Così fan tutte at Royal Academy Opera

Così fan tutte (ossia La scuola degli amanti) – Opera buffa in two acts to a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte [sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Alfonso – John-Owen Miley-Read
Ferrando – Alexander Sprague
Guglielmo – Marcus Farnsworth
Fiordiligi – Runette Botha
Dorabella – Kate Symonds-Joy
Despina – Aoife Miskelly

Royal Academy Chorus & Sinfonia
Jane Glover

John Cox – Director
Gary McCann – Designer
Jake Wiltshire – Lighting

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 22 November, 2010
Venue: Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, Royal Academy of Music, London

John Cox – quite reasonably, given that this was being given in an academy – has set his contemporary production of “Così fan tutte” in a college of, one presumes, higher education. The lecture-room has provided useful hothouse isolation to quite a few opera stagings and did so here. His Alfonso is a lecturer in behavioural sciences, and Ferrando and Guglielmo are two of his students. In his explanatory note, Cox makes his case for Così as a scientific experiment, a concept reinforced by projections of learned-looking graphs and the opera’s title presented as a scribbled equation with an e=mc-squared resonance. But the important factor is its setting in a college, an artificial and enclosed world, where students are honour-bound to get as much experience under and, more crucially, below the belt as possible. Cox hasn’t had to work too hard to make his concept stick – the two boys are also doing an acting module and are military reservists (although I can’t imagine there are too many of them at the RAM), their girlfriends are from another department (music, as it happens), so completely in the dark, and Despina the sisters’ landlady (a rather young and glamorous one) rather than their maid – and the swift realignment and exploitation of allegiances has been part of student territory since time began.

The experiment, however, has little to do with enlightenment as to social and sexual mores and a great deal to do with bracing, cynical misogyny, concentrated neatly into the figure of Alfonso, a nightmare control-freak of a lecturer and, I fear, no stranger to the shadier groves of academe, a far cry from a wise, Enlightenment filosofo. The Mesmer scene, quite cunningly staged, didn’t entirely make sense, but apart from that, the enactment was perfectly, almost unobtrusively viable.The singing and acting were excellent. Runette Botha (a well-drawn Miss Wordsworth in the RAM “Albert Herring”) made a fine Fiordiligi, slipping nicely from the assured self-righteousness of ‘Come scoglio’ to sympathy-grabbing bafflement in ‘Per pieta’, as the emotional ground heaves under her feet. A bit more weight, especially in her lower register, would have been welcome, but otherwise her bright, defined soprano was a pleasure and made light work of detail. Kate Symonds-Joy’s Dorabella was a cleverly observed foil to her sterner sister. Her mezzo is warm without being dark, and her solos showed off her keen musicianship. The two of them looked terrific, too. Aoife Miskelly was a pretty, delightful soubrette Despina, her singing fizzing energetically and accurately.

Ferrando and Guglielmo were sharply characterised by Alexander Sprague and Marcus Farnsworth (the latter a fine Sid in “Herring”), with an attractive macho bluster and competitiveness yielding to no less attractive confusion and vulnerability. Farnsworth’s baritone and presence are very ingratiating, and Sprague’s tenore di grazia elegant and lyrical. They too were very personable, which worked wonders with the love-dynamic. John-Owen Miley-Read (what is it with double double-barrelled names?) looked great as the predatory, pony-tailed Alfonso; his singing was generally better in recitative, and was too big for an otherwise impeccably sung ‘Soave sia il vento’.

Jane Glover brought her characteristic bounce and deftness to Mozart’s score, complemented by some cracking wind-playing, and she avoided any feeling of sag in the workings-out of Act Two; the many vocal ensembles were beautifully and securely sung, and there was distinguished, characterful continuo playing (on a fortepiano) from Elizabeth Burgess, almost like a seventh character. There was no strongly drawn conclusion, but you got the feeling that the game had gone too far. They were certainly sadder, wiser and ready for life beyond the classroom.

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