Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" is opera's problem child. The music is heavenly, but for more than two centuries, many people--especially women--have found the plot implausible, if not downright offensive.
Two men, on a bet, decide to test the fidelity of their fiancees. Pretending they have to go off to war, they disguise themselves so that each can woo the other's intended. The women resist at first but ultimately succumb.
"Cosi fan tutte": "They all do it."
"It's a bittersweet piece," said conductor John DeMain, who leads the work for Opera Pacific this week at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
"But we have to remember that the opera's first title--'School for Lovers'--is the real title. It's a lesson here. The women learn that even though your intentions are honorable, there are mitigating factors that can destroy these commitments.
"The lesson the men learn is 'Your wives are good women; they're faithful; you're wrong to test them the way you did.' And they test them to the max. They're unrelenting in trying to break them down. And they break down."
Director Mark Lamos cautions against playing "Cosi" too "darkly," however. "But it shouldn't be played as a completely idiotic comedy," either, Lamos said in an interview from New York, where he is staging a Terence Rattigan play and rehearsing a work for New York City Opera.
"Great comedy, real comedy--the comedy of Moliere and Mozart--is always funny, even when it's terribly serious. When you look at the great Enlightenment playwrights . . . you are in a realm in which comedy and tragedy are so finely woven together that it's impossible to tell them apart.
"But the music of 'Cosi' ultimately says, life is a joke, and relationships are a joke, and marriage is ridiculous, and we make the best of it," Lamos said, "and on we go into resolved harmonies."
That perspective reflects the "humanism of the 18th century," he noted. "The Enlightenment saw the relationships between men and women as a sort of terrifying cosmic joke. Mozart did as well.
"What's great about 'Cosi' [which premiered in 1790] is that Mozart understands that women are as complex as men," said Lamos, who created this production in 1993 for Portland Opera. His New York duties will keep him from attending the Opera Pacific run; an assistant, Ned Canty, will oversee the Costa Mesa staging.
"I trust him implicitly," Lamos said. "He knows how I feel about the piece."
Neither Lamos nor DeMain play any games with the plot. Some productions let the maid, Despina, recognize the two men and play along with their game. Additionally, the lovers sometimes pair off with their new partners at the end. Not here.
"The lovers reunite, as Mozart wrote," DeMain said. "If you listen to the music, there's a bittersweet agreement in it. They sing, 'Let's drown our sorrows in champagne and put what is past, past.'
"The other thing is, Despina is ashamed by all of this," he said. "It makes no sense to do it the other way if we look at her text in the finale, where she says she is ashamed of what she did."
It may be hard to hear that line in the actual performance, DeMain said, because "there are five people singing at the same time in counterpoint. We try to balance it, and I will balance it so you that hear it, but I don't know how well the supertitles will translate it. I would imagine they will make the point, though."
Balancing voices and the orchestra is always one of his main concerns. Now that DeMain has been named music director and chief conductor of Opera Pacific, he feels he also is in a position to address some acoustical problems he has heard in Segerstrom Hall.
"We want to look at the resonance in the pit and the amount of resonance coming out of the front orchestra and the ability of the musicians to hear each other across the pit," DeMain said.
"This is a common problem in halls and has been a particular problem here, and now that the company has its first music director--instead of my coming once every two years, where you can't do anything--this is very much an area we want to explore, and the center has expressed support in helping us improve this situation."
Meanwhile, DeMain said he has a young cast that responds alertly to the ensemble qualities required of the Mozart opera and who are interested in exploring their roles.
"Some singers come in and they don't want to work," he said. "Certain singers have come in and said, 'This is my interpretation,' and they have such restrictions on their ability to sing. They can only sing the role one way. They're not interested in exploring it. They're not interested in rehearsing. They [hold back] until they get in front of the orchestra almost intentionally so that you cannot really change anything.
"So you take what you get. It's the name of opera in a lot of situations. But these singers are a joy. They have the notes and technique and all of that, and they like to work."
And with "Cosi," Lamos noted, there is plenty to work with.
" 'Cosi' is so complex and so meaningful on so many levels, like [Mozart's] 'Don Giovanni'; I don't think you'll ever see the perfect production," he said. " 'Don Giovanni,' 'Carmen.' The perfect production will never exist because every listener is recreating the piece in his head."
* John DeMain will conduct Opera Pacific in Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" today at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:30 p.m. The cast includes Brenda Harris and Margaret Lattimore as Fiordiligi and Dorabella, respectively; Robert Swenson and Andrew Schroeder as Ferrando and Guglielmo; Kathleen Brett as Despina; Michele Bianchini as Don Alfonso. Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday. $28-$93. (714) 556-2787.