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Garsington Opera Pavilion [Photo by Clive Barda]
08 Jun 2015

Cosi fan tutte, Garsington Opera

Mozart and Da Ponte’s Cosi fan tutte provides little in the way of background or back story for the plot, thus allowing directors to set the piece in a variety settings.

Cosi fan tutte, Garsington Opera

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: Garsington Opera Pavilion [Photo by Clive Barda]


Though the opera is extremely popular, modern taste has problems with the deliberate artifice of the theatrical concept used and many directors nowadays choose to adjust the ending, moving the plot towards greater realism. For his debut production at Garsington Opera, director John Fulljames chose to set the Cosi fan tutte (seen 7 June 2015) in a milieu which would be familiar to many of the audience, a contemporary country house wedding. The lovers were played by a nicely balanced quartet of young singers, Andreea Soare, Kathryn Rudge, Robin Tritschler and Ashley Riches, with Lesley Garrett as Despina and Neal Davies as Don Alfonso. Designs were by Dick Bird, lighting by Bruno Poet and choreography by Tim Claydon. Douglas Boyd, artistic director of Garsington Opera, conducted the Garsington Opera Orchestra.

The opera opened with something of a visual coup, the wedding breakfast at a country house wedding. The men, including the groom, were largely from Ferrando and Guglielmo’s regiment, including Don Alfonso who seemed to be their colonel. The bride and most of the young women were in fancy dress, in elaborate 18th century costumes. During the overture the party broke up and dancing, formal at first, started.

This was the context for the whole production. John Fulljames and Dick Bird might have re-set it in modern Britain, but had clearly read the libretto and the entire action took place within one day. This was one of those weddings from hell which go one interminably and everyone gets drunk, with much hi-jinks from the young men of the regiment. For the second act, the marquee had been re-configured slightly but this was a simple and elegant solution to creating a fluid flow of scenes within Garsington Opera’s rather limited stage facilities. And the production did flow. John Fulljames ensured that the action moved along, and scenes flowed into each other, whilst Douglas Boyd’s speeds with crisp to the point of briskness.

However, John Fulljames gave the opening pair of scenes an entirely new context by having them played ensemble. The discussion and wager between Don Alfonso (Neal Davies), Ferrando (Robin Tritschler) and Guglielmo (Ashley Riches) played out in front of the whole company including Fiordiligi (Andreea Soare) and Kathryn Rudge (Dorabella). The two women’s scene (intended by Mozart and Da Ponte as a complementary pair to the first) was played almost as a revenge for this, with Ferrando and Guglielmo acting as unwilling, live portraits. This, combined with Neal Davies’ slightly aggressive manner as Don Alfonso, put rather a nasty, knowing edge on the whole construct.

Thereafter the action unfolded pretty much as the libretto requested, except that very rarely were people alone; this was a wedding so much wandering about happened and the principals tended to constantly eaves drop on each other. Lesley Garrett’s Despina was more wedding planner than maid, and the mesmer scene at the end of Act 1 was played straighter than usual with Lesley Garrett as a St John’s Ambulance woman wielding a defibrillator.

The production set up multiple layers of artifice over the top of, and deliberately obscuring, the theatrical artifice of the plot. The women played Act 1 in their 18th century costumes complete with huge wigs whilst the men’s formal regimental dress had a timeless element and by re-setting the first two scenes it was unclear quite who was knowing what about whom. The male lovers’ Albanian disguise was in fact sub Vivienne Westwood of 20 years ago, with a pair of nasty wigs and some very fake facial hair, some of which deliberately came off during the women’s first meeting with the Albanian. The garden for the Act 2 serenade was an entirely artificial grotto constructed within the marquee.

Though in one area there was no artifice, the ‘token’ that Guglielmo receives from Dorabella was in fact a pair of panties, but this simply reflected the level of smut and corny sex-related gags in the production (Despina and a young man disappearing under a table, which shuddered perpetually during Don Alfonso’s following scene).

One of the problems, of course, with Cosi fan tutte was that within a plot full of the traditional artifice of opera buffa, Mozart introduced many elements from opera seria so that arias like Fiordiligi’s ‘Come scoglio’ are moments of pure serious opera. One of the joys of the production was the high level of the musical performance. All four of the young lovers, Andreea Soare, Kathryn Rudge, Robin Tritschler and Ashley Riches sang with a combination of style and technical precision. All produced extremely creditable elaborate passage-work even at the fast-ish tempos.

