With Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte," the Boston Lyric Opera scores the solid hit that has eluded the company all season. The performance is well cast, sung, acted, played, designed, and conducted. It is not perfect -- that isn't possible with a work as rich and complex as this one -- but it is good enough, and with "Cosi" that is a rare achievement.
The story is a bittersweet comedy. Two young bucks are so certain that their sweethearts will always be faithful that they make a bet with a cynical older friend, Don Alfonso. They agree to put the young women to the test, disguising themselves and wooing each other's beloved. The results are disturbing and confusing.
The cast offers six strong soloists who know the value of ensemble collaboration. Three of the roles you are not likely to hear performed much better. Dorabella, the flightier of the two sisters, was elegantly sung by the amber-voiced Jossie Perez (who sang Carmen on the Common). The glamorous mezzo is a tremendous personality, though not all of her body language and facial expressions stayed within the bounds of period style. Keith Phares portrayed Guglielmo as macho but secretly sensitive, and he sang in a beautiful, light, sunny baritone. Baritone James Maddalena, once a first-rate Guglielmo, has moved on to Don Alfonso, a part he sings with undiminished vocal resources and matchless stage savvy.
Tenor John Osborn doesn't bring a blandishing voice to the other young lover, Ferrando, but it is strong, and he uses it in a musically purposeful way. As the formidable older sister Fiordiligi, Jennifer Casey Cabot was less spectacular than she was last season in "The Abduction From the Seraglio" because she lacks the strong low register this role requires. But she has the elegant bearing of such British actresses of the past as Deborah Kerr or Jean Simmons, and she sings with accomplishment, taste, and eloquence. Janna Baty, the Despina, has more of a natural Fiordiligi voice than Cabot; she brought substance, humor, and spark-plug energy to this part. From Thomas Ades's "Powder Her Face" last season, we know that she is an uninhibited and original actress, so it was a pity that the direction confined her to the stereotype of the show-stealing slatternly maid.
Conductor William Lumpkin came to the production shortly before the dress rehearsal when Charles Ansbacher withdrew (it was presumably Ansbacher who chose the unusually full version of the score, which restored two of the three arias most frequently cut). "Cosi" is one of the most difficult works in the repertory for a conductor, but Lumpkin had led it before at Boston University and operated with absolute assurance. His work had brio, style, and heart, and the orchestra played beautifully for him -- special kudos to Kevin Owen (horn), James Bulger (oboe), and Matthew Larson (harpsichord).
Michael Yeargan is a major opera designer, and he supplied an ingenious, pretty, and functional unit set: a box, basically, divided in half by five huge Venetian blinds, with a backdrop of sea and sky.
The Metropolitan Opera's executive stage director, David Kneuss, is best known locally for his operatic collaborations with Seiji Ozawa in Symphony Hall and at Tanglewood. His production is straightforward, intelligent, and amusing. There are many delightful touches -- he added a charming dumb show before the couples decide to go off in their new pairings, each full of eagerness and reluctance, bravado and shame.
His basic take on the opera is that all the young people are in love with love, rather than with one another; even before the wager becomes fully operational, the four seem confused about one another. He doesn't probe emotional depths in the manner of Peter Sellars, but within his self-chosen limits, his work is delicate, sensitive, and precise. He dodges the question of who ends up with whom at the end. It is as if these people have been tossed by a whirlwind that makes the past irrecoverable before setting them down in a new place that they haven't begun to explore.