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Opera Review:

Chicago Opera Theater’s "COSI FAN TUTTE" at the Athenaeum Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

There’s a monumental difference between slick updates of classics and productions that flawlessly bring those classics into the psyche of our times. Chicago Opera Theater – carving a stellar niche for itself with its consistently intelligent and theatrically contemporary vision of opera – fits into the latter category. Its production of Mozart’s "Cosi fan tutte," conducted by Jane Glover and directed by Diane Paulus at the Athenaeum Theatre, exemplifies the rigor needed to transport a piece about orchestrated infidelity from 1790 to 2002 without losing sight of the story’s essence.

More than a silly opera buffa romp, "Cosi fan tutte" (which features an extraordinarily prescient libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte), makes a devastating statement about emotional manipulation. Glover -- who conducts a top-drawer orchestra featuring period and modern instruments -- and Paulus have quietly succeeded in transforming the opera’s sorcery-like swapping into tragic disillusionment. The final tableau, via deceptively simple gesture, is more horrifying than the reenactment of a particularly grisly crime. Only here, the crime is one of the heart – and nothing can make these characters see the world quite the same way ever again.

COT reimagines "Cosi fan tutte" as a modern-day morality tale set in a high-class club (a Eurotrash-heavy Studio 54 environment for the 00s). Two society couples – the loyal Fiordiligi and her suave boyfriend Guglielmo; and the more adventurous Dorabella and her conscience-stricken beau Ferrando – enter Don Alfonso’s posh nightclub inhabited by sexually charged patrons decked out in snakeskin, leather, feathers and tinted sunglasses.

The visionary design team of Scott Pask (sets), Michael Chybowski (lights) and Meg Neville (costumes) is integral to the plot advancement. They took a much-deserved curtain call at show’s end. The stage is essentially a living fashion spread of the latest Dolce & Gabbana collection – punctuated by Fiordiligi’s and Dorabella’s muted satiny gowns and Prada bags and their boyfriends’ preppy suits. In this heightened atmosphere of violet track lighting and intimate plush furniture, the couples are put to a crushing test.

When Guglielmo and Ferrando brag to Don Alfonso that their girlfriends would never cheat on them, the jaded club proprietor convinces them he can prove otherwise. A bet ensues, and the young men agree to obey Don Alfonso’s every command over the next 24 hours. While the women leave momentarily to fawn over photographs of their lovers (through digital cameras) and declare their love for these men, Don Alfonso arrives to tell them that Guglielmo and Ferrando have gone off to join the war effort (updated to our current war in Afghanistan). Devastated, the women insist they will stay true.

The plot grows intensely complicated. Don Alfonso solicits the help of a resentful cocktail waitress, Despina, to assist him in this charade. Guglielmo and Ferrando are required to disguise themselves as foreign hipsters who must try to seduce the steadfast Fiordiligi and less immovable Dorabella. Over the course of three-and-a-half hours (which moves along briskly in this breathtakingly inventive production), Don Alfonso relentlessly forces the disguised suitors to break down their girlfriends’ wills – getting more help from the down-and-out Despina by tossing money at her.

But what makes this game so blisteringly dangerous is that, when the young women decide to have a tryst with these strangers, they unknowingly choose the other one’s boyfriend – creating another level of irreparable humiliation. The final revelation scene is far from joyous. And these couples’ once smug and optimistic world views get ground to a bitter pulp.

A generally youthful cast – all boasting ethereal and multitextured voices – give "Cosi" (sung in its original Italian) a glimmering freshness. The ensemble (including the chorus) is so adept at embodying their characters that their voices, gestures and movements merge imperceptibly to create stunningly uncontrived stage portraits. Swedish sopranos Ingela Bohlin (Fiordiligi) and Tove Dahlberg (Dorabella) – who could pass for sisters in real life – sing with a bell-like clarity. Their voices are capable of merging as one angelic entity, while each artist becomes a distinct personality: Bohlin fierce and tormented as Fiordiligi; Dahlberg sweetly curious as Dorabella.

As the devoted Ferrando, Gioacchino Lauro LiVigni delivers a tragically stalwart performance. He is a grounded counterpart to Ian Greenlaw’s flippant and hypocritical Guglielmo. David Holloway anchors Don Alfonso in avuncular deception, while Valerie MacCarthy demonstrates a spectrum of vocal and dramatic skill as Despina and the waitress’ various disguises.

Director Paulus approaches her craft with such balance and sensitivity that no one character’s story dominates. Larger issues of class difference and power plays emerge naturally from these intricately entwined stories. And, just as the characters get seduced by their sensual surroundings, the audience falls under the erotic spell of the production’s design, handsome cast and the whole notion of sexual anticipation.

Paulus, in making "Cosi" relevant for our times without sacrificing the depth or purity of the original libretto, devises the following ingenious touches: Ferrando sings into a beer bottle and catches peanuts in his mouth (while singing!); cell phones, digital cameras, laptop computers and even condoms play prominent roles; a crystal healer is called to cure the suitors of their feigned overdose; a cramped powder-room is a dead-on recreation of women’s catty capacities; and class injustices get summed up in Despina’s defiant swill of a Sweet ‘N Low-flavored mocha latte meant for her high-society customers.

But these embellishments are never gratuitous or distracting. We’re left – like the scene in which Don Alfonso’s patrons observe the action through an elaborate fish tank – gazing vicariously into these doomed characters’ lives while seeing our own reflections at the same time.•

Chicago Opera Theater’s production of "Cosi fan tutte" runs Feb. 17 at 3 p.m.; and Feb. 21 and 23 at 7:30 p.m. at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport. Tickets: $35-$68. Call 312-704-8414 or log onto www.ChicagoOperaTheater.org.


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