The renovation of Memorial Hall at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has been a major benefit to students in the performing arts. Their best efforts now take place in an acoustical environment worthy of their skills. Two full casts of singers and orchestras were fielded on different nights by the Department of Music and Carolina Performing Arts for a semi-staged concert version in the English language of Mozart’s opera Così fan tutte. This review is of the second performance.

Until both post-World War periods of the 20th century, Mozart’s Così was neglected. Julian Rushton in Mozart and His Operas (The New Grove Series) summarizes the common view: “heartless farce clothed in miraculous music.” Beethoven, whose ideal woman was the faithful Leonore of his opera Fidelio, was appalled that Mozart had wasted his genius on such an immoral plot. The basic plot, “the trial of female constancy and the wager,” had been anticipated in literature by Boccacio, Shakespeare (Cymbeline) and Cervantes and by such myths as the Procris story. The sophisticated education of Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, was stressed in a fine and provocative pre-curtain talk given by departmental chairman Tim Carter. He drew attention to the plethora of quotations and allusions that abound in the text. It is unclear to what degree Mozart was aware of these or how closely he had read the text. This may go far to explain the great disparity between his glorious music and the libretto’s banality. Carter gave as an example the terzettino, chimerical music Mozart wrote to accompany Don Alfonso and the two sisters “singing” goodbye to the two officers. By tradition these ought to have been spoken, but the composer set them to music! This is the magical moment when the opera pulls away from being just another buffo farce. Carter also stressed that Da Ponte had written the libretto for Antonio Salieri, who only finished a couple of trios. Mozart was brought in to tackle the text as a pitch hitter.

The opera opens in a coffee house with two soldiers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, proclaiming to their friend, the old bachelor Don Alphonso, the virtues of their lovers, the sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi respectively. Don Alphonso wagers that their sweethearts’ fidelity will not endure a day of their lovers’ absence. Don Alphonso and the sisters’ maid, the amoral and cynical Despina, are stock figures in literature of the period. The soldiers disguise themselves as “Albanian” and, to break down the sisters’ resistance, take a mock poison. Despina, disguised as an apostle of Dr. Mesmer, “removes” the poison with a huge horseshoe magnet (long a traditional sight gag that never fails). Dorabella pairs with Guglielmo and Fiordiligi pairs with Ferrando and soon are “married” by Despina, disguised as a lawyer. Music signals the imminent return of the soldiers. The sisters’ infidelity is revealed, but the soldiers decide to forgive them. In most productions, Ferrando marries Dorobella and Guglielmo marries Fiordiligi. In the relaxed sexual mores of post-WWI and in the “swinging” 1960s the sisters take up the couplings formed with their respective “Albanians.” Director Terry Rhodes opted instead for a hint of ambiguity in the future. While the lovers returned to their original pairings, members of each couple flirted with the other behind their respective lovers’ backs.

Were all the solo singers wearing some sort of dental retainer or, horrors, had the cell phone at last invaded the stage in the form of headsets? These were my first thoughts before I realized all the singers were being mic’d.  I am old-fashioned, regarding a singer’s mastery of projection as an essential part of vocal athleticism. Amplification is like lowering the goal for basketball. This caveat aside, the enhancement seemed to have been done subtly, with no weird off-singer balances. It does cause me to wonder how accurately I have assessed soloists’ vocal qualities.

All six singers heard November 29 are undergraduates. Two were making their operatic debuts while the other four had been in operatic productions over several semesters. The roles of both sisters were for sopranos in Mozart’s premiere in 1790. In more recent times, mezzo-sopranos have been used for Fiordiligio. Mme. Ferraresi del Bene, who created the role, had a remarkable voice that Spike Hughes, in Famous Mozart Operas, describes as “capable of all, if not more, than is asked of the average soprano and contralto combined.” Jillian Bauman made a promising debut as Fiordilgi, the more complex of the two sisters. Her diction was excellent, her tone was warm and pleasing, and her high notes were pitched accurately. Time and experience will strengthen occasional small lapses of vocal support. Bauman fully portrayed Fiordiligi’s struggle between desire and scruples. Third semester senior Rachel Wender was a hoot as Dorabella, the emotionally shallower sister whose head is all too easily turned. All her words were readily understood, her timbre was pleasing and her voice was firmly focused. Junior Emily Wobler made her opera debut in the high camp role of the maid Despina. Her straight singing was fine but sometimes it was hard to follow all the words when she used comic voices as the “Magnetic doctor” and lawyer.

Graduating senior tenor Kevin Thomas Campbell had the most fully “finished” sounding voice. His warm and plangent timbre was immediately pleasing and his voice was evenly supported across its range. Both his diction and intonation were excellent and he showed a flare for comic timing. As a member of operatic children’s choruses he has already racked up time with both the Virginia Opera Company and the Metropolitan Opera. I found it hard to judge Steven Lumpkin’s performance as Guglielmo. The 1790 creator of the role was a bass, and most of the many performances I have heard and reviewed have utilized a baritone, in all cases a much heavier voice than the senior from Raleigh possesses. His words were clearly spoken or sung, I just missed having a darker and weightier sound. The 1790 creator of Don Alphonso was over-the-hill, which was why Mozart did not write a true aria for the character. Still, it calls for more vocal weight and gravitas than anyone of the age of junior classman Jay Dolan could muster. Time can add those qualities to Dolan’s virtues of clean diction and good intonation.

The free-flowing and easier-to-sing English version of Da Ponte’s libretto by Jeremy Sams was a welcome change from the older version by Ruth and Thomas Martin that I have heard most often when the original Italian was not used.

CVNC critics always delight in reporting the large number of student musicians that conductor and music director Tonu Kalam regularly musters in the UNC Symphony Orchestra. Forces over 100 in number are common. This abundance allowed for partial rotation of principal players as well as regular stands between the two chamber orchestras used for the two concerts. Mozart gives no cover for mistakes in intonation or ensemble. After a few shaky notes by the horns during the overture, they settled into a really good standard of quality. Section unity and ensemble between sections was often very good. The important inner voices, especially the woodwinds, were excellent. Aaron Likness shared the important continuo role on a fine-sounding fortepiano joined by the experienced faculty member Brent Wissick on cello.