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LA Opera Season Launches with Mozart & Tchaikovsky

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Who's looking at who? No one can trust anyone in "Così fan Tutte" (photo: Robert Millard)
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LA Opera kicked off its new season at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion this weekend with a pair of classics. Saturday night delivered a visually odd but musically solid production of "Eugene Onegin," Tchaikovsky's take on the romantic tragedy by Pushkin. Sunday's matinee presented a fantastically entertaining performance of Mozart's "Così Fan Tutte," a sophisticated, slightly unsettling comedy of sexual manners.

"Così Fan Tutte" (roughly: "Women Are All Alike"), set in 18th-century Naples, starts out in a café where a pair of dashing young soldiers, both engaged to be married, jointly bet the mischievous Don Alfonso that their fiancées--who happen to be sisters--would never be unfaithful to them. Alfonso suggests a plan to settle the question: they'll tell the two women that the soldiers have been abruptly called off to war. A short time later, the soldiers will return in disguise as a couple of noblemen visiting from abroad, and Alfonso will introduce them to these newly lonesome ladies. The phony foreigners, of course, will profess to fall madly in love and thus see if they can actually win their fiancées' hearts away from the absent soldiers, i.e. themselves.

To make the plan work, Alfonso enlists the assistance of the sisters' personal maidservant, Despina, who has already been encouraging them to cut loose while their men are away. After some initial reluctance, the women indulge in a little innocent flirtation, each unwittingly choosing the other's betrothed as the object of her modest affections. It's not long, though, before one of the fiancées casts off her inhibitions and beckons her new suitor to follow her into a private room. And then the other one....

This LA Opera production of "Così Fan Tutte" has been imported from England's Glyndebourne opera festival, where it was initially directed by renowned stage and film helmer Nicholas Hytner. Given the spryly excellent international cast of up-and-coming young singers assembled for the present run, we are hard-pressed to imagine a more perfect apotheosis of Mozart's exuberantly cynical opera.

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In their simultaneous roles as overconfident soldiers and overly amorous noblemen, Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu and Italian baritone Ildebrando D'Arcangelo are both very good at playing very good actors. D'Arcangelo, in particular, takes a bravura turn in his sardonic, suddenly world-weary aria of admonition to women everywhere ("Seriously, ladies, you always do this to us....")

But as they so often are in Mozart, the real stars of "Così Fan Tutte" are indeed the women, who get most of the best music to sing. Romanian soprano Ruxandra Donose is wonderfully coy and coquettish throughout as the more impulsive of the two sisters, while her Polish counterpart Aleksandra Kurzak beautifully manages the vocal leaps of the opera's most famous aria ("Oh please, my love, forgive my faithful soul for wandering..."), in which she steels herself against encroaching temptation.

Perhaps our favorite performance, though, was Roxana Constantinescu's cheeky Despina, whose bawdy insouciance was every bit a match for the craftiness of Lorenzo Regazzo's Alfonso. Her aria urging the sisters to capitalize on the opportunity presented by their unexpected abandonment ("You expect that men, soldiers, are going to be faithful to you? Ha!...") all but steals the first act.

If you're at all inclined to go see "Così Fan Tutte"--anywhere, ever--this is the one not to miss. Or if you occasionally think you might like to try seeing an opera but have no idea which or where, here it is.

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Oksana Dyka as Tatiana stands out in 'Eugene Onegin' (photo: Robert Millard)
Now the comparison is probably unfair, but there was also the "Eugene Onegin" (plot summary here) the night before.

This production, another British import, announces its willful incongruity before the first note is even sung, as the curtain rises on a scrim displaying an academically classical painting of a despondent young male nude, which has little apparent connection to the opera's proceedings. A party scene is preceded by the foreboding, albeit nonsensical, approach of dressed-up frogs, insects, and other creepy forest creatures, and the party itself, a crowded formal ball with full chorus and dancers, takes place in a space the size of a locker room aisle. A rural pond with actual splashing water featured in the first act, though hardly visible to the audience, somewhat spectacularly becomes an urban ice-skating rink in the third act, which is fun to see for a moment, but in no way germane to the telling of Pushkin's, and Tchaikovsky's, story.

Still, the first "Onegin" in LA Opera's 25-year history cannot be ignored, and most of the singers are good, especially Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka and American bass James Creswell. Once past intermission, the sheer musical drama of Tchaikovsky's great, great opera does effectively shine through the awkwardness of some of the staging, thanks in no small part to the energetic momentum of the orchestra under company Music Director James Conlon's baton. This may not be a "Eugene Onegin" for the ages, but it is "Eugene Onegin" in Los Angeles, a rare opportunity and a treat. Even if you may inappropriately chuckle under your breath once or twice.

"Eugene Onegin," performed in Russian with English supertitles, plays on September 21 and 25 and October 1, 6 and 9. "Così Fan Tutte," performed in Italian with English supertitles, plays on September 22 and 24 and October 2, 5 and 8. Tickets start at $20.