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No one can accuse UNCG's Director of Opera, David Holley, of not thinking outside the box. For the current run of Mozart's Così fan tutte, he raided the popular "Matrix" series of movies and made a virtue of contemporary popular student dress and styles of communication. We attended the February 6 performance, which used the same cast as the final matinee on February 8. The Elliott University Center Auditorium made a nice, intimate environment for the singers, all of whom filled the hall with no strain. Everyone's diction was exceptionally clear in a very free English translation full of references to pop culture by Holley and Peter Leonard.
The opera opened with a projection of a moving pattern of computer characters, reminiscent of the "Matrix" movies. The hall has no pit so pianist Susannah Steele and synthesizer player Nana Wolfe did yeoman service in the absence of an orchestra. Thankfully, the Overture was omitted, and they balanced well with the singers, with few wrong notes. This production was very much one "without a net" at all. Holley had done wonders in rehearsal since everyone performed like chamber music..., without a conductor. Allowing for the unconventional version, the tight ensemble was amazing.
Tenor Daniel C. Stein, as Ferrando, had a good, even voice. Solid baritone Aaron Phillips fully embodied the character of Guglielmo, displaying a flair for the comic touch. When Don Alfonso is portrayed by as fine a singing actor as bass Sidney Outlaw, one regrets that the singer Benucci, for whom Mozart wrote the role, was vocally threadbare. That's why, besides superb comic timing, only short arioso-like parts are given him. Outlaw fully exploited every aspect of the role but, since he did a superb Sarastro last year, we missed hearing him in a good, juicy aria.
The next scene found the two girls, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, seated at opposite ends of the stage with a projected image of an older campus building (which brought knowing laughter from the student audience) between them. They were both gazing into images in their cell phones. Later in the free translation, there was a familiar line: "Can you hear me now?" Soprano Ariya Lynchee Sawadivong was breath-taking as Fiordiligi, bringing her character completely to life, wholly dramatizing every movement and interaction, and delivering her three major arias superbly. She recently won the Encouragement Award in the North Carolina District Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Her performance was worthy of comparison with the high levels found among the Fletcher Opera Institute Scholars. Quickly warming up, Nicole Elizabeth Asel brought an even soprano to the role of Dorabella, the flightier of the two sisters. Her projection in the small hall was much better than in her otherwise fine Jo March in last fall's Little Women, heard in the vaster space of Aycock Auditorium.
Lauren Margaret Keefe brought a good lyric soprano voice and comic flair to role of Despina, the well-paid co-conspirator in Don Alfonso's bet to prove that all women are unfaithful. Usually cast as the sister's maid, in Holley's production she is a tired cashier in an Old Navy store that also has a video game arcade. During her aria of despair over the supposed departure of Ferrando, Dorabella took out her frustration on one of the game machines. Seven young women made a fine chorus, singing lustily during the lovers' departure and executing Holley's stage business in other scenes with humor.
Instead of the usual wildly costumed Albanian friends of Don Alfonso, Ferrando and Guglielmo strutted out of a "Matrix" movie ad, dressed all in black, with distinctive black sunglasses. Both singers came across even stronger as the disguised lovers - perhaps they felt freer to "lay it on thick."
We will confess that, had we known that the opera was with keyboard accompaniment only, we would have skipped it and thus missed a very enjoyable evening of theatre. Following so soon after the previous week's superb NCSA-Fletcher Don Giovanni, UNCG's production faced an almost insurmountable challenge. Outlaw's and Sawadivong's outstanding voices and acting were worthy of that high standard.