The Royal Opera – Così fan tutte [Thomas Allen & Colin Davis]

Così fan tutte – Opera buffa in two acts to a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte [sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Ferrando – Charles Castronovo
Guglielmo – Nikolay Borchev
Don Alfonso – Sir Thomas Allen
Fiordiligi – Malin Byström
Dorabella – Michèle Losier
Despina – Rosemary Joshua

Royal Opera Chorus

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Colin Davis

Jonathan Miller – Director
Harry Fehr – Revival Director
Jonathan Miller with Tim Blazdell, Andrew Jameson, Colin Maxwell, Catherine Smith & Antony Waterman – Set designs
Jonathan Miller & John Charlton – Lighting design

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 27 January, 2012
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Jonathan Miller’s modern-dress Così fan tutte is quite the best of his many operatic updatings: a concept both simple and bold, replete with wit and far less obvious than it might at first appear. Miller confronts the libretto’s inherent cruelty head-on when he injects four chic, beautiful young Italians into Lorenzo da Ponte’s acid farce of emotional cruelty and bunga-bunga deception. They are manipulated by the seedily avuncular Don Alfonso, an outwardly benevolent Iago-figure who derives pleasure from unpicking two loving partnerships and does everything in his power to twist the blade. What a nasty piece of work he is, yet how unfathomably sympathetic his depiction in Mozart’s sun-drenched score.

Every revival of Miller’s production bends a little with the times, and the 2012 vintage is no exception. This year, as Fiordiligi and Dorabella exchange text photos of their respective beaux, they stroke the screens of their Smartphone displays in time to the music. In a production where every sidelong glance can carry a laugh, such novelties are golden. Happily, if Miller is the god of small things, revival director Harry Fehr is his representative on earth. A standing mirror distracts every character in turn: the women to check out their figures, their lovers to play boys’ games (machine-gun strafing, air guitar…) and Don Alfonso to practise his golf strokes. There’s probably a comment in there somewhere about the perils of self-absorption, but who cares? It’s fun.

Sir Colin Davis celebrated Mozart’s 256th-birthday by slowly easing his way into the Overture before arriving at a tempo that encapsulated his interpretation as a whole: musically a little stately yet always cohesive – a wise man’s reading that approaches the opera as a single masterpiece rather than the hurtling succession of set-pieces we sometimes hear. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House played superbly for Sir Colin, although sadly (and just for once, I’m sure) that praise cannot be shared by the Royal Opera Chorus, its sopranos were uncharacteristically wobbly-warbly during their brief appearances.

Sir Thomas Allen had his own cause for celebration; but before the presentation of a cake to mark the distinguished baritone’s forty years with The Royal Opera he had a party-piece to deliver – and a substantial one at that. He despatched his calling-card role of Don Alfonso with customary wit, charm and exemplary musicianship and attention to detail. Indeed, Sir Thomas’s Puck-like presence infuses the entire production, transmitting a sense of mischievous joy to his fellow performers. As his co-conspirator, Despina, what Rosemary Joshua lacks in comic esprit she more than makes up for in blissful phrasing and a radiant vocal line.

Four excellent lovers share exceptional qualities of vocal sensitivity, physical attractiveness and secure comic timing. Malin Byström was a sweet-voiced Fiordiligi, airier of tone than some (though I suspect she would have welcomed a firmer tempo at the start of ‘Come scoglio’; Davis’s funereal pace here was one of few misjudgements, along with some ragged ensemble between stage and pit during Act Two). Michèle Losier, an assertively shameless Dorabella, was the ideal counterpart to Byström’s emotional fragility, while Charles Castronovo (Ferrando) and Nikolay Borchev (Guglielmo) revelled in their knockabout byplay and complementary vocal colours.

In an evening of sparkling delights the eye was dazzled and the ear blest. Jonathan Miller and Colin Davis, two grand old men of British opera, have popped a youthful corker with this Così, and the fizz in their Asti was never more spumante.

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