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Performing Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, Portland State University spotlights a strong and growing School of Fine and Performing Arts, where renowned operatic stage director Tito Capobianco resides.
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Tito Capobianco. (Portland State University)

Performing Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, Portland State University spotlights a strong and growing School of Fine and Performing Arts, where renowned operatic stage director Tito Capobianco resides.

You'd never pick these people out of a lineup as opera-goers. But when the lights went down on the Portland State University Opera production of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte one recent evening, they all fell into character. Six giggly high-school choir sopranos to my left clicked off cell phones. The man in front of us swiveled the bill of his Nike baseball cap to the formal (frontal) position. Two small children to my right quit folding their programs into paper fighter jets as the overture began. Seattle, you should be so lucky. The plight of the smaller theaters in Seattle is the pleasure of the smaller theaters in Portland. The nearly full house in PSU's Lincoln Hall (top ticket price: $25!) was as engaged as any Oprah live audience, fed by a young cast of opera singers giddy on the care and feeding of a worldly, wise artistic director. That would be the visiting Tito Capobianco, a charismatic Argentinean tough guy who founded the Juilliard Opera Center and served as artistic director of the Cincinnati and San Diego opera companies before joining the Pittsburgh Opera. He retired in 2000 after 17 years in Pittsburgh, reputation firmly in place as a creative and controlling director as well as a savvy fundraiser. Capobianco has been in residence this year as a visiting prof for opera in PSU's School of Fine and Performing Arts, pushing, cajoling, and motivating his eager students. I asked an opera-loving friend who sat in on a Capobianco master class at PSU to describe what she saw: This handsome ham – he's 75 – was teaching PSU opera singers how to be passionate Italians, on stage. He provided needed psychological support for the young folks while showing them that they had to "let their voices run the show, let their bodies follow the voice." He mimicked actions and arias as he guided – or tossed – the singers into depicting seduction in many forms. The startled kids learned fast. The members of the Cosi cast, some of them already owning strong resumes, have indeed learned from the master. The PSU production of Cosi fan tutte, which runs through Saturday, May 5, builds on their strengths, depicting young love as equal parts drama and mischief. Mozart's Così fan tutte is opera buffa, completed by the master in 1790 after work on it was abandoned by Antonio Salieri. It is the tale of two couples and a farcical test of the women's fidelity while their soldier beaus are away. (Its title translates as "Thus do all" – meaning, all women cheat, or "The School for Lovers," as it was for this production). The PSU Opera interpretation is more romp than the deeper analysis of intimate relationships attempted in some grander productions, with amusing sets, including garlanded swings (and, alas, a see-saw; the next sound you hear is Wolfgang rolling over in his grave). Near-slapstick byplay by the cast delighted the audience. Two casts alternate in this production. On this night, the soprano leads were strong, meshing beautifully with each other. Allison Armerding was a clever Fiordiligi and Anna Viemeister her wary, often wonderfully funny sister Dorabella. Baritone Sojourn Breneiser (Guglielmo) and tenor Wesley Rogers (Ferrando) are both strong, seasoned performers whose warm, measured interpretations did not overshadow others, as they might have. Costumes designed by a duo from Indiana University Jacobs School of Music are perfect, from the sisters' flounced gowns to the wacky sheik-wear disguises of the "Albanian" visitors–the suitors disguised to trick their ladies. The acoustics in Lincoln Hall are not fabulous, tending toward muffling singers while magnifying thumps and bumps of set changes, sometimes during arias. More seriously, a proposed $29 million package of overdue work on the heavily used hall – and we're talking toilets and roof, not foofy stuff – got Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski's support earlier this year, but then lawmakers slashed his high-ed capital projects budget. The wrangling isn't over, and PSU development types are working phones and picking brains for ways to get the deferred maintenance funding restored – and find ways to cover rising operational expenses too. Interested members of the local musical community are watching to see how such money hunts and other challenges play out, PSU's fine arts program having now gone through what one insider terms its musical-chairs phase. Barbara A. Sestak, longtime PSU faculty member and University of Washington-trained architect, took over as dean of the fine arts school this year, and her workload is diverse to say the least. The university's MFA program has quietly matured over nearly four decades, deepening a roster of graduates who teach, exhibit, and perform well-regarded work here, as well as far beyond the Northwest. Sestak has been a promoter of enhanced dance, film, and graphic arts studies and must also invigorate connections with city arts organizations, all while serving the mixed grill of quality arts education alongside affordable, enjoyable entertainment for audiences used to flocking to campus. An up note: Jeannine B. Cowles, a retired performer and longtime PSU opera angel (who also funds the visiting professorship presently enjoyed by Capobianco) has made a challenge gift of $500,000 linked to the School of Fine and Performing Arts raising another $1 million in opera endowment funds – with the donor gifting $100,000 as each $200,000 is raised by PSU. If the Cosi audience is any measure, there should be no difficulty finding willing givers.


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