Before there were sitcoms, there were comic operas. They used many of the same plot devices, especially the eternal battle between the sexes, and they sometimes went beyond humor and shtick to make more serious, even touching points. Mozart's Cosi fan tutte may be the best example of this not-just-comic comic opera.
The plot of two men testing their girlfriends' fidelity invariably provokes plenty of laughter, but also reveals a glimpse of humanity in the characters; there are painful lessons underneath the silliness. On Wednesday, Peabody Opera Theatre unveiled an entertaining, if musically uneven, production that gets across a good deal of Cosi's dual personality.
But note that there are really two Peabody productions. One, which is repeated tonight, follows the libretto faithfully, reuniting the original lovers at the end, after all the partner-changing shenanigans. The other, repeated Saturday with a different cast, makes the swap permanent.
Both concepts come from director Roger Brunyate, who also designed the sleek staging. I won't get a chance to see how he carries off his alternative approach, but his traditional interpretation was satisfying. The familiar story seemed freshly scrubbed, with many a well-timed visual joke. (I'm sure the periodic troubles with fake moustaches will be smoothed out as the run continues.)
In what is billed as "the homage of a grateful pupil to his master," the director has borrowed ideas from a 1966 production for Scottish Opera by Anthony Besch; Brunyate assisted that director.
There's a little bit of The Wizard of Oz involved. The first scenes are played entirely - costumes, scenery - in shades of black and white. When the two soldiers in the opera eventually enter disguised as Albanians, the shock of their multi-colored outfits is akin to Dorothy's first glimpse outside the door of her witch-slaying farm house. Gradually, the soldiers' fiancees also start wearing more colorful garb (all designed with typical elan by John Lehmeyer), and the stage props likewise pick up fresh hues.
The clever notion underlines, not too forcefully, how much excitement the women are missing in their previously well-ordered lives.
If only the sets could have been changed more quickly. It has been a long time since I've come across a Cosi that doesn't fly by, at least in terms of stagecraft; unit sets that require little or no fuss as scenes progress seem to be the norm these days. Here, the pacing of the opera suffered significantly so that stage hands could move objects on and off between scenes.
For his part, conductor Martin Isepp kept the musical side of things lively. He's an old hand at Mozart, with decades of work at the famed, Mozart-friendly Glyndebourne Festival in England. What the performance lacked occasionally in discipline (slippery entrances cropped up particularly in the first act), it gained in Isepp's flair for gentle rhythmic propulsion and elegant phrasing.
Brunyate knows how to get natural, assured movements from student singers; the acting was consistently engaging as the cast entered into the spirit of things. Vocally, things were more mixed.
Chad Freeburg's Ferrando was ably sung. His voice could benefit from greater color and firmness at the top, but the tenor understands how to sculpt a Mozart line poetically. His account of Un'aura amorosa had abundant sweetness (too bad it also had a cell phone obbligato). As Guglielmo, Shannon Kiser used his slender baritone effectively.
Jason Hardy made quite an effort - sometimes over-eagerly - to put color into phrases, yet sang almost all of Don Alfonso's music in a curiously muted voice. Perhaps he was under the weather.
Galina Sakhnovskaya (Fiordiligi) revealed a metallic edge to her soprano, but coped bravely with the music's far-flung reaches. Jessica Renfro's Dorabella and Jennifer Strauss' Despina had in common animated phrasing, but also stridency at the top.
A few bumps aside, the orchestra turned in a bright performance.
What: Peabody Opera Theatre presents Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte"
Where: Peabody Institute, 1 E. Mount Vernon Place
When: 7:30 p.m. today, tomorrow
Tickets: $8 (for students) to $22
Call: 410-659-8100, Ext. 2