Romanian soprano Andreea Soare made a charming Fiordiligi, rather more girlish and less severe than sometimes. She and mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge made a lovely balanced pair with the two reflecting each other rather than being complementary. Their voices blended well, with Andreea Soare having a lovely warm soprano with a nicely rich middle range though the tone suffered at the very lower end of the tessitura. Both sisters skittishly egged each other on, and it was only when the going got tough in Act 2 that Andreea Soare’s Fiordiligi brought out the character’s uncertainty. Her account of ‘Come scoglio’ (with its taxing leaps) was technically very strong, notable for its fluid flexibility and the way the aria seem less severe than usual. Kathryn Rudge was a complete delight as Dorabella. If Fiordiligi was less severe than usual, Dorabella was perhaps less skittish. Kathryn Rudge executed both arias with a lovely casualness, for all their technical complexity, making them less statements and simply part of the natural flow.

Robin Tritschler and Ashley Riches were more obviously contrasting, in terms of their voices and their characters. Robin Tritschler’s Ferrando was the quieter one, with moments of uncertainty and a certain callowness underlying the sometimes brash manner. This was allied to Robin Tritschler familiar lyric tenor voice with which he caressed the tenor line beautifully, making ‘Un’aura amorosa’ almost heart-stoppingly beautiful, particularly the pianissimo second verse. Ashley Riches’ Guglielmo was the more brash one, almost a braggart and Ashley Riches used his remarkable dark baritone to strongly characterful effect. His account of ‘Non siate ritrosi’ was a comic delight as he elucidated his many charms (making one particular one very clear). Though the voice is quite dark, there was no lack of flexibility with an admirably free top. The two made a strong double act, clearly having fun on stage as the Albanians.

But the singers’ performances ensured that we recognised the real emotional damage of the action. As Act 2 progressed the tint of the evening got darker, there was no stinting here on the underlying hurt that the games make, something Mozart’s music makes abundantly clear.

Despina is a role that Lesley Garrett has sung extensively earlier in her career though her recent appearances in opera have been relatively few. It is clear that the middle of the voice is not what it was, and the recitative relied rather heavily on comic timing rather than accuracy of notes. Overall she gave a bravura comic performance whose impact, frankly, was more visual than aural.

Neal Davies was an unregenerate cynic as Don Alfonso, with the wedding bringing out the worst in him and being the regiment’s colonel was obviously a reason for the two young men obeying him. I would have liked more back story, why is he like this. The cynicism seemed to affect Neal Davies musically as his performance, though accurate, seemed to have a harder edge than usual. This was a highly believable performance, but certainly not the most likeable.

The young chorus sang their role beautifully and clearly had a great time during the rest of the opera, with the young men lurching drunkenly around the gardens at various times.

In the pit, Douglas Boyd and the Garsington Opera Orchestra made brilliant work of Mozart’s score. But though speeds were on the faster side, it was never too driven and you felt Boyd was allowing time for the music to shape. The various instrumental solos which Mozart’s gives the orchestra members were all finely done. We had a lively, but not intrusive, forte-piano and cello continuo from Andrew G Smith and Jane Fenton.

The production is a co-production with Bucharest National Opera and I do wonder what the audience in Bucharest will make of all the hi-jinks at a typical British country house wedding.

For the ending, John Fulljames seems to have followed his instincts for realism, and we were left in no doubt that there was no resolution, with neither of the possible pairings happening and all the characters left alone. A very modern solution but surely no one which Mozart would have appreciated.

I have to confess that John Fulljames sense of detail in the production did get a bit wearing after a bit. The sense of realism even extended to Andrea Soare and Kathryn Rudge being dressed in costumes supposedly made last minute from bits of the furnishings of the marquee. I would have preferred the setting to have been somewhat calmer and simpler. Whilst John Fulljames and Douglas Boyd elicited fine performances from all the singers, rather than illuminating this complex and subtle opera, the setting seemed to reduce it. The evening was redeemed, however, by the strong musical performances.

Robert Hugill

Cast and production information:

Fiordiligi: Andreea Soara, Dorabella: Kathryn Rudge, Ferrando: Robin Tritschler, Guglielmo: Ashley Riches, Despina: Lesley Garrett, Don Alfonso: Neal Davies. Director: John Fulljames, conductor: Douglas Boyd, designer: Dick Bird, lighting: Bruno Poet, choreographer: Tim Claydon. Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 7 June 2015.

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