Double happiness: Cosi fan tutte and Cycles of My Being

A scene from Mozart’s comic opera “Così fan tutte,” now at Lyric Opera of Chicago. – Andrew Cioffi

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

What: “Così fan tutte”
Where: Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: Through Mar. 16
Tickets: Lyricopera.org

Two recent performances given by Lyric Opera could not be more different. Mozart’s “Così fan tutte” is an amusing look at love with an approach many people now find not only outdated but insulting to women. “Cycles of My Being” is an unflinching meditation, where explorations of hate and hope mix to create an accurate picture of the struggle — here and now — of being a black man in America. Both were immensely successful.

Lyric’s “Così fan tutte” has splendid singing, colorful sets, and a lot of laughs. It’s the story of young two couples in love. Don Alfonso, a jaded old bachelor, believes that women will always be faithless and bets the two men that their fiancées will cheat on them given the chance. The dudes take the bet, make an excuse to leave town and immediately return in disguise, each man then wooing the other’s girlfriend. Hijinks ensue.

Soprano Ana María Martínez is Fiordiligi, with a convincing characterization of both confusion and heartbreak, even if she occasionally struggles to make the music beautiful. The sister, Dorabella, is given just the right amount of dopiness by mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa, who sings with dreamy richness.

Andrew Stenson is an appropriately emotional Ferrando, bringing a bright tenor to the role. His partner in deception, Guglielmo, is sung with gusto by baritone Joshua Hopkins.

Alessandro Corbelli serves up a cynical Don Alfonso, and knows how to make an audience laugh. Despina, the maid who assists in the scheming, is wonderfully realized by soprano Elena Tsallagova, who has a gleaming voice and great comic abilities.

The action is updated to August 1914, which incorporates a deadly seriousness at the very end. After all the ruses and tricks are discovered and the hurt feelings are exposed, the specter of WWI, replete with creepy gas masks, haunts the conclusion. It is a jarring choice. But the original director, John Cox, and the revival director for this production, Bruno Ravella, don’t seem to think merely upending the emotional lives of four young people as Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte intended, is punishment enough.

The sets by Robert Perdziola are cheery and opulent with large, colorful umbrellas dotting the seaside setting. The costumes (also by Perdziola) are frothy and fun.

James Gaffigan leads the Lyric Opera Orchestra with fluidity and grace. Chorus master Michael Black has prepared the chorus with his usual skill so that their small stage time is robust and pleasing.

There were only a few empty seats in the performance venue of the DuSable Museum of African American History here in Hyde Park Thursday night when tenor Lawrence Brownlee introduced a new song cycle to Chicago. “Cycles of My Being,” written for Brownlee, premiered just two days earlier in Philadelphia. From there, it went to Carnegie Hall. The new work, composed by Tyshawn Sorey with texts by poet Terrance Hayes, which was presented by Lyric Unlimited, a division of Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Several days before the premiere, Brownlee spoke to me about “Cycles” in a telephone interview. He said one of the motivations for it was so that he and Sorey and Hayes could be “on the front line of saying who we are as black men in America.” He noted that some of the text is his own, skillfully shaped by Hayes. Although Sorey has never written for an operatic tenor before, Brownlee was excited about the music. This, in spite of the difficulty of the score. He particularly noted that the rhythms are sometimes intricate and there are many instances of shifting meters, which express the idea that “things always change. There is no constancy in life.”

In his bel canto repertoire Brownlee displays a light touch and easy facility with difficult ornamental lines. “Cycles” is different from Rossini and Donizetti, as Sorey’s music is unapologetically modern, sometimes with ragged vocal lines and anxiety-ridden musical phrases.

While the world premiere in Philadelphia featured not just voice, but piano, violin, cello, and clarinet, Brownlee performed at the Dusable with only piano, played ably by Myra Huang. The mood shifts throughout the six-song cycle, but is generally more sorrowful than angry. There are two songs titled “Hope,” and even here, the optimism is leavened with deep concern. Brownlee’s always fluent, always focused singing was vital in conveying the message, as Storey’s vocal lines are at times edgy.

The work opens with delicacy in the piano before tension is added. Brownlee navigated the mood changes throughout the piece with skill and with what he described in the interview as his approach to musical performance: “Sing with your whole body filled with intention.”

The six songs touch various themes, such as love for a country that does not always seem to love you and living in a world with “enrapturing” hate. But there is also a search for calm, serenity, and forgiveness. “Whirlwind” put me in mind of a Charles Ives song, and for this Brownlee had the perfect approach, a simple, declarative attack.

The highlight comes with the last song, “Each Day I Rise, I Know.” Here Storey writes an extended passage for solo voice which draws on gospel idioms, but places them firmly in a classical vocabulary. It is the most exciting, most moving part of the work and fit Brownlee’s voice and abilities like a glove. It was powerful and affecting. The soft ending could be heard throughout the house, as the audience sat in rapt silence.

The second half of the concert featured opera arias, including a glorious account of “Ah, mes amis” from “La fille du régiment,” jazz standards, and two spirituals. The last, “All Night, All Day,” Brownlee described as “Caleb’s song,” a piece he always dedicates to his autistic son. After his encore, “Come by Here,” the audience rewarded him with wild applause.