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Julia Riley as Dorabella and Elizabeth Llewellyn as Fiordiligi [Photo by Fritz Curzon courtesy of Opera Holland Park]
11 Jun 2012

Così fan tutte, Holland Park

Are my expectations too high when it comes to Mozart’s operas in general, and to Così fan tutte in general? Probably. Should they be? Certainly.

W. A. Mozart: Così fan tutte

Fiordiligi: Elizabeth Llewellyn; Dorabella: Julia Riley; Ferrando: Andrew Staples; Guglielmo: Dawid Kimberg; Despina: Joana Seara; Alfonso: Nicholas Garrett. Director: Harry Fehr; Designs: Alex Eales; Lighting: Colin Grenfell. City of London Sinfonia/Thomas Kemp (conductor). Holland Park, London, Friday 8 June 2012.

Above: Julia Riley as Dorabella and Elizabeth Llewellyn as Fiordiligi

Photos by Fritz Curzon courtesy of Opera Holland Park


For the problem remains, as I have doubtless said far too many times before, Mozart’s music, and not just his operas, requires but one thing: perfection. It is the most unsparing music of all, with nowhere, but nowhere, to hide. Every note must be considered and sounded both in itself and in connection to every other. Place a wrong or even slightly excessive accent upon a single note and the fault will be glaringly magnified; misjudge a tempo, which is not to say that there is only one ‘correct’ tempo, and the entire apple-cart will be upset. However, conduct Così fan tutte like Sir Colin Davis — or rather, as Sir Colin Davis — and it is an experience that will remain with an audience for the rest of its life, opening doors one had never expected to be there in the first place.

Yes, the comparison is odious, but Thomas Kemp — a name new to me though his biography suggests considerable experience in houses across Europe and beyond — is no Colin Davis. I have heard worse, most obviously from the aggressively ‘authenticke’ brigade; Kemp did not seem actively to be trying to make Mozart’s music sound unpleasant. Nevertheless, on this evidence, he is not a conductor who could claim any particular or even general sympathy with Mozart. The opening bars of the Overture were taken far too fast; thereafter, far too many numbers never hit upon the just tempo. (It is worth repeating at this point that I do not for a moment think there is one ‘correct’ tempo; the trick is to make whatever is chosen sound right, to perform with conviction, sympathy, understanding, and of course, a sense of connection to a greater whole.) ‘Smanie implacibilie’ was breathless in quite the wrong way. Other sections of the score dragged, not so much because they were slow — I doubt that anything was as ravishingly, heart-stoppingly lingering as Davis would so often nowadays present it — but because the tempo seemed arbitrary, applied from without, with little connection to anything else, above all with little or no sense of harmonic motion.

The City of London Sinfonia played decently, though the strings could tend somewhat towards the anonymous. (At least they lacked the acerbic nature of a ‘period’ orchestra.) For the most part, as so often in Mozart, it was the woodwind section that most delighted; there was some fine work indeed here from a number of principals. The kettledrums, however, were often bizarrely prominent, not helped by the employment of hard sticks. Karl Böhm would have rolled in his grave.

Cosi2012-243a.gif(Left-Right) Nicholas Garrett as Alfonso, Elizabeth Llewellyn as Fiordiligi, Andrew Staples as Ferrando, Joana Seara as Despina, Julia Riley as Dorabella and Dawid Kimberg as Guglielmo

Had they been supported by a more sympathetic conductor, the cast of young singers would doubtless have appeared in a stronger light. As it was, there was nothing really to which one could object, but there remained a sense that things might have been better. (Perhaps that will dissipate during the run; first nights are rarely the best time to catch singers in particular.) Elizabeth Llewellyn, whom I admired greatly last year at Holland Park as the Countess, delivered what was probably the strongest performance overall, as Fiordiligi. The beauty of her tone-production could not be gainsaid, though her diction was sometimes, for instance in ‘Per pietà’, occluded. Julia Riley’s Dorabella sometimes lacked focus, though when that was achieved, showed considerable promise. Hers was a forthright portrayal, doubtless in part so as to achieve greater contrast with Fiordiligi, but was it sometimes excessively so? There second act duet between the two veered dangerously close to crudity on Dorabella’s part. Andrew Staples’s tone is very much of the ‘English tenor’ variety. I was not always convinced that this served Ferrando so well, but it is a very difficult role to get right; in other cases, often one ends up thinking the music sounds too close to Puccini. ‘Un’ aura amoroso’ was beautifully sung, though there were times elsewhere when greater presence might have been achieved. Dawid Kimberg’s Guglielmo was blustering, swaggering even, able to call upon considerable vocal reserves. Joana Seara offered a lively Despina, though her tuning sometimes went a little awry. Nicholas Garrett, 2010’s Don Giovanni, presented an intelligent portrayal of Don Alfonso.

What of the production? It was, for the most part, difficult to say anything much about it at all. I do not doubt that it would have pleased self-proclaimed ‘traditionalists’, since the costumes were all impeccably, almost aggressively, ‘period’ — if hardly Neapolitan. Of course, Così is in no sense whatsoever ‘about’ eighteenth-century Naples, but the logic of the literalist position is that it must be. It was difficult to detect in Harry Fehr’s production any idea of what Così might be about, any attempt to probe beneath its painfully beautiful surfaces, or even to celebrate the pain upon the surface. We had a ‘period’ set, ‘period’ costumes, and that was really just about it. There was a nod to directorial cliché in placing an audience on stage, supposedly ‘reacting’ to the events witnessed, but have we not seen that sort of thing far too many times before? Such framing can be interesting, even refreshing: I think, for instance, of Nicholas Hytner’s production of Handel’s Serse for ENO. However, if the intention were to highlight the artificiality of the drama — the artificiality is absolutely necessary to permit Mozart’s agonising psychological explorations — then it failed to come across; it appeared instead rather more as an attempt to generate stage ‘business’ in the absence of any other ideas. That is, until, part way through the second act, Fehr suddenly decided to add a few more, which jarred hopelessly given the uninvolving nature of what we had seen hitherto. Ferrando was laughed at by members of the ‘audience’: it might have been movingly cruel, yet here simply came across as an intrusion upon the music. Fiordiligi took off her dress, put on a soldier’s uniform — a very odd, quasi-literalist interpretation of her attempt to persuade herself to find her (erstwhile) lover — and then had that taken off by Ferrando. (No need to worry: there was plenty beneath the dress and the uniform.) Such ‘action’ merely came across as a realisation, too late in the day, that nothing much had happened. This is, of course, an extremely difficult opera to direct, yet Lloyd-Evans barely seemed to have tried.

Mark Berry

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