Music review
In Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, gifts and candlelight are not enough remedy to repair the fallen human race. You watch two beautiful female specimens of humanity fall at the hands of the wily shyster Don Alfonso (Aaron Stegemöller) and then the true remedy becomes apparent: abiding faith and love.

Oak Park’s American Opera Group opened “They’re All Like That, or The School for Lovers” Sunday in the pseudo-school auditorium surroundings of the Arts Center. The small but dedicated crowd learned all about the human condition-how, in Mozart’s school, in spite of the raw and flagrant duplicity that breaks faith and breaks hearts, love doesn’t seek perfection as its object. The glitterati were not among this crowd-apparently they would have to lower themselves to sit on creaky wooden seats and sip soda from machines at intermission. Instead this was a crowd of obvious friends and fans, and perhaps even family, of the cast, who clapped fervently after every aria. (Yes, it’s OK to clap in the middle of an opera.)

And there was plenty to clap about in this production by AOG founder and artistic director R. Paul Williams, starting with the unlikely role of Despina. Sung by Ashlee Hardgrave, she is a sly, voluptuous and, in this production, wickedly funny servant. Leave it to Mozart to designate the lowest-ranking member of the cast as the power-broker. Hargrave is ham enough enough for a holiday dinner, her acting, and over-acting, just as fine as her singing, which appears effortlessly natural, providing a cunning complement to the leading ladies.

Don’t be put off by the ragazzi-or young women, Dorabella (Karen Doerr) and Fiordiligi (Rebecca Davis)-singing Italian. Clear in any language, Dori and Fiordi pledge like stones to stand faithful to their lovers in the opening scene. Both women are solid vocally and portray invincible character (at least in Act 1) through their deportment and easy delivery of flamboyant vocal lines.

But what are they all like, if “They are All Like That?” Without spoiling the three-and-a-half-hour story, which I really do recommend sitting through, let me say that the plot of “Cosi” is nothing; the real story is the inner struggle of human character. Would she or wouldn’t she? Should I or shouldn’t I? Rebecca Davis is particularly captivating as she resists the temptations to indulge her passion for the mysterious Turkish suitor, who is really her lover in disguise, at her knees. Emanuel Caraman and Benjamin Copeland vividly serve up confusion and rage over the behavior of their girls.

In the hands of a lesser talent, such mental agitations would peter out on stage, and especially with a cast of only six. No grand distractions or Aida-style elephants here (which I’m told will appear on screen at the Lake Theatre today). In Mozart’s hands, the invisible temptations are palpable and the pacing of the psychological conflicts is seamlessly pieced together by the orchestral writing.

The success of this production owes much to conductor J. David tech, who kept up with all of the brisk changes in mood and tempo very adeptly. In authentic 18th-century style, he both conducted the 20-piece orchestra and accompanied the recitatives himself at the harpsichord. While his coordination with the singers was excellent, one could ask the technical support for much better synchronization between surtitles and voices. Sometimes text was projected before the singer entered and distracted from the action on stage.

One by one, AOG is surmounting the challenges of producing great operatic treasures, in spite of strapped resources and the clunky arrangement of the Arts Center’s small stage. The singers and instrumentalists are in place. Next they should take on costumes, sets and the program, which sported way too many typos. The four lovers in Cosi appear dressed for the high-school prom and the back-up chorus appears to have shopped at the Salvation Army. The set is little more than tables and chairs, with a few trees that might say “Christmas” if you stretched it. Even this simple set, a few photos and fruit required what seemed to be interminable thudding scene changes that dreadfully brought the action to a halt.

But background aside, nothing could steal your attention from the humor and power at the heart of this love story. So go on out for the holidays, and have yourself a merry little opera.

American Opera repeats Cosi fan tutte, Dec. 7 and 8 at 7:30 p.m. at the Oak Park Arts Center, 200 N. Oak Park Ave. For tickets ($12-$52) go to www.americanoperagroup.org or call 708/434-0485.

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