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The long and short of opera: Mill City Summer Opera does both

Mill City Summer Opera presents Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte” at the Mill City Museum’s Ruin Courtyard and Pergolesi’s “La Serva Padrona” at Icehouse. Each is sublime in its own ways.

“Così Fan Tutte”
The cast of “Così Fan Tutte” at the Mill City Museum’s Ruin Courtyard, front row from left: Sidney Outlaw, Karin Wolverton, Sarah Larsen, Javier Abreu. Back row from left: Andrew Wilkowske, Heather Johnson, and Brian Ingalsbe.
Photo by Dan Norman

Do you like your opera long or short? Indoors or alfresco? With a 30-piece orchestra or a five-piece band? This week, you can have both as Mill City Summer Opera presents Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte” at the Mill City Museum’s Ruin Courtyard and Pergolesi’s “La Serva Padrona” at Icehouse. Each is sublime in its own ways.

The long …

“Così” is one of Mozart’s great comic operas. MCSO’s new production sets it in Naples in the 1940s without getting more specific than that. There’s a war going on, but no mention of which war or any fascist dictator.

The opera is considered problematic today for its misogynistic story line. Two young men, Guglielmo and Ferrando, are confident that their lovers, the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, are faithful to them. The older, world-wiser Don Alfonso bets that he can prove them wrong within a day. Guglielmo and Ferrando take the bet and lose because, as the opera’s title loosely translates, “All women are like that,” meaning fickle and unfaithful. Also because the men lie and disguise themselves. It’s more a tale of entrapment than seduction.

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Any director who takes on “Così” in the 21st century must confront this. Earlier this year, in Skylark Opera Theatre’s production, Bob Neu made the women smarter than the men and gave them some new spoken dialogue. (Making the women smarter is what director Kent Gash has done at the Guthrie with “Guys and Dolls” to great success.)

For her debut as MCSO’s artistic and stage director, Crystal Manich goosed the comedy in “Così.” It’s meant to be funny, and Manich has made it funnier. In the original libretto, Guglielmo and Ferrando disguise themselves as “Albanians.” In MCSO’s version, they’re “Alabamans,” American cowboys sporting hats, boots, fringed shirts and moustaches. Hilarious.

Exaggerated gestures, facial expressions and broad humor, including a scene with wieners, make the opera so silly it’s hard to be offended. Skylark turned “Così” on its head; MCSO plays it for laughs.

But not entirely for laughs. Deception and infidelity are not joking matters, and hearts are hurt. Mozart wrote some gorgeous arias about love, loneliness, faithfulness and forgiveness, and MCSO’s “Così” cast delivers the seriousness and emotion of the story, not just the slapstick.

Soprano Karin Wolverton dazzled in Minnesota Opera’s “Silent Night” and shines as Fiordiligi. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen is lovely as Dorabella. Their soaring Act I duet, “Ah, guarda, sorella,” is the first time in the opera we hear women sing. Mezzo Heather Johnson embraces the role of Despina, the duplicitous maid, with gusto and good humor. She’s also called on to play Despina disguised as a quack doctor and a notary named Quickpecker.

Baritone Sidney Outlaw and tenor Javier Abreu ham it up as Guglielmo and Ferrando. They’re never evil, just young and kind of dumb, led around and misled by Don Alfonso. They sing beautifully, too. All the singers in this production do. Baritone Andrew Wilkowske, most recently seen here in Out of the Box Opera’s “Acis and Galatea,” makes Alfonso appealing, despite his role as disrupter. (Wilkowske will return later this year in Theater Latte Da’s “All Is Calm.”)

On opening night, the orchestra, led by Brian DeMaris, sounded a bit thin at first but grew to fill the space, not an easy task when there’s no roof and the walls are stone. We were luckier than Sunday’s audience, which saw part of “Così” with orchestra and part with keyboard when rain forced the production indoors.

In the eight years MCSO has been around, the weather has been a character in nearly every performance. Sometimes, on a perfect summer night under a clear sky, it’s a hero. And sometimes, when the temperature rises and the humidity becomes unbearable, or it rains, it‘s a villain.

The Ruin Courtyard is a spectacular setting, but the Minnesota Historical Society might have done MCSO a favor by not renewing its contract. Next summer will find the opera at Paikka, an event venue in St. Paul’s Vandalia Tower complex. It can be roofless or roofed, air conditioned or not.

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Four performances of “Così” remain: tomorrow (Thursday, July 18), Saturday, next Monday and Wednesday. All are at 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($100-125). Check the website for deals. Yesterday (Tuesday), all remaining tickets to that night’s performance were $20 at the box office starting at 5 p.m. Best bets for availability are Monday and Wednesday. The opera is three hours including intermission.

… and the short

If you like your opera lighter, over sooner, more economical and not tied to the weather, tickets are still available to Mill City Summer Opera’s production of Pergolesi’s “La Serva Padrona” at Icehouse, a music club and restaurant on Eat Street. This title translates as “The Maid Turned Mistress,” and that’s basically the story. Serpina is housekeeper to Uberto. She already runs the place but wants to make it official. She thinks Uberto should marry her. He doesn’t agree. Well, not at first.

Rodolfo Nieto and Madison Holtze
Photo by Jasmine Kemp
Rodolfo Nieto and Madison Holtze in Pergolesi’s “La Serva Padrona” at Icehouse.
This baroque opera buffa, or comic opera, is just 45 minutes long. It was written to be performed as an intermezzo, between the acts of a more serious opera. Has anyone done that since the 18th century? Fat chance today, in a time when many performing arts organizations (and audiences) are questioning the need for intermissions period.

What MCSO has done with “Serva” is kind of perfect. Present it in a more intimate and casual setting, with cocktails and food available. (Good cocktails and good food, it’s worth saying. Icehouse is serious about both.) Give audiences a chance to hear trained voices up close and personal. Keep ticket prices reasonable.

At Icehouse, bass-baritone Rodolfo Nieto sings Uberto and soprano Madison Holtze sings Serpina. Child actor JJ Klein has a nonspeaking, nonsinging role as Vespone (actually two roles; he’s also Captain Thunderstorm).

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We had heard Nieto before and welcomed the chance to hear him again. Holtze was new to us; her silvery, liquid soprano was delightful and a good match for Pergolesi’s tricky tunes.

To realize her goal of becoming the mistress of Uberto’s household, Serpina results to some trickery involving Vespone. But all’s well that ends well, because Uberto realizes that he has loved her all along.

Sharing the stage with the singers, the orchestra for “Serva” is two violins, a viola, a keyboard and an electric bass, which fills out the sounds of the other instruments and makes the ensemble sound bigger than it is. The sets are simple, a chaise and a couple of baskets. Uberto wears a NASA T-shirt and Serpina wears fashionably ripped jeans. There’s nothing fancy about it, except the elegant, playful music, and those fabulous voices.

Both remaining performances are tonight (Wednesday, July 17). The times are 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. FMI and tickets ($15/25).