The Grange Festival 2023 – Mozart’s Così fan tutte – Samantha Clarke, Kitty Whately, Alessandro Fisher & Nicholas Lester; directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans; conducted by Kirill Karabits


Opera buffa in two Acts to a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte [sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Fiordiligi – Samantha Clarke
Dorabella – Kitty Whately
Ferrando – Alessandro Fisher
Guglielmo – Nicholas Lester
Don Alfonso – Christian Senn

Despina – Carolina Lippo
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Kirill Karabits

Martin Lloyd-Evans – Director
Dick Bird – Designer
Johanna Town – Lighting

5 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 8 June, 2023
Venue: The Grange, Northington, Alresford, Hampshire, England

Martin Lloyd-Evans’s production opens this year’s Grange Festival, and encompasses both the traditional and the new, in its alert, pertinent engagement with Mozart’s opera. It is set at exactly the time of composition (1789, and premiered January 1790) in Naples as specified, but in that city as a rather wild place where everything is up for grabs – a place where tourists come to see the sites, buy souvenirs, and casual sexual encounters are there for the taking. The shabby façade outside of which such wares are traded – portending the deal between Don Alfonso and the two soldiers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, at the drama’s centre – is that of a brothel. From the hustle and bustle of the customers around it during the Overture (including those three men, who will set the test for the young ladies) we infer the double standards of a society whose moral rules and standards are imposed by men, but to which women are expected to conform – at least, women like Fiordiligi and Dorabella. To that extent the production represents a continuation of the trial on which male – rather than female – sexuality is put, which Mozart and Da Ponte initiated with Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni.

Così fan tutte revolves around illusions and assumptions – psychological and emotional, as well as physical (in the disguises) – and Dick Bird’s design literally demonstrates the dichotomy between moral squalor and respectability symbolised by the set’s interface between the brothel’s façade and the elegant interior of the young ladies’ home, which are frequently rotated here. But in the breaking down of those illusions, Lloyd-Evans questions the characters’ agency. The culpability of the two soldiers in exposing their sweethearts to scrutiny is perhaps partly diminished here by having them commit to the bet when drunk (though that is what lads do). But it seems fair, then, given this opera’s ingenious abundance of symmetries, that Lloyd-Evans has Fiordiligi’s and Dorabella’s emotional defences weakened (with respect to the Albanian interlopers) when they also come under the influence of alcohol at the opening of Act Two and so, not unreasonably, start to behave like the men themselves, though maintaining rather more steadiness and dignity in the process. Moreover, that idea also brilliantly develops the theme of physical gratification, following on from Despina’s succumbing to temptation in tasting the chocolate she prepares for her mistresses, and which Fiordiligi then indulges in (with quantities of added sugar) when Guglielmo and Ferrando’s departure to war is announced.

Despina certainly is excused her participation in the trick on the women in that she very clearly expresses her annoyance at its ulterior motives by assaulting Don Alfonso in retaliation at the very end, having the final theatrical word in this production. Apart from her mistresses, she would seem to have been the only one not in on experiment’s ultimate purpose: whereas the chorus (who only appear briefly twice) are not usually characterised in relation to the principals as any group of people in particular, here they are Neapolitan locals, perhaps even denizens of the brothel, clearly not maintaining any disguise and therefore not meant to be seen as such by Fiordiligi and Dorabella who would then have understood that they are not actually cheering their men off to war. Accordingly, in a sly dramaturgical sleight of hand, the chorus is not put on the stage for that, but filter through the auditorium, making the audience more physically immersed in the action and, in a sense, complicit in the men’s trick. For all that unsettling moral ambiguity (which Mozart and Da Ponte intended in the ironic happy ending), however, the production is as visually sumptuous and colourful as any in summoning up the world of the late-eighteenth-century.

Fine performances underscore the complexity of this interpretation, led by a robust contribution from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Kirill Karabits. Although leavened by harpsichord continuo and a relative lack of vibrato, its insistence urges the drama onwards cogently, whilst drawing a bold contrast with the subtleties of the production itself. Christian Senn is a breezy, but also slightly dishevelled and shifty Don Alfonso, complementing Carolina Lippo’s knowing Despina – if sometimes brittle in tone – who plays the part not as a giggling youth who may as well be a schoolgirl, but with a Carmen-esque maturity of style, more the mistress of the house than Fiordiligi or Dorabella.

Samantha Clarke and Kitty Whately work well as that pair: the former remaining stately and in impressive control of her two extraordinary arias in particular (where Karabits could draw back a little in the slower section of ‘Per pieta’); Whately a more nervously capricious Dorabella, but still her own dainty self even when mimicking the character of Despina’s language and music in ‘È amore un ladroncello’. Alessandro Fisher is a captivating Ferrando, his seamless, yearning ‘Un’aura amorosa’ seeming to belie the character’s lack of moral probity in its vocal sincerity, were it not that, standing alone by the façade of the brothel, he is evidently calling down a new sexual conquest for himself. Guglielmo’s rakishness is ably served by Nicholas Lester’s lithely-wrought performance which exudes a casual charm.

This production teems with ideas and comments which run in close parallel with the original work and evince its ebullient spirit, making it entertaining enough. But ultimately the consistency of Lloyd-Evans’s concept offers an up-to-date message about the dynamics of relations between the sexes which comes through with compelling urgency.

Further performances to June 24

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