Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" may not exactly be the original "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice," but it certainly skirts such provocative territory, which explains why the opera raised lots of eyebrows in Victorian times. It took the 20th century, with its steady loosening of moral codes, for "Cosi" to be fully appreciated as a brilliant comedy for adults.
Even when presented with the action set in 1790 Naples, this story of two pairs of fiances who get their affections all twisted up can make for a very diverting, enlightening night of music and theater. But in recent decades, opera directors have enjoyed taking liberties with the plot, looking for new ways to drive home either the opera's laughs, lessons or both.
There has been a "Cosi" set in a '50s diner, another in an American beach resort circa 1900.
Baltimore's Opera Vivente has come up with "poolside at the La Fenix Arabe Hotel in Havana, 1951," in John Bowen's new production.
On Thursday evening, in an upstairs hall at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, it was perhaps a little too easy to believe in that setting, since cast and audience alike got to experience tropical conditions in the un-air-conditioned space. But the heat ultimately proved to be a minor distraction, as did occasional glitches onstage and in the orchestra, thanks to the unusually engaging spirit of the performance.
Bowen, who has also written a new, witty translation of the libretto, succeeds in keeping the framework of "Cosi" intact and the music in focus. Even when he revs up the comedy -- my favorite moment was hearing a compulsively eating Dorabella sing a few lines with her mouth full -- the director always respects the score. (Well, almost always. The overture is abruptly abridged.)
Whether any fresh revelations emerge from the Cuban setting is debatable. In the original, two Italian men disguise themselves as Albanians to test their girlfriends' fidelity; here, two American tourists get dressed as Cubans, not exactly as exotic a transformation as Mozart's librettist had in mind.
Still, the production, with its mix of opera and musical comedy/TV sitcom styles, generates often delicious results.
Laura Antonia Vicari, as Fiordiligi, suggests one part Carol Burnett, one part Imogene Coca, another part Millie Helper, the neighbor on the "Dick Van Dyke Show." She lights up the stage with an array of facial muggings, reacting to even the slightest suggestion of impropriety as if the devil himself had made it. But when, in the end, she is unable to resist temptation, she reveals the woman inside.
Like those of her colleagues, Vicari's voice could use some technical polishing. A momentary lapse aside, she nonetheless scaled her daunting arias quite convincingly on Thursday. Throughout the evening, her phrasing had a particularly vital spark. As the weaker-willed Dorabella, Jennifer Blades matched Vicari antic for antic and sang colorfully. Kurt Hoffman (Ferrando) and Brendan Cooke (Guglielmo) took a while to limber up as actors, but both offered sensitive vocalism.
If Dennis Blackwell's lightweight tone is not the most smooth fit for the role of the trouble-making Don Alfonso, he compensated with keen attention to words and nuances. His vivid characterization had its neat complement in Jennifer Marie Limn's deftly drawn, brightly sung Despina. A quartet of hotel staffers did double-duty as the occasional chorus.
Conductor Aaron Sherber presided over an earnest, if intermittently bumpy, performance. Sometimes, singers and instrumentalists were on different wavelengths; other times, Sherber's pacing sagged, creating awkward transitions.
His reduction of the score to a thin, workable shadow of its former self was not always carefully articulated, but, at its best, the orchestra proved an asset. If only someone had lighted a fire under the pianist; animated recitative accompaniment can generate as much personality as the characters onstage.
Anthea Smith's bare-bones set design does the job. Costumer Norah Shaw and wig/makeup designer Georgianna DeSantis have done up the women and Don Alfonso with great '50s flair, but the first, pre-disguise sight of Ferrando and Guglielmo suggests something closer to, well, "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice."
What: "Cosi fan tutte"
When: 3 p.m. tomorrow
Where: Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 811 Cathedral St.
Tickets: $15, $12 students and seniors.