Royal College of Music International Opera School – Così fan tutte

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]

Fiordiligi – Abigail Mitchell
Dorabella – Martha Jones
Despina – Anastasia Prokofieva
Ferrando – David Webb
Guglielmo – David Milner-Pearce
Don Alfonso – Samuel Evans

Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra
Michael Rosewell

Lee Blakeley – Director
Adrian Linford – Designer
Emma Chapman – Lighting Designer
Tess Gibbs – Movement Director

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 1 July, 2011
Venue: Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London

This production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte was cast entirely from students of the International Opera School at the Royal College of Music, a very select band of young singers. A second team, of equal status, was alternating with the cast reviewed here; only Samuel Evans’s Don Alfonso was common to both. No embryonic superstar voices were to be heard on this evening. Most interest resided in director Lee Blakeley, who has been gathering golden opinions for opera and music-theatre productions in the United States, continental Europe and the UK. Blakeley sets the action in, I would guess, 1920s’ Italy when members of the idle rich could still enjoy a frivolous lifestyle and indulge themselves in games such as the six characters play in the opera without being held accountable for the emotional damage caused. There is no reference to contemporary politics. Costumes are those of the European aristocracy, with designer dresses for the sisters and generic peasant costumes for the choristers; military uniforms are of neutral colour and style. Adrian Linford’s practical set-designs consist of all-purpose elements which are shifted around to suit different locations, enhanced by Linda Chapman’s atmospheric lighting. The presence of some surviving classical murals is a permanent reminder of Italy’s artistic heritage. Neither a seascape nor Mount Vesuvius are to be seen.

It is a clever idea to transfer the opening scene from a coffee-house to a Turkish bath but perhaps more significant is the way Blakeley establishes in this scene the relationship between the boys. They readily shove each other around; bosom pals in one respect, they are also rivals who can easily be brought by circumstances to physical antagonism towards each other. It was a telling commentary and an anticipation of the strife to come to have an extra overhear the episode and to ostentatiously leave the scene shaking his head. He had heard this whole debate about female faithfulness before.

Musically the three brief trios get the opera off to a brisk start. The part of Don Alfonso is often given to a veteran, logically enough in view of his supposed worldly wisdom but his singing may be accompanied by a feeling of caution in vocally negotiating the part. There was no such reservation with Samuel Evans’s assumption of the part. His bass-baritone was resonant of timbre and confident in delivery, the text in recitative delivered with consistent clarity. He may be described as “Vecchio” but this is no benign elderly gentleman teaching a practical lesson without hurting the players. There was something deadly serious in his urbanity, an uneasy feeling that he was going to turn out to be the misogynist and heartless manipulator which most productions of modern times eschew.

On moving to Fiordiligi’s and Dorabella’s villa there was a strong belief that their protected lives had yet to allow them to blossom into adulthood. They were as juvenile as their boyfriends. Musically this scene was rather unpromising. Both singers had moments of stridency in the andante of their opening duet and the fast passage “Amore mi faccia” was a bit rough-and-tumble. The balance between the participants in the quintet ‘Sento, o Dio’ was lumpy and even in the sublime terzettino one could wish for a better blend of sound. As the action moved inside to what turned out to be very much Despina’s realm the voices, now given their heads in a sequence of demanding solo numbers, came into focus. First shot went to Martha Jones in a breathless ‘Smanie implacabili’ which temporarily frightened Despina. The latter soon recovered her poise and announced her pragmatic attitude to relationships in ‘In uomini, in soldati’. Anastasia Prokofieva revealed a soprano voice of ample size and persuasive colouration. The sisters may have righteously disowned her philosophy but she dominated the following sextet when the boys arrive in disguise. Abigail Mitchell, an American soprano, portrayed a patrician Fiordiligi with a hint of austerity. She clearly possesses the vocal mobility required for the part, though when tumbling from the heights the landing area of her notes below middle C was a bit marshy. In the Act Two rondo ‘Per pietà’ this feature was less evident, attention shifting to her dramatic portrayal of Fiordiligi’s doubts and guilt. This was well prepared: while she had shied away from Ferrando’s advances, a hint of fascination in the unfamiliar sensation of her suitor’s touch had been detectable.

Ferrando’s ‘Un’ aura amorosa’ presented David Webb with a punishing tessitura to which he responded with more pluck than authority. Just when one was mentally congratulating him for the beautifully heady sound which he produced in most of its phrases, along would come others compromised by some hit-and-miss stabs at the A naturals. Similar anxieties surfaced in the second Act aria ‘Tradito, schernito’, here preferred to the more vigorous ‘Ah lo veggio’, and in the final duet with Fiordiligi.

Act Two began with the sisters sun-bathing and Despina mixing cocktails. At this stage the maid seemed to be pulling the strings. It was a relief that the succinct “Non siate ritrosi” was chosen in preference to the original display aria for Guglielmo. David Milner-Pearce’s soft-grained baritone was neatly located on the vocal spectrum between the sappy tenor of Ferrando and the keen edge of Don Alfonso. There had been hints of sexual explicitness before and the Dorabella/Guglielmo duet ‘Il core vi dono’ was full of erotic electricity. Nothing was under-played as the two characters pawed at each other. Martha Jones had been growing in dramatic and vocal authority throughout and she followed her surrender to Guglielmo with a febrile ‘È amore un ladroncello’.

Blakeley is clearly talented at directing comedy: his handling of the Act One finale deserved more laughs than it received. The Albanians’ pretence of suicide by poisoning to gain sympathy, the reluctance of the sisters to touch them and Despina’s intervention (her apparent raiding of a theatrical costumier’s for a Red Cross uniform, a set of golf clubs and other items was an entertaining idea) produced a hilarious game of cat-and-mouse. Here and elsewhere was clear evidence that the director had managed to persuade his young cast to add natural and convincing acting to their vocal skills, particularly admirable when so much physicality was demanded of them. Michael Rosewell’s conducting was generally bracing, sometimes, as in the Act One aria for tenor, rushed, but the orchestra played very well for him; the warm sound of the woodwinds in the serenade ‘Secondate aurette’ and the faultless horn playing in ‘Per pietà’ were highlights.

So far, so conventional. No expressionist stunts, no startling coups de théâtre here nor any attempt to impose an external concept on the work. But Blakeley had a surprise up his sleeve. Not an ace, though the programme book was dominated by knaves and queens from a set of playing cards. The debate over the ending has largely centred on whether the lovers will revert to their original partnerships or adopt their new partners. Blakeley offers a more disturbing conclusion in which there is no happy ending of either sort. All four are left abandoned, unattached and confused, the boys again at each others’ throats, as Don Alfonso walks off literally with the money. Toying with people’s emotions for sport is dangerous, especially with people like him around.

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