Welsh National Opera – Mozart’s Così fan tutte – with Sophie Bevan, Kayleigh Decker, Egor Zhuravskii & James Atkinson; directed by Max Hoehn; conducted by Frederick Brown

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

Fiordiligi – Sophie Bevan
Dorabella – Kayleigh Decker
Ferrando – Egor Zhuravskii
Guglielmo – James Atkinson
Don Alfonso – José Fardilha
Despina – Rebecca Evans

Chorus & Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
Frederick Brown

Max Hoehn – Director
Jemima Robinson – Designer
Mark Jonathan – Lighting Designer
Michael Spenceley – Movement Director

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 27 March, 2024
Venue: New Theatre, Oxford

Many remember the name, in English, of Mozart and Da Ponte’s third operatic collaboration as ‘Women are like that’, with more than a whiff of apparent misogyny in it (the ending of the Italian tutte definitely denotes that the subjects of the title are female). But few remember its subtitle, la scuola degli amanti – ‘the school for lovers’ – with its masculine ending on the last word, which in Italian could be taken to apply to all four of the (mixed-sex) romantic neophytes at the centre of the work, but it could also just apply to the two males specifically. Either way, the full title rightly draws attention to the fact that the men have as much to learn as the women for their own delusions about romantic love and attraction. And just perhaps, it also rescues the work from the charge of misogyny – it’s only if we hold the same naively sentimental, fanciful notions of ideal feminine behaviour as the men in the opera (essentially the outdated notions of chivalry) that the women can be accused of any affront to what female virtue is deemed to be.

It’s true that the story is unsettling to such patriarchal notions of femininity, and also to earlier forms of feminism which still, understandably, wanted a certain degree of respect to be accorded to females. That’s probably one reason why the work was not as highly regarded as Mozart’s other operatic masterpieces until very recent decades. But now these social attitudes have largely passed, the opera’s moral seems prescient in letting women be (human) women and allowed to act as such, not as faultless goddesses – just as men generally were and are not held to equally high standards in any case. Così fan tutte can also be viewed as the last in the trilogy of dramas with Da Ponte, the reverse side of the coin exploring human relationships which examines the female perspective on this, after the male one is surveyed (hardly more flatteringly) in Figaro and Don Giovanni.

However we view the opera’s politics about gender, the notion of phenomena in the real world being subjected to scrutiny and experiment in a place of education or laboratory is a typical conceit of the Enlightenment. In Max Hoehn’s new production for Welsh National Opera, the scenario is literally set in a more or less modern secondary school, serving as an effective reinterpretation of the opera’s self-contained world where the two couples are cast as lovesick teenagers among their unruly fellow pupils, unaware of how the affairs of the heart operate among the world of adults beyond. It is a generally light-hearted, occasionally slapstick, slant on the original, that doesn’t overtly take too seriously its dissection of human foibles. Don Alfonso becomes a knowing schoolmaster and given a good-hearted nature here by José Fardilha, playful and unshockable in his unforced, easy-going musical demeanour.

The calling up of Guglielmo and Ferrando to war doesn’t make sense in this context – even though in fact they don’t go off, but return in disguise to carry out the ruse planned with their teacher, there must be some military action in the background for the young women to believe that their lovers’ absence is justified. Conscription or national service don’t even fit as men would only have been called up after school at 18.  But that is a fairly minor point. Otherwise, the school setting works well, the scenes moving around various subjects as appropriate. Pictures in the classroom at the opening show certain botanical specimens alongside anatomical diagrams which, by analogy, leave very little to the imagination and show clearly that we are getting down to the raw biological facts of life immediately. Dürer’s etchings of Adam and Eve lift the lesson to the realm of the theological and mythical, indicating that the themes of relations between the sexes, trust and temptation are as old as humanity itself. Fiordiligi and Dorabella first appear in an art class, making facile pictures of their boyfriends; and later those lovers – now disguised as hippies – take arsenic during the girls’ chemistry lesson.

