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Sarasota Opera sparkles in its modest surroundings

SARASOTA - Were the Sarasota Opera in a little city in the Alps, or tucked away in Italy, you likely would read about it in one of those ultra-glossy magazines that tells you the best places to get cappuccino on the Riviera or to have shoes custom-made in Paris. The scale of the opera's home is an intimate European counterpoint to the huge halls where Americans usually see opera. And the presence of such fine productions in an out-of-the-way location would seem to require a love for opera Americans are supposed to lack.

It is a Sarasota production like the Cosi Fan Tutte that opened Saturday that reminds one how special the company and its home hall are. A well-matched cast of excellent voices, animated musical direction, and a hall that seems custom designed to project the subtleties of Mozart's operas, combined to make this Cosi Fan Tutte memorable.

The opera, one of Mozart's last, is filled with some of his greatest music but fitted with a remarkably slight plot. Ferrando and Guglielmo (Ruben Broitman and Eugene Perry) tell an old bachelor, Don Alfonso (Greer Grimsley), that their sweethearts are solidly virtuous.

Don Alfonso bets the men that their girlfriends are as fickle as all women, and Ferrando and Guglielmo disguise themselves as Albanians to trick and woo their women. The women initially hold fast, then give in.

They are admonished and forgiven by their men when the ruse ends.

While the trickery and moralizing might seem a little abusive, Mozart explores the relationships between men and women with subtle and illustrative music that more than makes up for the light plot.

Though the women often get better material in the opera, it was the men who shone in Saturday's performance. Baritone Eugene Perry, who sang in Sarasota with his twin brother Herbert, was just as forceful and rich-voiced as he was in last year's production of Don Giovanni.

Perry has a big voice, dark but agile.

He was balanced by tenor Ruben Broitman, who was also part of last year's Don Giovanni. As last year, Broitman was very musical as well as passionate, though in a way best suited for German repertory.

Greer Grimsley was a real powerhouse as Don Alfonso, switching with ease between cynical recitations and genuine agitation.

Don Alfonso's spiritual pair, the anti-moralistic Despina, was given a happily wry turn by soprano Jennifer Ringo. Despina is a fun role - she dresses up as a doctor who sucks poison from the Albanians with a magnet, she pretends to be a notary, she pushes the two sisters toward infidelity. Ringo played it to the hilt, adding funny accents and stage manners to a voice that is, all kidding aside, slender and pure.

In comparison, sopranos Carolyn James and Robynne Redmon (Fiordiligi and Dorabella) were not as exciting but still made a positive impression. Their roles contain some of the toughest music, and it takes slightly more stage and vocal verve to really nail it.

They both gave musical, well-thought-out performances and blended well in ensembles, but they will have to develop a little further to own these roles.

Conductor Joshua Greene briskly paced the entire production, though the Florida Orchestra occasionally did not capture the lightness of the music and the oboe sounded downright blown away by some of the technical passages.

While the entire production scooted along with admirable speed, the characters could have interacted with a little more realism.

Director Frans Boerlage deftly moved people around the stage, but one missed the human drama that David Morelock brought to the Sarasota productions of Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro in past seasons.

OPERA REVIEW Cosi Fan Tutte The Sarasota Opera, Joshua Greene conductor: Mozart Cosi Fan Tutte.

Performance 8 p.m. Saturday at the Sarasota Opera House, 61 N Pineapple Ave. Further performances at 8 p.m. today, Thursday, Feb. 21 and 25; at 2 p.m. Feb. 18. Tickets are $12.50-$35; available by calling 953-7030 (Sarasota).