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27 Feb 2019

Mozart: Così fan tutte - Royal Opera House

Così fan tutte is, primarily, an ensemble opera and it sinks or swims on the strength of its sextet of singers - and this performance very much swam. In a sense, this is just as well because Jan Phillip Gloger’s staging (revived here by Julia Burbach) is in turns messy, chaotic and often confusing. The tragedy of this Così is that it’s high art clashing with Broadway; a theatre within an opera and a deceit wrapped in a conundrum.

Così fan tutte: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Gyula Orendt as Guglielmo, Thomas Allen as Don Alfonso, Paolo Fanale as Ferrando

Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey

 

Sir Thomas Beecham was probably over-egging it a little when he described Così fan tutte as resembling “a long summer day spent in a cloudless land by a southern sea”. Very little - actually none - of that comes across in this production, but there is something to be said for the lithe, effortless way in which the conductor, Stefano Montanari, keeps the music moving. The delicacy of Mozart’s scoring, the beautiful - almost tangy - woodwind phrasing were played like lyrical instrumental waves rippling through the orchestra. This had the benefit of focusing attention on Mozart’s glorious ensembles and arias which sounded fresh enough to leap off the pages of the score - and there was no lack of soul-searching in many of the solos. Beecham may have been right after all.

Cosi 2 2019.jpgPaolo Fanale as Ferrando, Serena Malfi as Dorabella. Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

I’ve always rather sided with those - perhaps an unfashionable view to hold these days - who find the libretto and plot of Così slightly weak and rather concocted. Given the length of the opera, Mozart - rather uncharacteristically - doesn’t develop the motives of fidelity and honour completely satisfactorily. But that is not to say there aren’t complex attitudes towards femininity and love because there are. Gloger’s production does little to enlighten us, however. There is perhaps some truth in the view that Mozart was a largely theatrical composer when he came to writing his operas so Gloger’s idea of setting the whole work in Alfonso’s ‘theatre’ seems a logical extension of this. But that overwhelming ambition Gloger has to be theatrical glosses over what is so disturbing about this opera. Often, I thought I was sitting through scenes from a Comedy of Errors or a Midsummer Night’s Dream. Gloger’s production is so literally theatrical it forgets that Così is a heavily ambivalent opera, almost a little unnerving in its treatment of women. It’s such a comic tour de force (and this production is very funny, the play between Orendt’s Guglielmo and Fanale’s Ferrando almost recalling Laurel and Hardy at times) that self-knowledge is either taken for granted or simply elided over altogether.

For Gloger, Don Alfonso’s theatre is viewed entirely as an experiment, a laboratory in which to match-make and explore the complexities of love and fidelity. Arguably, his reasoning has as much to do with the psychology of the process as it does with the emotional circumstances of it but it’s the very concept of the multiple scene changes which makes the whole production such a chaotic - and often crowded - flop. It begins off stage from one of the opera boxes which, depending on your point of view, either draws the audience in, or does the opposite; likewise, a tendency to place the scenery to the forefront pushes the singers too far forward for no demonstrable purpose other than to make the production seem small in scale. Proscenium arches give height, but they’re often so bleak - a simple black brick wall, for example - that the singers seem to be squeezed into the centre of them as if you’re watching them on a television screen. A railway station with a vast clock is almost occluded in smoke; a brightly lit steel-framed cocktail bar (rather better done by Bieito, I seem to remember), a semi-wilting tree with an unconvincing serpent wrapped around it didn’t really convince me. Muscled stage hands, with tattoos, or cigarettes between their lips, shifting scenery or drawing up backdrops merely add to the clutter.

Where the production has a strength is that it advances the contemporaneous nature of relationships from its original setting. The idea that a modern day Così might demonstrate that couplings can be torn apart by infidelity and betrayal isn’t revolutionary but Gloger stops short of being truly shocking as Bieito (in his Don Giovanni) didn’t. Gloger’s Guglielmo ends up becoming a slightly tragic figure for whom love is an empty vacuum; Ferrando comes closest to the ideal of faithfulness but only because he recognizes he is in danger of abandoning it altogether. Dorabella doesn’t seem to know what she wants. Fiordiligi becomes the most deceitful and confused of all. Alfonso’s experiment might be seen as the masterful duplicity and manipulation that it is - just as Despina’s disguises are masks of elaborate confusion. All of these aspects of love collide and entangle in this production even if you don’t necessarily grasp it by the end.

