It is held that until the latter part of the 20th century, the final Da Ponte / Mozart collaboration, Così fan tutte, had a critically hard row to hoe. Music historians and critics were not happy with Da Ponte’s immoral and frivolous text, blending inadequately, they held, with Mozart’s gorgeous settings. Did the opera really deserve to be called a work of art? Or had it failed in some deep and irrevocable way?

In today’s era of edgy directing, darker productions and more expansive definition of art, Così has undergone modernization, various artistic teams moving the opera into the bleaker spectrum of contemporary interpretations, including one set in the Italian fascist–run Eritrea. These productions challenge the artistic validity of older operas by asking that those operas prove their universality and relevance. So it was with some delight that the audience witnessed the Merola Opera Program’s version of Così this past weekend. While updated from the 18th century, the production maintained a gaiety and sly wit that depended on the singers’ beautiful and virtuosic voices for its success.

The cultivation of those young opera professionals is, after all, the mission of the program.

The physical production was simple and made logical sense. The action was set in a mid 20th-century military hospital, the scenes moving back and forth from cafeteria to hospital rooms, separated only by those movable curtains that form the only privacy offered by today’s hospitals. Supernumeraries dressed as nurses and doctors drifted through scenes and sat chatting at tables. The sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, were nurses in long blue and white striped dresses, starched white caps pinned in place. Despina was the clean-up girl, with mop and blue coveralls. The men were kitted up in military khaki and drab. When the Albanians arrive, they are wounded soldiers, wrapped in gauze and sporting crutches, the perfect disguises for the opera’s deceiving lovers (yes, the boys are the true deceivers in this complicated examination of fidelity).

What Così offers, besides hilarity, is a complex procession of vocal opportunities. Each character has arias that offer a technical aspect of singing as well as a delineation of character. The arias of Fiordiligi, sung in this case by Ukraine–born soprano Yelena Dyachek, are demanding fiends, requiring leaps of 13s, quick and short ornamentations, and speed and flexibility, all netted together with the soprano’s purity and sweetness of tone. Where the first act “Como scoglio” is comic and parodic in its excesses, Fiordiligi’s second act aria is both plangent and subtly ironic. Dyachek powered through them with nary a twitch of the eyebrow.

California–born mezzo Alexandra Schenk sang the girls-just-want-to-have-fun role of Dorabella, combining a wondrous vocal weight with lightness of spirit. She was well matched in lushness of lower tones to bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum, who sang the role of the strutting Guglielmo. In emotional counterpoint to Guglielmo and in vocal resonance with Fiordigli was New Zealander Amatai Pati in the tenor role of Ferrando. All of these singers’ voices were marked by beauty of tone and litheness of movement across Mozart’s emotionally complex and musically polished score.

It made their ensemble pieces to die for. And Così is lavish in ensembles.

Soprano Adelaide Boedecker had a great time with Despina, altering her otherwise lovely voice a notch into the querulous to capture the comic displeasures of her worldly wise character. She had the wildest moments when, disguised as a doctor, she cures Ferrando and Guglielmo of their arsenic poisoning by placing them on tables, bending their knees up in a parody of a gynecological exam, and jabbing their nether parts with some sort of pointed medical device. What fun! Her male analog, Don Alfonso, was sung by bass baritone Josh Quinn, who maintained a sour authority over the proceedings, while dictating the examination of fidelity with warm notes and carefully philosophic vocal precision. 

The orchestra’s wide array of color was conducted by Mark Morash, a graduate of the 1987 Merola program. The production’s superb kinetic direction was by 2010 Merola alum Ted Huffman. The opera was sung in Italian with English supertitles.

The odd acoustics of the Concert Hall in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music cause occasional distractions. Resonant and slightly hollow, the acoustics amplified the sounds of the production team as they moved the few sets around behind the long movable curtains, which caused a low rumble in the background to the recitatives that took place at the front of the stage.

A greater distraction was the fire alarm, but the enforced intermission gave everyone the opportunity to mill around together outside, singers, musicians, audience. It was illuminating to see that most of the singers were over 6 foot, even the women. It seems these days opera singers are growing tall rather than wide.