Archive for May 21, 2011

Cosi fan tutte

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on May 21, 2011 by telescoper

It’s been a long time since I posted an opera review. That’s because neither of the operas offered by Welsh National Opera earlier this year appealed to me very much and since then I’ve been too busy doing other things to take in an opera anywhere else. However, the summer season of WNO has now started so now at last there’s something of an operatic nature to write about. In fact, I was lucky enough to get tickets for the first night of WNO’s new production of Così fan tutte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and duly went along yesterday evening. The Millennium Centre was pretty full – as you’d expect for a first night of an enduringly popular opera.

In case you weren’t aware, Così fan tutte is a masterpiece of comic opera (or, technically speaking, opera buffa) written in collaboration with Lorenzo da Ponte who also wrote the libretti for Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro. The title can be loosely translated as “That’s how all women behave”; the -e on “tutte” indicates a feminine plural. The plot -such as it is – revolves around two pays of lovers: Guglielmo, who is engaged to Fiordiligi, and Ferrando, who is engaged to Fiordiligi’s sister, Dorabella. Both Guglielmo and Ferrando are sailors. All four are friends with the scheming Don Alfonso, who orchestrates the unfolding events, presumably for his own amusement.

Don Alfonso suggests to Ferrando and Guglielmo that their beloved fiancées are not as faithful as they seem to imagine and the three agree a wager. Ferrando and Guglielmo pretend that they’ve been called up for active service. Don Alfonso joins Fiordiligi and Dorabella in the sumptuous trio Soave sia il vento as the men appear to sail off for battle. The ladies are heartbroken and pledge fidelity to their departed lovers. However, the two sailors soon return in disguise in order to attempt their seduction. After various goings-on the men succeed in seducing each others fiancees and a mock wedding is staged. The marriage is interrupted by the sound of the sailors’ return. After the quickest of quick changes the two men re-appear without their disguises and confront their unfaithful women. Don Alfonso has won his bet.

Like all opera buffa the plot sounds faintly ridiculous – which it is – but of course the key to its success as a piece is not just the comic action, but also the gorgeous music which carries it along. In this particular opera there’s almost no end to the musical loveliness as Mozart has each principal singing alone, and in combinations of twos and threes. Mozart’s writing for two, three or four voices is truly wonderful to listen to, and there are many fine examples of such in this opera.

In this production Guglielmo and Ferrando are sailors who are stationed in a British seaside resort, complete with promenade, pier, Punch & Judy show and Italian ice-cream parlour (named Botticelli‘s). This setting takes  it quite a long way downmarket  compared to the original location of Naples, especially when the Butlins-style redcoats appear, and this is carried through to the much coarser way the comedy is handled than you find in many productions of this piece. This approach does provide enjoyable moments of slapstick hilarity but also causes some difficulties.

For example, it is key to this opera that the character of Don Alfonso has to have some sort of power over the four main protagonists. In other words, it has to be credible that they believe what he says and go along with his suggestions. In this production, however, Don Alfonso is meant to be a “local pier entertainer” – in fact he actually looks more like Flash Harry. I found it hard to accept that anyone would believe anything that this particularly dodgy spiv had to say, and his interaction with the two ladies in particular lacked all credibility.

Another thing I didn’t like was the way the opening of the piece was handled. Like most of Mozart’s operas, Così fan tutte is blessed with a splendid overture, perhaps not as brilliant the other Da Ponte operas but full of playful exuberance and very much worth listening to. You can call me old-fashioned, but I do like to hear the overture, preferably with an empty stage or with the curtain down. In this production, however, as soon as the overture started, the stage began to fill with various extras doing various (admittedly comic) things. A particularly funny sequence of people walking dogs backwards and forwards got a huge laugh, but which drowned out the music entirely. What a waste.

I suppose the overall point I’m trying to make is that this production tried too hard to get cheap laughs. It’s just not necessary to milk it like that – it’s funny enough anyway!

However, these are relatively small objections. I’ll temper them by adding that some of the comedy in this production is inspired. Ferrando wore a false nose that made him look like Barry Manilow and Guglielmo’s false moustache gave him the appearance of Comrade Stalin. The latter looked particularly louche in white tennis shorts and ghastly red blazer.

Neal Davies (baritone) was Don Alfonso, amusingly played but lacking the deep sonority in his voice really needed to carry the role off. Ferrando was played by Robin Tritschler (tenor), whose light agile voice is ideal.  Gary Griffiths (baritone) as Guglielmo was outstanding, with an excellent voice and obvious flair for the comic touches. Fiordiligi (Camilla Roberts) and Dorabella (Helen Lepalaan) were also good. Despina – a waitress in Botticelli’s ice-cream parlour and Don Alfonso’s accomplice (often in disguise) – was pert and feisty but her voice lacked projection; at times she was barely audible.

Anyway, in view of the fact that the comedy dog-walking interfered with last night’s overture I thought I’d end  by posting a version here. I love the way that little phrase is thrown around among the wind instruments!