When it was announced some time ago that Peter Rothstein, artistic director of Theatre Latte Da, would be directing Minnesota Opera's production of Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte, a great deal of excitement was suddenly generated for an opera that might otherwise have been regarded as just another show.
Rothstein is generally regarded as the man with the Midas touch when it comes to musicals. Above and beyond the music, which is typically brilliant, Rothstein has almost unerring theatrical instincts that allow him to tease out dramatic possibilities other directors might overlook or miss entirely. His stagings often have a restrained elegance, as if all the extraneous distractions and ornamentations have been stripped away, revealing the crystalline essence of the work in a way that feels fresh and vital.
But Rothstein is also an entertainer with a wonderful sense of humor. He's not above going for the easy laugh, and this is part of the reason his productions feel so accessible and unpretentious. Everyone can enjoy them. Which is why, in addition to his Latte Da duties, Rothstein has been tapped to direct the Children's Theatre Company's upcoming production of The Wizard of Oz, to work with storyteller Kevin Kling during his three-year residency at The Fitzgerald Theater, and to direct an upcoming production of Oklahoma at Fifth Ave. Theatre in Seattle.
The man is in demand.
Still, though Rothstein's musical résumé is a mile long, he hasn't directed many operas. So, when he took the Minnesota Opera assignment, the presumption was that he would find clever ways to re-engage audiences with Mozart's familiar story of two soldiers who bet a friend that, even if tempted, the love of their girlfriends would be constant and true. The English translation of cosi fan tutte is "Women are like that"—meaning that women are inherently unreliable when it comes to matters of love—and it’s the cynicism and chauvinism in that worldview that sometimes make modern audiences uncomfortable with CfT. If they take it seriously, that is.
It helps to remember that the characters are teenagers, and that the romantic "love" they're mooning about is really infatuation of the moment. In the dress rehearsal I saw on Thursday night, the entire first act is played for laughs, and the cast was obviously having a good time playing with the absurdity of the opera's sit-com set-up. You don't often see opera singers rolling around on the floor and laugh-singing, but you do in this version.
Rothstein also has a lot of comic fun with the idea that the two sisters in the story, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, are teenage girls, and therefore inherently dramatic about everything. These are kids, really, and their little game of deception is mostly a big, long, practical joke. Even the surtitles are funny.
Though the staging is relatively simple—a tree here, some tables and chairs there—the theatrical flourishes for which Rothstein is known are easily apparent. In the first act, when the soldiers are ostensibly going to war, a channel of water opens in the middle of the stage, as if by magic, and a four-masted schooner is pulled slowly across the stage. Clean, elegant, and ingenious, it has all the hallmarks of a Rothstein moment.
Not much can be said about the singing, because opera singers try not to blow their pipes out in dress rehearsals. Nevertheless, as Fiordiligi and Dorabella, Jacquelyn Wagner and Jennifer Holloway are delightful—and, even during the dress rehearsal, Wagner gave us a taste of what she can do with her exquisite soprano. The other principles—Matthew Worth (Guglielmo), John Tessier (Ferrando), Daniel Mobbs (Don Alfonso), and Angela Mortellaro (Despina)—are solid as well (especially Mortellaro, who is quite funny in her various guises).
Cosi fan Tutte is a good starter opera for the uninitiated. The story is simple, the music is Mozart, which is about as accessible as you can get, and the thing is not weighted down with the ponderous solemnity of so many other operas. In fact, it makes satirical fun of all that unseemly Italian over-emoting. Prediction: Pretty much everyone will like Rothstein's take on CfT . That's what he does, after all. And he does it extremely well.
Cosi fan Tutte plays through Oct. 2 at Ordway Center, 612-224-4222, ordway.org.