb and thoughts of honor into sly stealers of love. And having been caught in their own snare, they find that they have given away the hearts that they tried to steal. The duet, Il core vi dono (I’ll give you my heart) between Ferrando and Fiordiligi would do justice to any musical for the quick turn-around of young passions (think “Maria” from West Side Story or “If I loved you” from Carousel), but each under-lights their undeniable chemistry with the knowledge of betrayal. It is a complex display, and Dehn and Demuro make it nearly believable.

With all of this, it was a surprise that the singing was often upstaged by the brilliant acting of the other two characters: the young and resourceful Susannah Biller played the saucy maid, Despina, to the hilt, while maintaining notes that positively gleamed. And Marco Vinco put a very human face on the scheming Don Alfonso. Along with commanding acting (and he often stole his scenes), his baritone was a convincing foil for the others.

Cosi Fan Tutte 08- Cory Weaver

—Adam Broner

Photo top, from left, of Susannah Biller (Despina) and Christel Lötzsch (Dorabella); photo bottom of Philippe Sly (Guglielmo), Christel Lötzsch (Dorabella), Ellie Dehn (Fiordiligi) and Francesco Demuro (Ferrando). Both photos by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

SF Opera’s summer series concludes this week with the last two performances of The Tales of Hoffmann on Wednesday, July 3 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, July 6 at 8:00 p.m., and with the last two performances of the newly commissioned The Gospel of Mary Magdalene on Friday, July 5 at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday July 7 at 2:00 p.m. See sfopera.com for tickets and information.