For a directorial debut, Noel Koran knew how to make an entrance. Friday night at the Rialto Theater saw the new director of Tacoma Opera mounting his first production, with enough changes to make a big effect. New personnel with big voices, a bigger orchestra with new conductor and a splashy set made it clear that Koran is steering Tacoma’s opera company into bigger and more flashy waters. Yet despite the good looks (and sounds) the change came with problems: messy pit-to-stage communication, a lukewarm orchestra and tepid action.
It was also the Tacoma Symphony’s debut with the opera – replacing without fanfare the opera’s usual ensemble – and with twice as many strings as before. Playing from the front rows at stage right, the large group followed Portland conductor Keith Clark (also a newcomer) in brisk tempi, with nimble woodwind and a lovely oboe solo to open. But the extra strings only meant sluggish eighth notes and sometimes dubious intonation, which was to pull the whole opera backwards in Mozart’s quicksilver ensemble scenes.
Vocally, though, this “Cosi” shone. The two couples who unwittingly swap partners thanks to a silly bet the two boys make to prove their girlfriends’ fidelity had remarkably similar voice colors – rich, burnished and powerful across the range – which made their many ensemble pieces perfectly matched. As Fiordiligi, the stalwart girl who holds out longest against the boys’ disguised seduction, Abigail Mitchell sang with a voice like creamed honey, steadfast and faultless at the top even through an aria in which she was chased around the stage by an inept spotlight. Caitlin Mathes made a resonant counterpart in Dorabella; while Jorge Garza sang Ferrando with an agile tenor and Jose Rubio’s baritone made Guglielmo resplendently dashing. As Don Alfonso, who helps them scheme, Rubin Casas hit every note with lugubrious depth but some disregard for the orchestra’s tempo.
The trouble was that the cast did nothing to alleviate the one-dimensionality of the opera’s characters, wallowing in the prevalent emotion (sighing confusion for the girls, rakish goofiness for the guys) for entire acts. This, combined with some unimaginative blocking and a grandiose set that was beautiful to look at (tall Tiffany-esque windows on faux marble) made the whole thing more like a tableau in a hotel lobby than anything like real life.
Despite excellent work by Keith Clark, who managed the perfect orchestral balance between big sound and space for singers, there were a lot of ensemble problems: messy passages, differing tempi and persistently tepid back-desk strings that dragged the opera even further.
A contemporary translation for the titles took a lot of liberties, which added to the humor but exaggerated the text.
Yet there were some very funny moments – Shotwell’s hilarious magnet scene disguised as the Doctor, the over-the-top shenanigans of the boys as turban-sporting Albanians. And no doubt about it, Koran picked a stunning set of singers.
As music, this “Cosi” is well worth the ticket price. As drama, there’s a lot left to the imagination.