Opera North at Theatre Royal Nottingham – Così fan tutte

Così fan tutte – Opera buffa in two acts to a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte [Sung in English]

Fiordiligi – Elizabeth Atherton
Dorabella – Victoria Simmonds
Ferrando – Allan Clayton
Guglielmo – Qirijn De Lang
Don Alfonso – Geoffrey Dolton
Despina – Amy Freston

Opera North Chorus & Orchestra
Justin Doyle

Tobias Hoheisel – Set & Costume Designs
David Finn – Lighting
Tim Albery – Director

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 3 November, 2009
Venue: Theatre Royal, Nottingham

With “Così fan tutte” wittily written as a mathematical formula on the programme cover, and inside the pages packed full not of illustrations but figures of various experimental apparatus and findings, should have given director Tim Albery’s game away before the curtain went up on this, Opera North’s opening production on the first of its three annual visits to Nottingham’s Theatre Royal.

As it happens, the curtain could not go up, as it was already so, with the audience facing a burnished wooden box, with what looked like an elaborate lens which Geoffrey Dolton’s Don Alfonso (having given conductor Justin Doyle permission to start the overture) eventually mounts a ladder to clean. His challenge to the headstrong brothers-in-arms Ferrando and Guglielmo is issued outside this oversize box, and once the challenge has been accepted, the wooden front rises up to see sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella in a box for experiments – doors etched onto the black walls as if chalked onto a blackboard (a passing reference to the opera’s other title, “The School for Lovers”?).

We are watching a human experiment set up by Don Alfonso – and he has no need for beautiful views of the bay of Naples (as in English National Opera’s too-sterile staging). Here he is trying to map human hearts in the style of French playwright Marivaux (who left some forty plays involving such experiments).

So, pawns in Don Alfonso’s hands, Ferrando, who loves Dorabella, and Guglielmo, who loves Fiordiligi, are persuaded to feign departure to foreign wars only to come back disguised as Albanians to woo each other’s lover (long flowing coloured robes instead of buttoned military grey coats, complete with moustaches, although those moustaches do get forgotten in the second act, which I thought would have been a giveaway). We see Dorabella crack first, then Fiordiligi – but who is really kidding who here? Who is more blameworthy: the girls for falling for all-too-excessive wooing, or the men who so-foolishly want to test their lovers?

Tim Albery’s detailed production – in period costume – allows us to enjoy the shenanigans of the charade, complete with Despina’s depictions of a doctor and notary (the servant girl being oh-so-more worldly-wise than her mistresses), while not forgetting the truly disturbing nature of the experiment. It is like an Enlightenment mixture of “Big Brother” and “Wife Swap” rolled into one, and it is no surprise that at the end – claiming that they are wiser than they were – our four lovers step down from the experimental box to stand at the front of the stage not as couples, but individuals. You get the impression they will disperse, each on their own, as Shakespeare’s experimental lovers in “Loves’ Labours Lost” do.

With an expert and enjoyable translation (uncredited in the programme) and fine singing and acting from all six singers, this was one of the most involving productions of this opera I have seen in a long time. Diction was almost universally exemplary (the benefit of an intimate theatre), with only Amy Freston’s Despina losing out occasionally to the orchestra, so that – particularly – the wit of her notary’s accented utterances got lost in the musical fray.

I especially liked the gradual unbuttoning of the four lovers. Of course it is always visible in the soldiers, as they are able to free themselves of their romantic convention in donning their Albanian disguises. In Albery’s production the girls do too – indeed, they are as grey and bewigged as their beaux at the start (so much so, that it is almost impossible to tell them apart). Gradually they too adopt more colour in their dress, helped by Despina’s encouragement.

Victoria Simmonds’s Dorabella is the one to see the possibilities quicker than her sister, so perhaps that is why she succumbs to Quirjin de Lang’s Guglielmo first. His bristling joy at Elizabeth Atherton’s more-cautious Fiordiligi’s longer attempt at faithfulness turns to anguish as she eventually falls for Allan Clayton’s boyish Ferrando. It is good to see a young cast, so believable in their parts, who can act as well as they can sing.

Geoffrey Dolton – a Guglielmo in his day – is all-commanding as Don Alfonso, lacking only a white coat and a large magnifying glass attached to his head. What he gets out of the challenge is unclear. Pitting two established couples against each other appears to be utterly destructive, leaving four vulnerable individuals who might never find love again. It is the salutary notion that he may have gone too far and that the damage is irreparable that sends the audience out, not only entertained, but mentally challenged.

Meanwhile, in the pit, Justin Doyle conducted a virtuosic performance by the Opera North Orchestra, with teeming instrumental detail and characterful wind solos matching Albery’s direction.

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