At this very moment, the Washington National Opera is preparing to open its white whale: Wagner’s weighty Ring cycle, replete with fire and big-voiced women and towering sets. Across town, In Series is preparing to close its much-smaller English retelling of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte, an angel-food-cake-light opera about two men who trick their girlfriends into falling in love with incognito versions of themselves.
In Series’ adaptation, with an English libretto by UMD’s Nick Olcott, embraces the opera’s two best qualities: its silliness and accessibility. It’s Mozart at his most seductively brilliant, with a score full of quick-paced, lush lines that an opera novice can enjoy without previous study. Its original plot is also slap-your-forehead, get-over-yourself-or-this-is-gonna-be-painful stupid.
Olcott’s cheesetastic telling goes like this: Sisters Florrie (Melissa Chavez) and Dorrie (Erin Passmore) have moved from Ohio to Hollywood with their boyfriends, Elmo (Sean Pflueger) and Randy (Samual Keeler). The gents make a bet with a sleazy producer, Donald Fonso (Sasha Olinick), who says he can make the women cheat if the men leave town. The boys agree, lie to their girlfriends about a trip to New York, then immediately return wearing sunglasses and mustaches—disguised as ready-to-breakout movie stars—with the intention of getting the other’s partner to cheat.
In an opera whose punchline is essentially “ladies are dumb,” it’s a small consolation that the three leading women’s singing and acting abilities far surpass that of their male counterparts. Chavez and Passmore as sisters Florrie and Dorrie can not only sing (and God, can they sing) but they’re also extremely capable actors, crying and going gaga over ridiculous-looking strangers and throwing themselves on various set pieces. Randa Rouweyha as Tina, Fonso’s secretary with a screenplay, is completely game to provide comic relief—for example, while performing an originally Italian piece in English with a German accent while shooting some sort of gizmo into a man’s foot—while still singing at a level that opera fans who know Cosi forward and backward can applaud.
The jokes in Olcott’s libretto are tame yet winning, and his efforts to poke fun at Cosi’s built-in sexisim are laudable. His text for “Donne mie, la fate a tanti”—1790’s “Hotline Bling”—takes Guglielmo’s lament about how women, while inherently good, can still do shitty stuff and turns it on its head: The lights come up, and Elmo addresses the women in the audience with an entreaty dripping in sarcasm. By the time Pflueger exits the stage to directly harass a woman about, essentially, being a fallible human being, the audience is in full-giggle mode.
In Series mounts chamber or pocket operas, smaller productions in intimate settings. There’s just enough room on the Lang Theatre’s stage for the six performers, a basic set, and a string quintet led by Stanley Thurston, which is placed just right of center stage and is visible throughout. In some ways, the intimacy makes the production’s shortcomings more forgivable. When something is going very badly in a full-scale opera, it’s easy for your mind to wander toward the negative. And even though there are some shortcomings here—namely, Pflueger and Olinick’s singing—it’s hard to turn against this affable cast.
If faced with the choice to again watch WNO’s decently sung but otherwise abysmal 2012 production of Cosi—a two-decade-old staging that somehow felt even more dated—or In Series’, I’d choose the latter. With Cosi, it’s better to laugh with the singers than cringe for them.
1333 H St. NE. $22–$45. (202) 399-7993. inseries.org.