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Instruments Sing in West Bay Così

February 19, 2008

West Bay Opera's current production of Così fan tutte stands tall on the twin ramparts of Barbara Day Turner's rock-solid conducting of a fair-to-middling orchestra, and Douglas Nagel's vital, if risky, staging. Combined, they made for fine musical theater, if not quite dramma per musica.
It's a good thing that Mozart's (or rather librettist Lorenzo da Ponte's) oversimplified tale of deceptive and cheating courtship can play either as opera, operetta, or musical. On the one hand, the inconsistency of young lovers can be seen as an up-tempo sitcom. But with great singers, the farewell trio, Soave il vento (May the wind gently waft you), can tear your heart out, as it combines love, longing, loss, and unalterable loneliness.

Why doesn't the Palo Alto production qualify as "opera"? It lacks first-class operatic talent in the small, hardworking, otherwise appealing cast. Così requires only six singers and a small chorus — one reason for its popularity with small companies — but WBO couldn't fill even that minimal bill. (The production is double cast, however.)
Mozart to the Fore
It was left to Turner to rescue the musical side of the production. Consistent tempos, well-judged balances, and an innate sense of the Mozartian marvel guided the music that poured out of the tiny pit on Sunday. It was an accomplishment all the more notable when set against the thin sound from the strings, a problem caused mostly by their meager numbers (3, 3, 2, 2, 1). Woodwinds were more up to the task, with Peter Lemberg's oboe, Bruce Foster's clarinet, and Alice Benjamin's bassoon leading the way. The conductor was likely responsible for a few cuts, which reduced the running time to 2 hours, 15 minutes (not counting intermission), but did not significantly impact the work.

Nagel's direction, though "vital if risky," need not be connected in local memory with the San Francisco Opera's 1992 Harry Kupfer production, in which an enormous gazebo top kept going up and down, singers rolled about onstage, and there was a minimum of a dozen shticks in each scene. Nagel simply kept the action moving, while making room for some some cute business. At one point, Don Alfonso tossed a bag of coins to the conductor, Turner making a fine catch.

The important thing about the stage direction in this rather static, talky opera, is that it brought out the best in the cast. Singing actors that they are, Nagel kept them in permanent, mostly pleasant motion. The risk lies in overdoing the nonstop choreography, but his production came out on top in the end. Jean-Francois Revon's sets are even more minimal than usual, but they do serve the purpose; Beth Gilroy's costumes are pleasant and functional.
Singers Find Their Way
And so we come to the singing. The one cast member who came closest to being “operatic" was soprano Teressa Byrne as Fiordiligi. The voice is big, the projection strong; she is a kind of in-your-face singer in voice and characterization. It was all a bit too much, even if, correctly, you don't equate Mozart with "mild-mannered singing."

When it comes to voice, tenor Jorge Garza (Ferrando) has one that is small, sweet, and rather "hooded." It didn’t quite make an impact, even in the small house. Baritone Sascha Joggerst (Guglielmo) and mezzo Sally Mouzon (Dorabella) both qualified as fine "singing actors," and would be excellent for Gilbert and Sullivan roles. Marta Johansen (Despina) and Theodore Weis (Don Alfonso) did well in the acting department.

This cast will also appear on Feb. 23. On Feb. 22 and 24, Rebecca Schuessler and Meghan Dibble will sing the sisters, with Brian Thorsett and Igor Vieira as their fiancés, Elisabeth Russ as Despina, and Peter Graham as Don Alfonso.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].