Dedicated opera lovers anticipate the Duke Symphony Orchestra and music director Harry Davidson’s annual presentation of an opera, in semi-staged concert form, in Baldwin Auditorium on Duke University’s East Campus. The conductor never fails to assemble a cast of solid singer-actors and that was the case again. His choice, Così Fan Tutte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91), received a lively and stylish performance which balanced individual vocal achievement with the vivid give-and-take of ensemble interplay. The six vocal soloists were splendidly supported by Davidson’s inspired student musicians. Despite sharing the stage behind the singers, the conductor closely controlled dynamics so as never to cover them. The orchestra sections played with close attention to ensemble. String sections played as one. The woodwinds and brass were strongly characterized with especially fine work from the bassoons, horns, and oboes.

The paintings of Belgian Surrealist René Magritte, specifically his 1994 painting The Son of Man with its anonymous man in a black suit and a bowler hat, dominated the costuming of this production. Don Alfonzo and two silent stage hands, who rearranged elements of the set, were dressed entirely in black and sported bowlers. The male leads, Ferrando and Guglielmo, in their guise as “Albanians,” were dressed in all yellow or blue outfits and bowlers respectively. The front stage and a central extension were dominated by giant black and white chess pieces and a plethora of Carolina Blue umbrellas with white cloud-like patterns. The all too colorful “Albanians” hid their identities with silent film comedy maker Max Sennett-like mustaches.

Davidson’s cast of six solo singers was a mix of rising, talented young singers anchored around the Don Alfonso of veteran baritone Brian Keith Johnson who has appeared in all of the Duke Symphony’s opera-in-concert series. His fine, robust vocalism made one regret the failure of Mozart to write full arias for the character since the first singer for the part, the Italian bass Francesco Bussanti, was well past his prime. Tenor Jason Karn as Ferrando, has local connections having received his Bachelor’s Degree in Music in Vocal Performance from the University of North Carolina and his Master of Music Degree in Vocal Performance from the University of North Carolina Greensboro. Karn sang with an even, warm tone with pleasing timbre and superbly evoked Ferrando’s full range of emotions. As Guglielmo, bass-baritone Joshua Sekoski also has a local connection having debuted with the Duke Symphony as a Duke University senior studying with Susan Dunn. Sekoski possesses a solidly supported dark-hued voice deployed with ample agility. Despite his active singing career, he is currently a JD candidate at Harvard Law School.

Davidson’s fine trio of women soloists were not only individually skilled vocalists but their voices were both strongly contrasted and blended together beautifully in ensembles.  Soprano Natasha Opsina as Fiordiligi sang with a bright tone and a tightly focused higher register. She fully conveyed the range of Fiordilgi’s emotions in the stormy aria “Come scoglio immoto resta” (As a rock stands firm) to her desolate “Per pieta, ben mio, perdona” (Have pity, my love, forgive). With a firm lower range, mezzo-soprano Teresa Buchholz’s distinctive and pleasing tone interwove especially well in duets with Opsina. In a cast with fine diction, soprano Susan Williams was outstanding as the two sisters’ cynical and world-wise maid Despina. Her beautifully focused voice was a constant pleasure and Williams was aptly over-the-top as the “doctor” using a magnet, (in this case an oversized chess piece) à la Count Mesmer, to heal the poisoned Albanians or the shaky notary.

Producer and conductor Harry Davidson and stage director Dean Southern blocked the interplay of the ensemble within their minimalist set very effectively. The recitatives were in the superb hands of David Heid who was seated at the harpsichord on stage on the audience’s left. Bravo to all!