Serena Malfi as Dorabella.jpgSerena Malfi as Dorabella. Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

In a way, it’s quite surprising given how I generally didn’t warm to the production how riveting I found much of singing. Much of this was beautifully sung - and exquisitely - if perhaps - a little over-acted. Così fan tutte undeniably contains some of Mozart’s most ravishing music and the casting here was nigh ideal in balancing the voice colours. There was some unanimity in the bass-baritone of Gyula Orendt’s Guglielmo and the tenor Paolo Fanale’s Ferrando - the parallels of warmth and contrast to the voices were like the equivalent of a harmonious echo. Salome Jicia’s Fiordiligi was gloriously pitched, Serena Malfi’s Dorabella a little more understated - but rich enough and fully convincing. Thomas Allen’s voice has waned a little - but no one sings the role of Alfonso with more irony, or sheer joy - and today there are just hints of tragic overtones to it. Serena Gamberoni’s Despina was a glorious portrait in wit and soubrette and deliciously funny.

That richness in Serena Malfi’s voice was magnificent in ‘Smanie implacabili’ - taken with a beautiful soaring line and an almost tragic intensity. Stefano Montanari tended to drive the music fast - especially in Act I - so if Malfi were intent on bringing some added depth to her singing it wasn’t always apparent. The prominence that Montanari gave to the woodwind, however, was often a sublime foil against the warmer richness of Malfi’s voice - even at these brisk tempos. Oddly, he seemed to slow down for Ferrando’s ‘Un’aura amarosa’ which was perhaps the highlight of Act I. The sheer beauty, the beguiling tonal colour, the careful phrasing and the ability to hold the most exquisitely shaped pianissimo were simply jaw-dropping. It’s the only time throughout the opera you felt a singer was entirely drawing the audience into this rather self-destructive world - a quite magical moment. If there was a wonderful serenity to much of Fanale’s singing - and he never really felt constrained by the intensely lyrical size of his tenor voice - Orendt’s Guglielmo rather revelled in the vast comic scale of his arias. It’s not just that the voice is so large, but it’s that it also has such a developed and innate sense of character. The voice can sound mocking one moment - almost like a foil to Thomas Allen’s Don Alfonso - but the next it seems to imitate the orchestra - how some of Orendt’s notes rang out against some of the brass fanfares, as if in a comic duet, was thrilling. Salome Jicia was colossal in her ‘Fra gli amplessi pochi astanti’ - thrilling in her high notes and riding over the orchestra, somehow seeking to assert her dominance over both the men as her prospective lovers.

Stefano Montanari - making his house debut - managed to get the Royal Opera House orchestra to play with a lightness of touch which was admirable. The opening to Act II can - in the wrong hands - sound like a Bruckner adagio and Montanari came close to making it do so. But at his best, which was much of the time, this was a performance of the score that was fleet and, shrewdly, highlighted individual instruments within the orchestra. There was a period feel to all this - without it overtly being one.

Covent Garden’s Così fan tutte is one that is predominantly rescued by the singing and conducting; it would, largely, sink without a trace if that weren’t the case.

Marc Bridle

Paolo Fanale - Ferrando, Gyula Orendt - Guglielmo, Thomas Allen - Don Alfonso, Salome Jicia - Fiordiligi, Serena Malfi - Dorabella, Serena Gamberoni - Despina; Jan Phillip Gloger - Director, Stefano Montanari - Conductor, Julia Burbach - Revival Director, Ben Bauer - Set Designer, Karin Jud - Costume Designer, Bernd Purkrabek - Lighting Designer, Royal Opera House Orchestra & Chorus.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; 25th February 2019.

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