Because its main characters are in their early 20s, Mozart's Così fan tutte is always popular with singers at the beginning of their careers, who for once get to play people their own age. The music is just difficult enough to challenge and stretch young voices without being out of bounds, plus it's a true ensemble piece, with all six cast members getting approximately equal stage time. Most enticing of all, the feather-light plot—two soldiers defend the faithfulness of their fiancées in a wager with an older cynic—provides rare opportunities for broad comedy. A college staple, it's also Seattle Opera's choice for its annual Young Artists Program presentation (continuing Friday, April 9, and Saturday, April 10, at the Meydenbauer Center, Bellevue, 206-389-7676).
While it's understandable that singers, looking ahead to careers in the humor-deprived operas of Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner, would let loose with Così while they have the chance, Così has deeper, more sophisticated layers that this production (and most others) largely overlooks. The opera has its elegiac moments—the women lament the men's absence, the men lament the women's behavior—but these moments are never particularly convincing when surrounded, as they are here, by unrelenting zaniness. It's as though a stagehand is flipping the pathos switch on and off again, creating a palpable sense of relief among the cast, who are happy to get back to double- entendre sight gags.
That's a shame because the performers here are clearly accomplished enough to have done much more. Ted Schmitz, Ferrando in the Saturday performance, delivered "Un'aura amorosa" with a thoughtful ease, a well-gauged, air-clearing contrast to the broad comedy. In Friday's cast, Carolyn Kahl brought Dorabella hints of maturity, which not only made her shtick funnier, but also made it perfectly plausible that she's the first to see the wisdom of the old cynic Don Alfonso's realist worldview. And for straight-ahead farce at its best, Jessica Tivens and Maria D'Amato provided two snappy, boisterous Despinas (she's the down-to-earth maid who's Alfonso's confederate, twice turning up in male disguise).
And there's a great deal more here that works—Jonathan Dean's splendidly witty supertitles, Anthony Baker's opulent costumes, and the tight, energetic pickup orchestra under Dean Williamson's baton. All 12 members of the double cast are fearlessly physical, and they really make the words their own, singing with a vivid immediacy that almost makes you forget it's Italian.
Così is essentially a piece about shattered illusions: Get over it, says Alfonso, neither men nor women are hardwired for monogamy. How fascinating and moving it would be to see a production that played smartly with this more contemporary view of the sex war. Or one which acknowledged that, after the men have successfully wooed each other's girlfriends, neither couple will be able to go back to the way things were—a Sondheim-esque suggestion that everyone's older and wiser and ultimately better off for their disillusionment.