Così fan tutte

Così fan tutte

Don Alfonso – Jonathan Best
Fiordiligi – Sarah-Jane Davies
Dorabella – Wendy Dawn Thompson
Ferrando – Edgaras Montvidas
Guglielmo – Daniel Belcher
Despina – Lillian Watson

Garsington Opera Orchestra
Steuart Bedford (harpsichord)

Stephane Marlot – director
Robert Perdziola – designer
Bruno Poet – lighting

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 17 July, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The most intimate – though by no means the least profound – of Mozart’s mature operas, Così fan tutte is an ideal midsummer diversion, and promised to be a highlight of the Barbican’s third Mostly Mozart season. To enhance atmosphere, a champagne bar – with requisite tables and chairs – has been set up in the stalls foyer: punters can imbibe in those heady surroundings, and made the more so by the opening of automatic doors that offer glimpses of the ramp leading to the underground car park…

Such incongruity is the stuff of Mozart’s ‘drama giocoso’ – in which two young couples are brought face to face with an altogether harsher reality through the machinations of an older, wiser and more cynical acquaintance. An opera which, thought scurrilous by the post-Enlightenment and Romantic age, only came of age in the later twentieth century – when acknowledgement of human fallibility gave rise to a whole host of readings in which gender and psychology are called upon for explanations that reason alone could not answer. But such questions are themselves unanswerable – as Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto and Mozart’s music confirm by their deceptive flippancy.

The present staging stems from Garsington Opera, and made for an enjoyable evening whatever its limitations. As directed by Stephane Marlot, John Cox’s production was easily reducible to the semi-staged needs of the Barbican Hall – the trappings of a Neapolitan country house arranged so stage action was never impeded. Robert Perdziola’s designs were (deliberately?) unfocused, with military outfits that appeared to range from the Napoleonic to the First World War via imperial Russian naval, and female attire which drew on the ‘country house’ ambience from Jane Austen to P. G. Wodehouse. If this was to emphasise process over place, it succeeded – though almost in spite of itself.

Vocally, Wendy Dawn Thompson’s Dorabella was the undoubted highlight. Warm and expressive of tone, she portrayed the anxieties of the more ‘thinking’ of the sisters with not a little pathos, making the character sympathetic in a context where no one emerges with credit. Daniel Belcher’s Guglielmo was at times too lightweight to convey true depth of character, but his incisive and accurate singing was never less than pleasurable. Vocally, Sarah-Jane Davies had the right demeanour for Fiordiligi, yet she skated over too many nuances for her character to emerge with any real definition – while, fine dramatic actor though he clearly is, Edgaras Montvidas’s often-raw tone made Ferrando seem pathetic in quite the wrong way. Jonathan Best’s rather dry tone brought out the philosopher in Don Alfonso at the expense of the master of ceremonies role he needs to occupy for much of the opera: especially when the Despina is as capricious as Lillian Watson – her sense of dramatic timing often stealing the show and confirming that, while women may be the victims of this intrigue, they are also essential in bringing it to fruition.

The Garsington Opera Orchestra, incorporating the Guildhall Strings and several leading woodwind players (whose presence is more significant than in any other Mozart opera), was stylish and attentive – not least the horns in some testing obbligato writing during Act Two. Steuart Bedford conducted with affection and a sure grasp of dramatic continuity, moving deftly to the harpsichord stool to direct recitatives that were crisply rendered if a little gabbled at times. What was very much a chamber presentation at times sounded out of focus, less to do with platform layout than with the variability of the hall’s acoustic. It failed to detract seriously from what was, if far from a penetrating account of Mozart’s comic fable of disillusion, rarely less than a sympathetic one.

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