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HGO's 'Cosi fan tutte' delivers humor, humanity of Mozart story

Patrick Summers
Houston Chronicle

By Steven Brown 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's operas are all multifaceted affairs, but none more so than "Cosi fan tutte." Besides the humor, vitality and humanity that all his comedies contain, the work has a mellifluousness that lies at the heart of the composer's storytelling.

Houston Grand Opera delivered them all Friday.

"Cosi fan tutte" follows the surprises that unfold when two young men bet an older friend that their sweethearts are faithful. Donning disguises, each woos the other's beloved; as the women gradually give in, all four face painful discoveries. When the disguises finally disappear, the couples reunite all the wiser: Laughing off others' foibles is the key to happiness.

Houston Grand Opera's cast combined musical and theatrical pizazz with flashes of power. Conductor Patrick Summers and stage director Harry Silverstein shaped a performance whose fast pace still made time for the lyrical moments.

Tenor Norman Reinhardt and baritone Jacques Imbrailo made a high-spirited pair as buddies Ferrando and Guglielmo.

Reinhardt's ringing voice not only captured Ferrando's ardor, but it also brought out the sting when Ferrando discovered his girlfriend, Dorabella, was more susceptible to temptation than he thought. Imbrailo sang with a suavity and mellowness that made it no wonder Dorabella gave in to Guglielmo's advances, yet his voice welled up angrily during his rant about women.

Sopranos Rachel Willis-Sørensen, as Fiordiligi, Guglielmo's sweetheart, and Melody Moore, as Dorabella, sang with a heft that gave their characters stature; they didn't let the women come across as mere pawns.

Willis-Sørensen and Moore sang with abandon in each character's first aria. Moore lightened up adroitly as Dorabella realized new attention gave her a chance to have fun; when the more-serious Fiordiligi agonized over her conflicted feelings, Willis-Sørensen sang with breadth and dignity.

Though their voices weren't particularly warm, Moore and Willis-Sørensen blended smoothly when they sang quietly, enabling the music's euphonious streak to shine through. Reinhardt and Imbrailo shared a knack for easing their voices into well-turned ensembles.

As Despina, the women's wily chambermaid, soprano Nuccia Focile also combined comic sparkle and vocal finesse. So did baritone Alessandro Corbelli as Don Alfonso, the driving force behind Ferrando and Guglielmo's plot.

For all his gusto and wryness, Corbelli was a graceful Mozartean, which paid off in the farewell trio. Alfonso, Fiordiligi and Dorabella sang as the young men pretended to leave for military duty: The three gentle voices, combined with the orchestra's purling strings, made time stand still.

Though Summers and the orchestra sometimes were sometimes too airy, performing so lightly the music didn't project, they brought the opera zip and sweetness.

Silverstein crafted a staging full of lively touches, from Fiordiligi's first, furtive smile to Despina's slurping hot chocolate right from a pitcher's spout. Yet the performance's biggest laugh came when Reinhardt's wig came loose after Ferrando pretended to faint from poison. But he earned credit for getting his hairpiece back in place without letting the music come unglued.

Carl-Friedrich Oberle's set, which Houston Grand Opera has used for "Cosi fan tutte" and two other Mozart operas since the 1980s, framed the action neatly. But isn't it time for the company to give the operas fresh look?