Boston Baroque has been ticking its way through the Mozart-Da Ponte operas. Last year it presented "Don Giovanni" to open its season, and this weekend, music director Martin Pearlman, the orchestra, and a fresh set of young singers were back in Jordan Hall, delivering two semi-staged performances of the sublime and elusive comedy, "Così Fan Tutte."
In its way, "Così" is a tough nut to crack. The composer's glorious music breathes life into a puzzling libretto, complete with partner-swapping, women who can't recognize their own fiancés in thin disguises, men who cruelly test their lovers' fidelity for sport, and a rather abrupt all-is-forgiven resolution. In the last few decades, however, "Cosi" watchers have begun discovering, in addition to the light comedy, a set of more subtle and serious meditations on the paradoxes of human love, the poignancy of innocence lost, and the various levels of the self that speak most easily when outwardly disguised.
The best "Così" productions find inventive ways to address the opera on multiples levels all at once. Ned Canty's debut production for Boston Baroque is not in this category. His modern-dress "Così" is mostly innocuous, but the director seems content to milk the work for easy laughs and not much more. Ferrando and Guglielmo are cast as regular Boston guys who make their first entrance sporting Sox caps and brewskies. Dorabella and Fiordiligi telegraph their depression by moping around eating ice cream in pajamas. A few moments were genuinely funny, but the pile-up of antics grows wearying without much attempt to access the opera's reserves of subtlety or depth. And after making the Red Sox joke once, when Fiordiligi donned a Sox jersey in Act II, it felt like gratuitous local pandering.
The singing was strong enough, and on Saturday night, the second of the two performances, the men played off each other well. Hugh Russell as Guglielmo sang with heft and richness, and Vale Rideout as Ferrando showed off a solid, well-proportioned tenor, though he displayed signs of vocal fatigue as the night went on. Kevin Burdette gave a nimble performance, playing Don Alfonso as a kind of sleazy emeritus womanizer, as if Giovanni had returned from hell to open a consulting business.
The young Sara Heaton held her own as Despina, singing with a modest-size voice but with promising instincts. Jennifer Holloway did not bring particular dramatic nuance to Dorabella, but she displayed a generous tone and fluid phrasing. Lauren Skuce, who sang Fiordiligi beautifully this summer in a Tanglewood Music Center production under James Levine, reprised the role here with the same lovely soprano, light and nimble yet with plenty of substance and fine control. Her deeply felt "Per pietà" was a welcome reprieve from the antics.
Pearlman kept his period orchestra on track, though not always with the well-groomed collective sound, elasticity of tempo, or overall ensemble polish that Boston Baroque has demonstrated in the past. For its part, the audience seemed quite grateful for the chance to hear this timeless Mozart score. The event was capped with a warm ovation.