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OPERA REVIEW Cosi fan tutte
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times

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Playwright: W. A. Mozart ( music ); Lorenzo Da Ponte ( libretto )

At: Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Dr. Tickets: 312-827-5600;; $49-$258. Runs through: March 16 ( in repertory )

When summoned to battle, clean-shaven young noblemen Ferrando ( Andrew Stenson ) and Guglielmo ( Joshua Hopkins ) bid farewell to the virginal and naive sisters to whom they are engaged, Fiordiligi ( Ana Maria Martinez ) and Dorabella ( Marianne Crebassa ).

Within 24 hours the sisters are prepared to marry two bearded Albanians they've just met, and about whom they know nothing. They do not recognize their own fiances in disguise, testing the sisters' fidelity to win a bet with Don Alfonso ( Alessandro Corbelli in a particularly deft performance ), the older, wiser man who is the opera's agent provocateur. Between Don Alfonso, the young men and the sisters' worldly maid, Despina ( Elena Tsallagova ), the women clearly are badgered and entrapped ... although Mozart and Da Ponte almost certainly didn't see it that way.

This production of its farcical, fluffy Cosi fan tutte first was seen at Lyric Opera in the 2006-07 season. It remains a physically charming presentation, with airy and summery pastel-colored designs, across which one literally sees the fresh sea breezes blowing. Mozart's music is impeccable, of course, and is beautifully played and sung by a company under James Gaffigan's sure baton. The cast is on-point, youthful in look and spirit, supple in voice and also convincing as actors in this interpretation, conceived in 2004 by director John Cox, and restaged now by Bruno Ravella, with the understanding that material this precious requires a light touch.

I use "precious" in the sense of affectation concerning refined behavior, because Cosi fan tutte ( roughly "all women are the same" in modern English ) certainly is that. Even when new in 1790, Da Ponte's admittedly-witty libretto was seen as merrily cynical, or at least sardonic, with its view that all women—even "good girls"—are inconstant, weak and pliable, while men are steadfast and faithful. I wonder how women responded to Cosi in its own era, when powerful Catherine the Great still ruled Russia, and Austria's own great empress, Maria Theresa, was only 10 years dead.

This production sets the story in 1914 Monte Carlo. The call-up of Ferrando and Guiglielmo is faked, yet one knows that World War I shortly will engulf both young men, who soon may be dead or maimed. Cox underscores this by having soldiers in gas masks silently enter in the final moments. There's contemporary resonance as well, as both the Afghan and Second Iraqi wars were underway when this production first was seen in 2004 ( in Monte Carlo ) and 2005 ( San Francisco ).

Running three hours ( plus a 30-minute intermission ), Cosi fan tutte is dramatically repetitive—typical of many antique operas—although never slow. Francis Rizzo's projected English titles instantly capture Da Ponte's wit and humor, making Cosi easy to take and understand.

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