Cosi fan tutte

Opera Australia
State Theatre, Arts Centre, Melbourne, Australia

Off to war: Samuel Dundas (Guglielmo), Jane Ede (Fiordiligi), Richard Anderson (Don Alfonso), Anna Dowsley (Dorabella) and Pavel Petrov (Ferrando) Credit: Jeff Busby, Opera Australia
Taryn Fiebig (Despina) and Richard Anderson Credit: Jeff Busby, Opera Australia
Artful Albanians: Guglielmo and Ferrando woo Fiordiligi and Dorabella Credit: Jeff Busby, Opera Australia

For a century and more, Cosi fan tutte was rarely performed, not worthy of Mozart’s talent according to Beethoven, dismissed as frivolity by Wagner.

Then when its lovely music and wonderful ensembles forced it back onto the operatic stage, it was often presented as farce, the sillier the better. How often have I seen its Ferrando and Guglielmo dressed in ‘Albanian’ costumes ridiculous enough to raise a laugh—and depress the spirits.

This terrific David McVicar production restores the piece to what it should be, a darkish comedy about what it is to be young and in love, about male egos and female sensibilities, and with a delightful twist in the tail.

He sets the piece in the carefree Italian Riviera just before World War One. The above-named soldiers are in the officers’ mess and confidently take on a bet from the old sceptic Don Alfonso to prove the faithfulness of their loves, Dorabella and Fiordiligi. This being opera, and Italy, things do not go to plan.

One of the marvels of Cosi is that it is a three-hour piece of constant invention for just three couples: the lovers, the Don (a gravelly, magisterially-bearded Richard Anderson) and the maid Despina, a tough cookie with a very modern attitude to sex, sparkily played by Taryn Fiebig.

The many duets and ensembles are the backbone of the opera, opening with the beautiful trio "Soave sia il vento" with soprano Jane Ede’s Fiordiligi combining perfectly with mezzo Anna Dowsley’s Dorabella and Anderson. There's a wash of soft waves in the orchestra, as they wish their supposedly departing soldier boys a smooth voyage. It’s all a delicious piece of musical make-believe, of course, as we know they are being fooled by their mischievous mates.

Ede was particularly impressive in her two big, tricky and contrasting arias, combining vocal control and dramatic coherence in those giant leaps in register in "Come scoglio", then a prayer-like intensity in "Per Pieta". During the latter, conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson elicited whispering comments from the orchestra with particularly delicate embellishments from the French horns.

Dowsley has a voice to warm any weary traveller and brings a personality to match in her ebullient, skittish, adorable Dorabella.

Tenor Pavel Petrov and baritone Samuel Dundas play Ferrando and Guglielmo are young bucks, enjoying their power over women, and indeed cut quite a dash in their Balkan (Montenegrin rather than Albanian—it’s more colourful) disguises.

Petrov has a silky tone and was at his best in the quiet "Un’aura amorosa" while Dundas revelled in the great, audience-taunting "Donne mie", teasing women for their fickle ways.

Lastly a word for revival director Andy Morton. I’ve rarely heard pauses in recitative used to such dramatic effect as here, sometimes to cast doubt on or reverse the sentiments of these dissembling lovers. And at the end one still wonders, who gets whom? That’s so much wittier than a farce.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

Are you sure?