Cosí fan tutte

Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte

Opera North

Leeds Grand Theatre

From 03 February 2016 to 26 February 2016

Review by Mark Smith

Cosí fan tutte’s plot is not especially complex, but this production’s programme nonetheless provides us with a schematic diagram of the pleasingly symmetrical relationships between the six players in this lightly farcical opera.

It resembles a crystalline molecular structure, and the concept of the scientific experiment is one which Tim Albery’s revived production grasps firmly in both design and interpretation.

Don Alfonso (William Dazeley) is the elderly instigator of the test. During the overture, he stands proudly in front of the towering, camera-like device which dominates Tobias Hoheisel’s set design.

Yet Dazeley offers just the slightest hint of a very unscholarly mischief in his portrayal. He makes a bet with officers Guglielmo (Gavan Ring) and Ferrando (Nicholas Watts) that their beloved Fiordiligi (Máire Flavin) and Dorabella (Helen Sherman) are no more faithful than any other women; the wager appears to be one part scientific exploration to two parts pride and impishness.

The front of this imposing scientific apparatus is eventually raised, revealing a stylishly minimalist representation of a drawing room, as if the characters are specimens to be scrutinised from a distance by the always-in-control Don Alfonso.

The plot involves the men pretending to go off to battle, then disguising themselves as exotic foreign gentlemen who instantly fall for the women, wooing them in an effort to prove to Don Alfonso that their women are unwooable.

As one line of the libretto has it: "this really is too silly." This production, like the arias themselves, wisely plays metatheatrical games with the implausibility of it all; but, while the performers look always like they’re having a whale of a time, they are also absolutely earnest and never resort to the infuriating mugging which might dog a self-referentially theatrical piece such as this.

The final node on the network is Despina (Ellie Laugharne), the worldly waiting-woman to the two ladies. Laugharne sings with clarity and great beauty, while also managing moments of comic impersonation and irony with style. She, like the rest of the company, moves around the space with an easeful grace, even while delivering the complex trios, quartets and full sextets.

Despina also gets to redress the gender balance somewhat, observing that men are "only as good as one another", in an echo of the earlier male trio of ‘così fan tutte’: "they (women) are all the same".

Gavan Ring as the slightly more braggart Guglielmo and Nicholas Watts’s at times more downbeat Ferrando make a fine double act, and their duets are stirring and comic.

Máire Flavin makes a striking debut with Opera North as Fiordiligi, who holds out the longer of the two sisters. Again, the duets with Helen Sherman’s Dorabella are pitched perfectly between the sincerity of emotion expressed by the music and the ironising comedy of the plot.

Jac van Steen conducts the orchestra through this emotional score with great skill, vigour and deftness of touch.

At times, though, I, as a relative novice in the opera world, yearned for the surtitles of untranslated opera. On occasions, the power of the orchestra or the complexity of the harmonising caused me difficulties in making out the exact verbal content of some of the piece. But even at those times, Mozart’s music in these commanding performances is passionate, witty and varied, giving great enjoyment in and of itself.

The climax of this staging amplifies the uneasiness with which Cosí tends to leave its audience—particularly those who feel that the women come off worse, as well as those who long to retain some trace of romanticism. We’re left with what’s often thought of as a very modern cynicism: though lovers like to think that all will end in joyful laughter, this experiment has shone a light on the scientific truth of the matter.