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Washington National Opera gives musical, theatrical jolt to 'Cosi fan tutte'

Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte," with its wicked libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, postulates that all women are faithless in love. An absurd notion, of course, as countless men demonstrate day after day.

Let's face it, we're all a little flawed, prone to mess up relationships, one way or another. Part of being human, you might say.

That's the real lesson of "Cosi," and it is being driven home with imagination and skill in a production Washington National Opera unveiled Saturday night at the Kennedy Center. There's a fresh jolt, musical and theatrical, at just about every turn.

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The staging marks the company debut of celebrated British director and designer Jonathan Miller. His concept for this work originated at the Royal Opera House and was subsequently produced by Seattle Opera before landing in D.C., which, as it turns out, is the setting Miller devised for this updated take on "Cosi."

Although the cream-colored unit set -- imposing walls, neoclassic doorway -- could be used for any number of operas and any number of time periods or locations, it suggests Washington well enough. Same for the costumes, along with the omnipresent cell phones and occasional lap top. Every time the chorus appears, it looks like a gathering of Capital Hill staffers.

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The essence of the plot remains unchanged. The cynical Don Alfonso persuades his two friends, Ferrando and Guglielmo, to test their conviction that their respective fiancees, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, will always be faithful. After pretending to be called into military service, the two buddies return in disguise; each then attempts to steal the wrong woman. None of the relationships will ever be the same afterward.

There are many ...

droll touches in Miller's vision -- Ferrando and Guglielmo in their fatigues, with a TV news crew nosing in; their disguise as tattooed biker dudes (I was expecting something more surprising, to tell the truth); Dorabella and Fiordiligi miming a walk across a tightrope, cutely underlining their moral predicament; Don Alfonso delivering asides into his phone.

The finishing touch on the contemporary approach comes from the supertitles, which push the envelope in terms of cheekiness. It's possible to argue against taking as many liberties with the translations as is done here, but, judging by the response Saturday, the audience loves being drawn into the story and the humor this way.

Localized zingers get the biggest laughs, as when Fiordiligi and Dorabella wonder where the bikers could be from. In the original, the women assume they must be Wallachians (Google it) or Turks. Here, the uncouth guys have the women imagining such exotic locales as Leesburg and Baltimore. (Our fair city turns out to be the right guess, by the way. Baltimore is, as Washingtonians will tell you, a working class city crawling with scary bikers.)

The success of any operatic update depends on the conviction behind it. Here, everyone seems solidly into the scheme. There is little awkwardness or self-consciousness from the singers, who even manage to look pretty natural carrying out the inevitable scenes of boogeying (I do wish directors would resist applying this tired device to old operas with a good beat).

The taut ensemble features Elizabeth Futral in particularly impressive form as Fiordiligi. She could use a little more tonal body for "Come scoglio" in Act 1, but she gives an inspired interpretation of every word and idea in that aria -- and punctuates it amusingly with snaps.

Futral likewise makes much of "Per pieta" in the second act, while singing most of it on her knees; she gives the phrases an affecting tenderness that gets to the the humanity behind Mozart's comedy.

Joel Prieto is quite the charmer as Ferrando. There are times when the tenor needs a freer, warmer sound (on Saturday, this was especially true in the exquisite aria "Un'aura amorosa"), but he is a supple molder of phrases. He and Futral reach quite an expressive height in their second act duet, revealing the weight of the reality dawning on the characters.

As Guglielmo, Teddy Tahu Rhodes towers over his colleagues physically and reveals a beefy sound to match his animated delivery. Renata Pokupic rounds out the quartet of crisscrossed lovers with a deft portrayal of Dorabella. The mezzo's singing does not have a wide range of tone colors, but is consistently elegant in shape.

Christine Brandes has a romp as Despina, here identified (via the supertitles) a "personal assistant," rather than servant. She makes her entrance in a pants suit bearing take-away lattes. The soprano offers a bright, supple voice and a knack for handling comic business, particularly the disguise as a doctor offering electro-shock therapy for Ferrando and Guglielmo (the accompanying nurses are a fun addition).

As Don Alfonso, William Shimell provides a delicious suavity of tone and nuance. This is the way you could imagine John Gielgud phrasing the music. Shimell's acting is just as distinctive, revealing not just the smug confidence of the character, but a bittersweet mood underneath; this Alfonso really isn't all that pleased with himself.

The chorus makes a fine showing in its brief appearances. The orchestra is in excellent shape, producing a refined, richly expressive sound. Michael Baitzer plays the recitatives at the fortepiano with admirable flair.

WNO music director Philippe Auguin masterfully guides the score with tempos that feel right, phrase-molding that feels real. The conductor ensures that the music sings as effectively in the pit as it does onstage.

This production kicks off the Kennedy Center's latest festival, The Music of Budapest, Prague and Vienna (couldn't someone have devised a less dull title?). "Cosi fan tutte" represents the best of what was happening 222 years ago in Austria's capital; Washington National Opera's production of the work offers a cool idea of what's happening right now in ours.

Performances continue through March 15. Those of March 9 and 11 will feature a cast of "emerging artists," current members and alumni of the WNO's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.  

PHOTO BY SCOTT SUCHMAN

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