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Sex, lies and Mozart get Florida Opera Festival off to a fun start

Sarah Nordin plays Dorabella and Gabriel Preisser plays Guglielmo in Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte.
Sarah Nordin plays Dorabella and Gabriel Preisser plays Guglielmo in Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte.
Published Feb. 21, 2016

TAMPA — Infidelity still burns. If done effectively, romantic betrayal stirs emotions deep enough to rivet 21st century audiences. So, it is not hard to imagine how scandalized audiences in 1790 reacted when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera, Cosi Fan Tutte, debuted in Vienna. Beethoven, a huge fan of Mozart, was crushed by the opera he saw as immoral because of its cavalier attitude around sexuality.

Opera Tampa kicked off its 21st season Friday with Cosi Fan Tutte, the first of three productions in the Florida Opera Festival at the David A. Straz. Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. It is a fun show.

The cast includes three "New Voices" (soprano Cecilia Violetta Lopez, mezzo soprano Sarah Nordin and baritone Gabriel Preisser), up-and-comers the Straz is highlighting this season. As Fiordiligi, Lopez captivates with a rich and transfixing voice, one you could pretty much listen to all day. Nordin plays her sister Dorabella, and the two complement each other in some lovely duets and quartets.

The sisters are girlfriends to soldiers Guglielmo (Preisser) and Ferrando, played by tenor Cody Austin. The opera opens with the soldiers sipping coffee with an older friend, Don Alfonso (Won Cho), who challenges his buddies' infatuation with their lovers.

There is no such thing as a faithful woman, he tells them. All will yield, given the right temptations (hence the title usually translated as, "(Women) are like that." Cho's mellifluous bass baritone gives the message gravitas, as does his wager. Disguise yourselves as wealthy visitors, he dares, make advances and see if they don't take the bait. To make this loyalty test possible, the soldiers pretend to be summoned to war.

The men return as mysterious visitors, who try to seduce each other's girlfriends: Ferrando, who is normally with Dorabella, goes after Fiordiligi; and Guglielmo pursues Dorabella. Both men sing quite well. That said, operas tend to showcase tenors, and Austin in particular shines with Mozart's score.

The women reject their suitors' advances. The men toast each other. A second attempt also falls flat.

Don Alfonso has a counterpart in manipulation. Eileen Vanessa Rodriguez plays Despina, the sisters' maid and the imp who works on the women like the tree of good and evil. She also is a kind of clown, who sets the tone in this farce that mocks 18th century notions of chastity, made possible by an acid libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte.

"Pay attention to 100 men at a time," Despina counsels. "Keep 1,000 as possibilities." Rodriguez is a fine soprano. Hopefully, she will get a bigger shot soon. As it is, she carries the satirical spirit of the opera more than any other performer.

Fiordiligi and Dorabella eventually succumb to the strangers' advances (to exactly what degree, we're not sure), infuriating both men, who by then don't look so good either. Don Alfonso advises them to chill: "Laugh at yourselves," he says, "I certainly have been."

The production has a couple of baffling features, including a scrim that hides the set for the opening coffee scene. This backdrop is repeatedly jabbed by random light reflections off silver serving trays. A more serious obstacle is trying to read translation of the Italian lyrics at the top of the curtain in Ferguson Hall, at least 30 feet above the stage. A patron on the orchestra level must choose between watching the opera and reading the lyrics, because it is impossible to do both.

Though annoying, it's not much of a sacrifice if you're generous, which with this singing is probably a good thing to be. The orchestra led by artistic director and conductor Daniel Lipton also must be congratulated as the "12th man," an indispensable actor. Cosi Fan Tutte is, in sum, a promising start to the Florida Opera Festival.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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