Two operas mix devotion and despair, love and misery

Jealousy and suspicion drive the action in a Mozart comedy and a Verdi tragedy.

Classical Music

March 10, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

Suspicion. There are few weapons as destructive in life -- or in opera. It's as devastating in Mozart's comedy Cosi fan tutte as in Verdi's tragedy Otello, two works getting new productions this week -- Cosi from Peabody Opera Theatre, Otello from Baltimore Opera Company.

Only one man and a few choice words are needed to start suspicions about a lover's faithfulness rolling through each work. And it's a short trip from suspicion to rampant jealousy and pain.

For Mozart's lovers, the jealousy gives way to a kind of truth, understanding and happy ending (at least we hope so); for Verdi's ill-fated couple, the truth comes too late to prevent a double dose of death. In either opera, the progression of events and revelations can be almost as troubling for an audience as it is for the characters themselves.

Cosi fan tutte is an 18th-century Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice -- without any actual partner-swapping. Ferrando and Guglielmo, convinced that their sweethearts, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, are paragons of devotion, take a bet from skeptical Don Alfonso that the women will betray them after only one day apart. Sure enough, the two men, in disguise, successfully woo each other's lover.

Lorenzo Da Ponte crafted a libretto that is literate, clever, charming. But without Mozart's music, the words would never have reached the status of high art. The composer fleshes out the characters in extraordinary ways, using his notes with all the dexterity and insight of a master painter applying tints. Sure, the two sets of lovers are vain and silly, but Mozart gives them hearts.

We hear this early on, just after Ferrando and Guglielmo pretend to sail off for battle. Fiordiligi and Dorabella sing a prayer for their protection -- "May the breezes blow gently, may the waves be calm" -- joined by Don Alfonso, who has arranged the fake departure so that the guys can come back in disguise.

As the strings play an accompaniment that rolls back and forth like those calm waves, the voices intone a melody of perfect beauty and sincerity. The women, who so far have seemed like the Italian equivalent of Valley Girls, suddenly sound real. Two totally fickle, immature females couldn't sing such music.

Don Alfonso is at least momentarily persuaded by their emotion; there isn't a hint of sarcasm in his melodic lines.

The trio is over in less than three minutes, but it speaks volumes about these people.

Another revelation occurs when Ferrando replies to Guglielmo's suggestion that they get some dinner. "A breath of love from our sweethearts," Ferrando says, "is nourishment enough." Such a line would be a throw-away had not Mozart set it to a melody of aching lyricism. The music tells us just how deeply Ferrando really does believe in love -- and just how deeply he is going to be hurt.

There is an intriguing ambiguity to Cosi. Although the finale seems definitive -- the men forgive the women and the two pairs are reconfigured as they were at the start -- it's hard to be certain. After all, both couples have learned an awful lot about themselves; there's no way to forget that, for one long moment, each woman was happier with the "wrong" man. Could they really be happy ever after with their original beaus?

In the Peabody Opera Theatre production of Cosi, conducted by Glyndebourne Opera veteran Martin Isepp, director Roger Brunyate will take advantage of having two casts, by providing two different interpretations. Wednesday and Friday's performances will be traditional, with the original pairs reunited at the end. On Thursday and Saturday, the women will see through the disguises and proceed willingly with the flirtation; they will not return to their first loves at curtain time.

"When Fiordiligi finally gives into Ferrando, and that oboe comes in so beautifully, it's so damn sincere," Brunyate says. "I can't believe it's fake. If you believe in the music, you're in trouble."

Consequences of jealousy

Just as Mozart's score for Cosi offers so much to think about, Verdi's never stops drawing us into the troubled world of Otello, which Baltimore Opera is staging with a new design by Allen Charles Klein, and with a cast headed by Aprile Millo and Jon Frederic West and directed by Beppe de Tomasi.

Shakespeare's familiar tale loses little in the transformation to opera; Verdi, a lifelong Shakespeare fan, and his librettist, Arrigo Boito, saw to that. But this is much more than a mere musical setting of the drama.

The evilness of Iago, whose jealousy of Cassio leads to the vengeance that triggers Otello's suspicions about Desdemona's faithfulness, is obviously apparent in the original play. But Boito one-upped Shakespeare with Iago's Credo -- "I believe in a cruel God who has created me in his image and whom, in hate, I name" -- culled from various of the Bard's plays.

Verdi seized on this new soliloquy and wrote music of great imagination and impact; the snarling orchestra alone lays bare the chilling extent of this character's villainy and cynicism.

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