Così Fan Tutte
Mozart and da Ponte
Grand Theatre, Leeds, and touring
Opera North's winter season got off to a rocky start with a critically reviled Orfeo ed Euridice, premiered at the Edinburgh Festival and greeted with an unprecedented storm of booing. It was closely followed by Daniel Slater's muddled film noir staging of Manon Lescaut. In both cases critics claimed that the works suffered, musically and dramatically, by having an unsuitable and self-indulgent "concept" forced upon them by the director. Happily the company is back on form with Tim Albery's intelligent and beautifully sung production of Cosi Fan Tutte, which apart from being a delight from start to finish is also a textbook example of how a director can throw new light on a familiar work - without setting it in a 1960's holiday camp or turning Dorabella and Fiordiligi into air hostesses.
Let's begin with the philosopher Don Alfonso. Instead of the usual crusty old bachelor who presumably spends his ample spare time poring over Aristotle and Spinoza, Alfonso is here presented as a "natural philosopher" - a pioneering scientist of the Age of Reason. We first meet him, clad in a black overall and eyeshade, polishing the lens of a giant scientific instrument that later opens up to reveal the sisters' drawing room. Alfonso's bet that the ladies will not remain faithful to their lovers becomes an experiment into the mysteries of human behaviour - a topic of consuming interest to Mozart's contemporaries, who were already engaged in the nature vs. nurture debate. Alfonso, aided and abetted by "lab assistant" Despina, quite literally puts the four lovers under the microscope. It's a wonderful idea, and although it limits the production to a single set (a sparsely furnished black-walled room) the mildly claustrophobic effect this produces is entirely in keeping with Cosi's tight plot - does any other opera feature a war lasting less than 24 hours? - and small cast.
Opera North has assembled a first-rate group of singers for this production. Malin Bystrom, last year's outstanding Manon, takes Fiordiligi's difficult music completely in her stride and successfully conveys her character's painful transition from ice maiden to unfaithful mistress. She is matched by Ann Taylor's more pragmatic Dorabella (the sisters' gradual surrender to the charms of their exotic new lovers is nicely indicated by their costumes, which subtly change from demure grey to warm colours set off by Eastern accessories). Iain Paton as Ferrando sings beautifully and makes an endearing straight man to the bumptious Guglielmo, sung and acted with great aplomb by Roderick Williams. Peter Savidge is a wonderfully sardonic Don Alfonso, disguising his scientific curiosity as an avuncular interest in the lives of his young friends.
I'm always a little unwilling to pick out individual members of emsemble casts for special mention, but I'll make an exception in the case of Claire Wild. She is simply the most captivating Despina I've seen in years, and the only one in my recollection to make so much of her doctor's disguise - she is exquisitely dressed as the highest of high society quacks and even takes a most unprofessional interest in Dorabella and Fiordiligi! Of the three ladies she is the only one to get most of her words across, which is a shame as the opera is sung in a witty - and mysteriously uncredited - English translation.
This is a Cosi to be proud of and deserves to remain in the company's repertory for years to come. Warmly recommended to Mozartians everywhere!
Touring to Newcastle, Salford Quays and Nottingham
Peter Lathan reviewed the production in Newcastle
Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson