Marriage and duty form an almost constant backdrop in Garsington’s new production of Mozart’s comedy about sexual fidelity, acting as the tantalising yardstick by which the characters’ motives and actions are to be measured. The opera opens with a wedding party (presumably that of one of Ferrando and Guglielmo’s fellow officers), and subsequently the chorus of soldiers and their partners remain present for much longer stretches than the few set-pieces require of them. The code of honour which the two officers must follow – in observing the terms of a wager they have previously arranged with Don Alfonso, and in their own actions with respect to the two sisters – comes to the fore more than is usual in productions of this opera, and we must surely reflect on why they desire to subject their lovers’ fidelity to close scrutiny, and why they are prepared to compromise the virtue of each other’s betrothed to that end.
Neal Davies’s Don Alfonso is a particularly cynical, embittered character here – not merely an avuncular figure with the benefit of a greater insight into the world, but seemingly warped by his experience of it, and therefore wanting to defile others’ happiness (even if illusory) and perhaps to avenge himself (he also is an officer in this production, and so a morality of attack and defend would seem to inform his outlook). Despite that characterisation, Davies sang warmly and sympathetically.
Not everyone is agreed on Lesley Garrett’s ability as a fully-fledged singer and actor of operatic roles. Objectively she may be thought of as a rather mature choice for Despina, but the character plays to her strengths and justly-founded reputation for soubrette parts, singing with freshness and acting with irrepressible vigour and mischief, and offsetting Don Alfonso’s sternness effectively.
Robin Tritschler and Ashley Riches were better contrasted with each other, as the officers, than were Andrea Soare and Kathryn Rudge as the two sisters to whom they are betrothed, and carried more charismatic presence. Where Tritschler sang with lyrical charm, Riches exuded more bravado and vocal weight, as befits the character who first succeeds in wooing the other’s lover. Riches also seemed more at ease in the absurd disguise adopted to carry out Don Alfonso’s ruse – in this case sending up the hipster lifestyle. Rudge’s Dorabella demonstrated considerable feistiness at times, and amorous passion at others, whereas Soare suggested tenderness and vulnerability in her slower succumbing to the apparent charms of the mysterious visitors.
In the pit Douglas Boyd maintained admirable control of Mozart’s quicksilver score in the faster music, particularly in the ensembles, and sometimes to the point of nervous edginess. The slower numbers, however, such as ‘Soave sia il vento’ and Fiordiligi’s ‘Per pietà’, ravished less than they might. Nevertheless, Boyd’s rapport with the Garsington Opera Orchestra revealed much of the inner part-writing and therefore the symphonic ingenuity of the score, thanks also in part to a relatively modest number of personnel.
Boyd’s sprightly pacing of the music met its match in John Fulljames’s eventful production and Tim Claydon’s choreography, where the chorus and extras provide additional theatrical interest, not least before the music even began for each Act – thus drawing the audience more directly into what can otherwise, perhaps, seem a somewhat under-populated drama which proceeds as a private tussle among six characters. This also enhanced the sense of Despina’s point to the young ladies that there are plenty of others with whom they might have fun. Set in that context, we must surely entertain more sympathy with the sisters as they probe the magic of being an active and joyous participant in the human throng.