Review by Nan Lincoln
BAR HARBOR — It seems fitting that, for many, the elegant Criterion Theatre was the site of a sort of coming out party last Friday night.
I was one of those emerging from the long, dark year of lockdowns, Zoom meetings, online classes and entertainments to attend the Bar Harbor Music Festival’s live, in-person production of Mozart’s comic opera “Così Fan Tutte.”
How wonderful it was to walk down a bustling Cottage Street, after a splendid outdoor meal at Mama Dimatteo’s, toward the flashing lights of the Criterion’s glorious marquee promising, “LIVE PERFORMANCE TONIGHT.”
How wonderful to file through those grand old glass and brass doors with a couple of hundred other opera and theater lovers to see Debby Fortier once again standing in the mirrored foyer, with her little envelopes of tickets, while her husband, Francis, held court in the lobby – the pop-pop-popping of the vintage popcorn machine accompanying his greeting of old friends and music festival patrons.
It was also fitting that they chose a fun comedy about the vicissitudes of young love to help us shake off a year of anxiety with a bit of musical nonsense.
Written in 1790 by Mozart, at age 34, “Così Fan Tutte” demonstrates both the young composer’s and his librettist’s Lorenzo Da Ponte’s cleverness and their cluelessness about the feminine mystique, in a cringe-worthy plot about, essentially, how fickle and unreliable all women are – but, hey, whaddya gonna do, fellas? Dames, right?
As silly as its premise is, when we weren’t wincing at the opera’s wrongheadedness, we were overcome by the beauty of Mozart’s music and the extraordinary vocal talents of the cast.
Tenor David Sanchez and baritone John Allen were simply terrific as the two affianced young men, Fernando and Guglielmo, who are duped into testing the loyalty of their lovers – a pair of bubble-headed sisters, Dorabella and Fiordiligi – by the cynical Don Alfonso (excellently acted and sung by baritone David Small) and his avaricious accomplice, Despina (a delightful April Martin, who shines in several other guises as well).
As great as the men were, making many of us weak in the knees with their powerful voices and stage presences, it was the women who virtually floored us with their vocal agility.
One has to wonder if it’s evidence of Mozart’s misogyny or his confidence in women’s superpowers that compelled him to demand vocal athletics from his female characters equivalent to an Olympic gymnastics routine.
As drama queen Dorabella, mezzo-soprano Alice Anne Light is a hoot, in her flapper feathers and marcelled, blonde bob, wailing and whinging, in perfect pitch, believing (fake news!) that her sailor lover Fernando has been sent off to war. It’s a huge challenge to be funny and flawless at the same time, but Light manages it, even while gobbling cucumber slices.
Still, it is soprano Chloe Olivia Moore who’s the real star of this vocal Olympics event. Without missing a beat, Moore manages Mozart’s incredibly challenging score for Fiordiligi, jumping from one note, or even one whole octave, to another as effortlessly and gracefully as Simone Biles performs a triple flip off the vault, sticking the landing.
Oh my, the trills and thrills this soprano delivers again and again and once again, filling the Criterion with the joyful noise we’ve been longing for since the festival opera last graced this stage.
It must be said that while Joseph De Sota’s staging was lively and fun, and Zoe Still’s roaring 20s costumes were fine, former director Fenlon’s Lamb’s deft hand in both the production values and direction was missed.
Alayna Powell’s minimal beachy scene, with the Criterion’s sumptuous Art Deco backdrop, looked a bit sparse, but worked OK. Still, I couldn’t help but harken back to the “before times” when Lamb’s Papermoon Production Co. pulled out all the decorative stops with the jaw-dropping “Carmen” and “Hansel and Gretel” sets. Sigh.
One thing that hasn’t changed is Cara Chowning’s phenomenal artistry at the piano. As difficult as it must have been for the singers to negotiate Mozart’s myriad of notes, imagine how it must have been for Chowning’s fingers to fly across the keyboard to find those notes, all the while keeping pace with the largely comic timing of the vocalists. Sort of like Ginger Rogers dancing backward and in high heels to Fred Astaire’s lead.
Well, it was all pretty swell, and a promise of more good things ahead this month from the Bar Harbor Music Festival and, one hopes, for many seasons to come. Bravo!