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Opera Carolina presented repeat performances of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte in the Belk Theater. Before Opera Carolina artistic director James Meena appeared in the orchestra pit to conduct the overture, there was an announcement that Robert Mack, the tenor who would portray Ferrando, was ill. Jason Karn, a rather lackluster Cassio in the Opera Carolina production of Otello back in May, would replace Mack – but only partially. Mack would sing as much as he could, and he would do all the acting. Apparently, Karn had arrived too late in the rehearsal process to learn Bernard Uzan’s stage directions, so when he was called upon to sing, he would be standing near Meena down in the pit while Mack continued to go through the motions up on stage and mouth the words as Ferrando.
Mack was never at a loss for sunny energy, and his voice held up long enough for audience members to be forgiven if they forgot the pre-performance apology – until Scene 3, when Mack rashly attempted the demanding “Un’ aura amorosa” aria. The joyous affirmation of Ferrando’s confidence in the power of love, underscoring his confidence that he and his best friend Guglielmo will win their wager on the fidelity of their fiancées against Don Alfonso, was suddenly upended, filled with struggle, strain, and ominous dread. Karn should have taken over right there, but we didn’t hear from him until after intermission. With unflagging energy, Mack often lip-synched as Ferrando continued wooing Guglielmo’s fiancée Fiordiligi or bewailed his own Dorabella’s inconstancy. Arias that rose from the pit, however, did not match Mack’s vitality. An usher who had missed the announcement later asked me if Ferrando’s singing was pre-recorded, but most modern recordings sound better when played on quality loudspeakers. As full-bodied as the Charlotte Symphony sounded from the pit, Karn’s voice sounded like it was recorded on shellac and played through a gramophone.
Faced with this unusual adversity, the cast supported Mack’s difficulties with admirable spirit. Anyone who savors truly fine Mozart singing should be exceptionally pleased with Caitlin Lynch as Fiordiligi. The soprano made a solid Opera Carolina debut in 2008 as she relaxed into the role of Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, but here she was more at ease from the outset as the more principled fiancée, and a more discerning audience would have showered her with bravas on at least two occasions, most notably on her agitated “Per pieta” in Act 2 as she feels herself yielding to Ferrando. Kristopher Irmiter, who hails from nearby Rock Hill, played the title role opposite Lynch in Giovanni, and the baritone is supremely equipped to toss off the urbane Alfonso as he schools the heroes and their fiancées in the bittersweet realities of love. Marion Pop seemed overly bland in the early going as Guglielmo, but when the baritone immersed himself in his Albanian disguise to seduce Dorabella, he warmed up nicely. So his debut must be counted more auspicious than mezzo Elizabeth Stannard’s as Dorabella, a portrayal that needed more melting amorousness than her stronger sister but instead showed more starch. Sarah Callinan’s was the most winsome debut as Despina, the comical maid who helps the scheming Alfonso prove his worldly point, masquerading as a notary and a wonder-working physician along the way.
Uzan transplanted the action to the Jazz Age with the help of a scenic design by Brian Perchaluk that evoked for me the airiness of La Rondine at the Met last season. Entrances had an extra touch of regality when they wound down an elegantly curved staircase, but a more generous budget might have helped when we shifted from indoor to outdoor locations. Martha Ruskai’s wigs are certainly in authentic flapper styles for the sister fiancées, but while they harmonize with the glittering tiaras selected for Fiordiligi and Dorabella, they’re not particularly flattering. The most puzzling – and inscrutable – design choice may be Uzan’s, for with a warped logic that seems to fly in the face of Mozartian and Jazz Age sensuality, the women are seen behind unstylish circular eyeglasses nearly a third of the time. I’m guessing this is intended to explain how the sisters fail to see through their fiancés’ disguises, but the da Ponte libretto is already at pains to inform us that even the clever wench Despina is fooled. If they’re truly liberated, Lynch and Stannard will toss away those ugly frames.