The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra delivers a memorable "Cosi fan tutte."

Mozart’s comic masterpiece, Così fan tutte, is awash in contradictions: elegant, ethereal melodies that help shape a cynical examination of love and human folly, grave opera seria-style arias that articulate sappy sentiments, or even devastatingly sad melodies that accompany farcical scenes in which the characters mock the somber mood.

What to do? What to do? Well, to stage the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s concert version of Così, director James Darrah and designers Cameron Mock and Emily MacDonald put the contradictions onstage in all their glory.

Jennifer Zetlan

Jennifer Zetlan

So the two central couples—head over heels for each other—are breezily dressed in radiant cream colors (A Little Night Music, anyone?). But the story plays out in front of an ominous abstract slab—imagine Clyfford Still in his “rust” period. The puppetmasters of the plot, Don Alfonso (Rod Gilfrey) and Despina (Jennifer Zetlan) are, of course, clad in black. At least until the final scenes, when everyone (except Alfonso) ends up in their underwear.

Musicologists talk about Così (which premiered in 1790) as uniquely balanced between of rational Enlightenment and the Romantic era, which celebrates the mysterious and unquantifiable. The subject is love, but Don Alfonso wants to propose a sort of scientific experiment. He enlists the infatuated men in a wager (Gordon Bintner as Guglielmo and Andrew Stenson as Ferrando): their brides-to-be (Brenda Rae as Fiordiligi and Cecelia Hall as Dorabella) will cheat on them in less than 24 hours if given the chance. Okay, it’s not exactly a flag-waver for 18th-century feminism. But let Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte run with that idea, and you’ll find it isn’t as Andrew Dice Clay as it first appears.

That’s because Mozart and his wordsmith give the women some of the most gorgeous, introspective and emotionally rich music ever written for the voice. And de Waart, the orchestra and the soloists deliver it superbly. Early in Act One, the two women join Don Alfonso in the beautiful trio that bids farewell to the men as they embark on their fictitious military tour (dreamed up to serve Don Alfonso’s ruse) There is no feminine fickle here, but pure and steadfast devotion. In Act Two, Rae delivers a powerfully dramatic “Per pietà, ben mio, perdona,” which showcases her characters torn emotions (she also delivers a dazzling “Come scoglio,” Mozart’s gleeful parody of the opera seria style).

Edo de Waart

Edo de Waart

But if you are not interested in negotiating Così fan tutte’s minefield of music references, parody and silliness, you could sit back and enjoy it on pure musical terms. De Waart and the MSO delivered an expressive and measured reading. Some conductors push tempos in hopes of highlighting the music’s light comedy, but de Waart trusts Mozart’s own command of melody and structure, and presents the score with attention to detail, but without pushing it to Looney Tunes tempos. From my seats on the main floor (about a dozen rows back), the orchestra and voices were perfectly balanced, and de Waart demonstrated his decades of opera experience with sensitive accompaniment, a skill that very important with this opera’s intricate ensemble numbers. The singers seemed perfectly at ease in the world of the score.

And they were superb instruments in themselves, adept at both phrasing and the comic acting that makes Così such a rollicking good time.

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