June 19, 2024

Princeton Festival Presents Timeless Mozart Opera

By Nancy Plum

It all began with a bet. Three male buddies were arguing over everyone’s favorite topic — fidelity. To prove his point that women are fickle, one dared his companions to entice their fiancées to betray them by pretending to be two other suitors. The companions agreed, and mayhem ensued — all to the delicious music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This, of course, is the plot of Mozart’s popular opera Così fan tutte, which musically addresses the age-old question, “Are women really all like that?” Premiered less than two years before Mozart’s death and full of challenging music for both singers and instrumentalists, Così has remained a popular staple of opera repertory for more than 200 years. The Princeton Festival brought this classic to life this past weekend as a cornerstone presentation of its two-week series of performances and lectures. Accompanied by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra and led by conductor Rossen Milanov, six singers took on the daunting assignment of interpreting Mozart’s complex score, delving into the realm of the theatrically silly along the way.

Sunday afternoon’s performance at the pavilion of Princeton’s Morven Music & Garden (the opera officially opened last Friday night) brought a full house under a tent on a perfect weather night for opera. The “Overture” that opened the production was short by 18th-century standards, but set the scene for the action to come. Milanov and the Princeton Symphony players found an elegant Viennese flow to the music, aided by wind solos from oboist Kemp Jernigan and flutist Scott Kemsley. Stage Director James Marvel took the opportunity to introduce the characters during the “Overture” — sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, their respective fiancés Guglielmo and Ferrando, the streetwise maid Despina, and the scheming “philosopher” Don Alfonso. Mozart’s original setting was 1790s Naples, but scenic designer Blair Mielnik and costume designer Marie Miller moved the opening scene far from the 1700s to what looked more like a flamboyant beach community.

The two sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella were cut from very different cloths. Flirtatious and teasing, soprano Aubry Ballarò brought a vocal sparkle to the role of Fiordiligi, who is required to sing some of the most demanding music in the soprano repertoire. Mozart composed this role for the mistress of librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, with extreme technical difficulty and sustained intensity. In Fiordiligi’s Act I aria “Come scoglio,” the first 10 measures alone cover more than two octaves, and the music zips along with multiple octave-plus leaps and triplet runs. Ballarò wisely took her time on the large skips across registers and conserved energy in the middle range to attack Mozart’s stratospheric lines. Ballarò also excelled in her character’s Act II “Rondo,” the length of which at a sustained adagio tempo, coming so late in the opera, would tax any singer. Ballarò well conveyed her character’s remorse and begging for forgiveness.

As Dorabella, mezzo-soprano Alexis Peart was imposing yet mischievous, with a richer vocal quality and vibrato which complemented Ballarò perfectly. She displayed no trouble in the upper registers, and revealed a bit of Verdian drama in an Act I aria. Peart was also very capable of physical comedy and exhibited particular sauciness in her portrayal of the more adventurous sister.

Così was an opera of few arias and considerable intricate ensemble music, and the cast assembled by the Princeton Festival was clearly chosen both for their showcase arias and ability to meld into collaborative singing. Ballarò and Peart consistently performed well-tuned thirds and control over dynamics and dramatic emotion. Their fiancés, sung by tenor David Walton (Ferrando) and baritone Benjamin Taylor (Guglielmo), also showed similarly solid tuning and voices that went together well. Walton was vocally the lighter of the two, presenting recitative passages extremely well and settling into his role to capture audience sympathy. Taylor sang with a clear and forward sound and also demonstrated an ability for physical comedy.

Suave and debonair Don Alfonso, always looking for the next opportunity for a buck, was connivingly sung by bass Jeremy Harr. More baritone than low bass, he handled well the high range of Alfonso’s Act I aria “Vorrei dir” and fit in well with Ferrando and Guglielmo for operatic trios. Adding substantially to the comedy was soprano Zulimar López-Hernández, performing the role of the calculating maid Despina, who was not above selling out her employers for small change herself. López-Hernández called upon several “voices” to portray other characters in the charade, but proved herself to be a strong Mozartean singer amidst all the comedy.

For this production, Milanov assembled a solid orchestral ensemble which was commendably subtle, given the closeness of the audience to the players and the confinement of the tent space. Trumpet and horn players were especially understated when they could have overpowered the other players, and wind solos emerged well through the texture, including from oboist Jernigan, flutist Kemsley, and clarinetist Nuno Antunes. Milanov consistently maintained a graceful Viennese feel to the music, keeping the pace moving along and finding effective rallantandos to add drama. Solid recitative accompaniment was provided by José Meléndez, playing an electronic keyboard replicating a harpsichord.

With so many ensemble numbers in the opera, exact musical timing was critical, and what made this production really click was the precision among the singers, whether in duets, trios, or quintets. These singers sang as if they had performed this opera 50 times, rather than just for the second time. Their comedic timing was well matched by the quick costume changes between scenes, and although Mozart’s opera placed an abundancy of vocal demands in range and melodic lines on the singers over a long period of time, this cast was well up to the task.

The Princeton Festival continues through June 22, featuring musical performances, lecture, and community activities. Information about festival events can be found by visiting  princetonsymphony.org.