There is a delicious, Mozartian irony at play here then, with the idea that it is within the context of formal education and the development of practical knowledge that the lovers are brought to a greater understanding of human emotion and psychology which can’t, ultimately, really be reduced to a neat set of cerebral principles or academic disciplines as taught at school – or by Enlightenment philosophers for that matter. Hoehn’s conception therefore enhances the quizzical stance which this opera takes upon the Enlightenment project itself, already explicitly signalled by Mozart and Da Ponte themselves by deploying Despina in disguise to satirise the stereotypical opera buffa roles of the doctor and lawyer. In this, they mean to demonstrate that the capriciousness of human relationships can’t be contained within the dry strictures of contractual promises made within legal agreements; nor understood with reference to a materialist, scientific conception of individuals as nothing more than a mass of organic elements enlivened by electric charges, as implied by the magnetic philosopher’s stone with which Depina attempts to revive the lads when apparently poisoned. (Mozart had known Franz Mesmer, the originator of ‘animal magnetism’ as a boy.) As such, the disciplines of medicine and law take their place alongside the other subjects on offer within the school as artificial, unreliable models for predicting or determining the human condition.

Rebecca Evans’s salt-of-the-earth Despina is turned into a worthy comic character of her own, here a dinner lady and cleaner at the school, perhaps referencing Victoria Wood’s sitcom Dinnerladies, and her brandishing a duster later on calling to mind Ken Dodd with his tickling stick. The gags lose steam a bit by Act Two, and it’s a pity more isn’t made of the concluding ensemble number when expectations are raised by the surtitles in calling it an ‘epilogue’. The characters simply stand in a line on the stage, looking disconsolate, and certainly unreconciled – which is perhaps not surprising, and Mozart and Da Ponte surely intended to parody the hackneyed conventions of comic opera of their time with their stock happy endings, expressed in conventional terms as a hope in calm reason for a prosperous future. In other words, we should come away sceptical about grand-sounding claims to unshakeable commitments in the realm of human sentiments.  But the production registers as something of an anti-climax in not running with its own prevailing cheerfulness, just as Mozart meant to cast that sceptical glance upon human weakness with a wry and compassionate smile, not stern criticism or bitter mistrust.

It wasn’t quite Sophie Bevan’s night as Fiordiligi, perhaps tired as she somewhat came under pressure in her higher register and at the climax of some of the music’s more urgent phrases – the final trill of ‘Per pietà’ was inadvertently broken for instance, not resolute as it should be. But she has absolutely no problems in sustaining Mozart’s bold, exposed vocal lines otherwise, whether in the hushed intensity of that aria’s recurring section, or more assertive music elsewhere, as in ‘Come scoglio’ where she manages to subvert her expression of steadfast devotion to Guglielmo by ironically mimicking the role of Cupid. Kayleigh Decker is a sparkling Dorabella, taking the part with particular vitality rather than a coy friskiness, and so confidently leading the way for her and Fiordiligi into temptation. Egor Zhuravskii combines a soft-grained lyricism with a sense of energy and passion as Ferrando, even if a slightly nasal quality in his singing stops the music from flourishing completely in ‘Un’aura amorosa’. Guglielmo receives a firmly, convincingly jocular account from James Atkinson, whose performance also suggests he would make a fine Leporello (he has already appeared as Masetto for WNO).

Frederick Brown, as the planned alternative conductor to Tomáš Hanus for this performance, led a voluble reading of the score, often energetic and probing, but not rushed. It tended to be luminous in texture, often cultivating a chamber-like immediacy among the WNO Orchestra’s strings with restrained use of vibrato. But where they were fairly neutral in effect, the woodwind certainly added colour and emotional warmth, reminding us of Mozart’s peerless facility in writing for those instruments.

Some may find this an irreverent angle upon what is now generally acknowledged a masterpiece – it’s surely now one of Mozart’s most-performed operas. But it falls winningly in line with the composer’s own tongue-in-cheek upending of the entire convention of opera buffa.

Further performances at various locations to May 10

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