In opera as in many other pursuits, there sometimes is no choice to but to do whatever has to be done to keep things moving. Opera Carolina had to switch to that emergency mode for "Cosi fan tutte."
During the rehearsals for Mozart's comedy, one of the principals - tenor Robert Mack, who was a fireball in 2004 as Sportin' Life in "Porgy and Bess" - came down with a cold. There wasn't a backup at hand, because only the largest opera companies, a category that does not include Charlotte's, can afford that. As opening night drew perilously near, Mack's cold hung on. Opera Carolina finally had to fly in a backup. He arrived Saturday morning.
That left Tenor 2 - Jason Karn, who played Cassio in Verdi's "Otello" here last spring - no time to learn the staging. So, before the Belk Theater curtain went up Saturday night, a voice on the public-address system explained the situation: Mack, despite his cold, would give it a try. But Karn would be ready if needed to sing from the orchestra pit, with Mack going through the motions onstage.
Bizarre though that may sound, it was far from unheard-of as a solution. So the show went on, and Mozart's humor and soul came across better than you might be guessing for so dicey a situation.
Yes, backup Karn did eventually have to pipe up. But the ailment that dimmed Mack's voice didn't sap the energy he put into Mozart's action - the story of two young men who put on disguises and test their sweethearts' faithfulness. Everyone else was a much a trouper as he. Whatever jitters his situation gave the rest of the cast - and however strange it was to react to a character whose body was onstage but whose voice sometimes came from the pit - they didn't let it show.
Stage director Bernard Uzan moved the action from the 18th century to around 1930. That put the women in airier dresses and the men in more dashing military uniforms, and it helped the hijinks and passions seem more modern - as least as much as in golden-age-of-Hollywood romantic comedies that show up on TV. Given the time period, the lacy framework that was Brian Perchaluk's set suggested an early 1900s palm court.
Uzan's staging included liberal amounts of comic shenanigans. But when the masquerade began affecting the characters' feelings, Uzan put gags away and let the cast focus on the emotion in Mozart's music. Caitlin Lynch, playing Fiordiligi - the girlfriend who resists temptation longest - sang with a lyricism and commitment that were especially telling.
Lynch and Elizabeth Stannard, who played Dorabella, the more impulsive girlfriend, had lighter voices than some singers who perform these roles. But that played up the characters' youthfulness. And the two singers still gave the music spirit and warmth.
When Mack's voice was cooperating - and eventually with Karn's help - he and baritone Marian Pop made a vigorous pair as the young men whose test of their girlfriends spins out of their control. And there was another vigorous pair at work: Kristopher Irmiter as Don Alfonso, who bets the men that their sweethearts won't be faithful, and Sarah Callinan as Despina, the chambermaid who prods the women not to be faithful.
James Meena and the Charlotte Symphony generally had a breeziness that prevented any onstage shtick from weighing Mozart down. They also treated the music's lyricism to a mellowness and glow to a that should have shown anyone new to "Cosi" - which hasn't been performed in Charlotte in around 20 years - that it holds some of Mozart's most seductive music. No wonder the women in the story give in.
The one odd thing was that Meena didn't bring Karn to Mack's aid earlier - especially when Mack faltered in his aria, which challenges even a healthy singer. Mack forged ahead, singing most of it in a mere wisp of falsetto. But he at least had moral support from Pop, seated next to him on a bench, who put an encouraging hand on Mack's back as he sang. It was a nice collegial touch.