Così fan tutte

Cosi fan tutte [semi-staged; sung in Italian]

Glyndebourne Festival Opera:

Fiordiligi – Miah Persson
Dorabella – Anke Vondung
Ferrando – Topi Lehtipuu
Guglielmo – Luca Pisaroni
Despina – Ainhoa Garmendia
Don Alfonso – Nicolas Rivenq

Glyndebourne Chorus

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Iván Fischer

Samantha Potter – Director

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 18 July, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

There is a moment towards the end of Jane Austen’s last novel, “Persuasion” (1815), where the heroine Anne Elliott is in debate with a relatively minor character, Captain Harvill, about how much longer and how deeply men remain constant to their wives or lovers as compared to women. Captain Harvill asserts that the sailor, when away, thinks of nothing but his wife and family at home whilst the wife has all the distractions of normal life. Anne Elliott responds that the woman is always at home, confined and with their feelings whilst the man also has his profession to concentrate on. Harvill’s response is that there is not a single instance in books, songs and poetry that does not talk of woman’s fickleness.

It is interesting that Captain Harvill is reflecting this theme that pervades Mozart’s and Lorenzo da Ponte’s “Così fan tutte”, an opera from some 25 years earlier. For ‘sailor’ substitute ‘soldier’ and you almost have the operatic plot in a nutshell. The debate in the novel is over the pain of love, and what was striking about this semi-staged performance of ‘Così’ was that this core of the work was brought very much to the fore, but not at the expense of the comedy.

This performance by Glyndebourne Festival Opera was based on Nicholas Hytner’s new production unveiled earlier in the year, directed for the Royal Albert Hall by Samantha Potter. I saw the original production in Sussex a few weeks ago and can report that the Proms staging remained very true to this compelling staging. Some of the humour in the work was a little more broad-brush, no doubt necessitated by the vastness of the venue, and some of the very disturbing emotional aftermath of the men’s wager was slightly muted in comparison to the full staging. But the overall probing of the bittersweet, anti-romantic drama was still powerfully enacted.

Glyndebourne was lucky to have assembled an extremely well matched set of principals, none of whom seemed to have had any problems translating their performances into the Royal Albert Hall. Diction was superb throughout and their stage experience in their roles shone through. One really hung on every word of the recitative, so well was it pointed and integrated into the dramatic action. Plaudits are much deserved for the excellent continuo of Jonathan Hinden on fortepiano and Sebastian Comberti on cello.

At the core of the cast was Miah Persson’s Fiordiligi – a ravishing portrayal. She has all the necessary range for this part, and the ability to colour her voice with joy, pain, wistfulness, anxiety and pretty well every emotion in between. Her ‘Come scoglio’ was voiced with a touch of humorous incredulity and disdain, and her introverted, almost desperate ‘Per pietà’ became the dramatic and musical centrepiece of a great performance. She also blended well with the engaging Dorabella of Anke Vondung, who managed to make more of this usually also-ran part than any other singer I have seen. Vondung has a lovely mellow middle register that complemented and yet perfectly contrasted with Persson’s more silvery voice.

In this production, the two ladies of Ferrara are initially portrayed as both quite young and emotionally naïve, but whereas Persson’s Fiordiligi was obviously the more sensitive, Vondung’s Dorabella was hilariously vapid – always seeking a lead from her sister in how to deport herself once ‘tragedy’ struck, but finding herself unable to maintain her sister’s control. Her squeal of delight at the revelation of Guglielmo’s hairy chest when the ‘Doctor’ cut his shirt open in a sort of Pandora’s box-moment was one of the brilliant comedy interjections of the first act. She sang her arias well too, especially the one in the second act.

Their lovers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, were sung and acted by Topi Lehtipuu and Luca Pisaroni. Both were excellent in both their guises as upright soldiers or liberated playboys. Pisaroni’s Guglielmo was sung in a full-bodied baritone and being a native Italian he really relished the words. He also marked his character’s emotional journey from youthful confidence and bravado to anger and bitterness very well – this is, after all, the man who wishes the girls were drinking poison rather than wine at their mock-wedding.

It was clear in this production that the wager leaves the relationship of Fiordiligi and Guglielmo irreparably damaged, and possibly that of Guglielmo and Ferrando. One could imagine this Guglielmo ultimately turning into a bitter Don Alfonso of the future (as many singers of Guglielmo often do!). Pisaroni has a natural stage presence and his aria addressed to ladies of the audience was very well sung indeed.

Topi Lehtipuu turned in a charged and well-sung Ferrando, delivering his Act One aria with full and sappy tone. He charted the character’s desperation and disappointment well, his initial violent response well-vocalised in the recitative. The potentially touching reconciliation with Dorabella was very moving, although the residual bond with Fiordiligi was left hanging in the air too.

Both Ainhoa Garmendia’s Despina and Nicolas Rivenq’s Don Alfonso were all the better for being underplayed from the comedic point of view. This Despina reclaimed the part back for younger singers after some years of experiencing the role as a world-weary older woman. Her doctor and notary disguises were vocally kept largely in character without resort to ‘silly’ voices, and she ended up as much as a victim of the deception as everyone. She sang nicely in her bright soprano. Rivenq’s Don Alfonso was perhaps the least vocally accomplished of the sextet, but he did manage to project all the bitterness and manipulative, almost misogynist nature of this cynical man.

The cast was fortunate to have Iván Fischer at the helm of the ever alert and responsive Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, which was really on top form. Fischer’s pacing was exemplary and the theatre experience was evident both in ensemble and the obvious enjoyment of the players. Particularly memorable were the fizzing accompaniment to the Act One finale, and the elegiac support to ‘Per pietà’ – excellent horn playing.

In “Persuasion” the observant and sharp Austen makes Anne Elliott respond to Captain Harvill by gently pointing out that all these works he refers to were written by men – her own bid to assert a feminine balance in this literary field. The Hytner staging and Potter’s recreation of it also allowed the feminist balance that undoubtedly is present in ‘Così’ also to be felt. One felt that ultimately the women would have learnt more from the experience and emerged the stronger for it.

This was an excellent performance of a fascinating and increasingly disturbing masterpiece.

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