To the dulcet accompaniment of about two thousand people coughing in counterpoint, the Royal Opera House’s umpteenth revival of Jonathan Miller’s acclaimed Cosi Fan Tutte began…
In brief, youthful and hotblooded lovers Ferrando (Charles Castronovo) and Guglielmo (Nikolay Borchev) enter into a bet with the older and more cynical Don Alfonso (Covent Garden luvvie and grandsire of epic bass, Thomas Allen). The boys reckon that their girls, Fiordiligi (Malin Byström) and Dorabella (Michèle Losier) are faithful to them, but the Don knows better: “Cosi Fan Tutte,” he declares (“women are all the same”). He sets out to prove them wrong, aided by the sisters’ worldly maid, Despina (Rosemary Joshua), and the stage is set for disguise, trickery, angst and general tomfoolery: a perfect Opera Buffa.
The house’s chronic revival-ing may be the cause for one of my main problems with this otherwise very accomplished production. I did not see the 1995 original, nor any of the others since, but presumably some things have been added; each revivalist (this time Harry Fehr) would want to put their stamp on the show, often making it scattered and overdone. Times have changed, as they are wont to do: camera phones and MacBooks have been added to this already modern production, and halfway through the first act, I decided that if one more person took a photo of themselves I’d flip out (they did, I didn’t).
I appreciate that the production explores vanity and narcissism, hence the camera phones. You couldn’t really miss the huge, standing mirror in the tastefully minimal set, all dirty-white walls and regency furniture. But there was a messiness to some of the direction that detracted from the music: Losier trying to take pills to calm her nerves, finding the bottle impossible to open, giving it to Joshua who casually opens it, Losier wanting to take more than one, Joshua not letting her etc. etc. We were so busy watching this little display and laughing at it that we forgot to listen. And there were lots of moments like this.
When the opera was at its best was when the singers were left to just do what they do best. Byström sang her incredibly moving aria, ‘Please, My Beloved, Forgive’ incredibly, well; movingly. She sat on some cushions and sang it, no fuss, and it was captivating.
Joshua’s Despina was outstanding. She was everything a soubrette should be, vocally and physically sliding and suggestive, playful, charming: perfect. Her vital connection with Allen’s Alfonso was very strong. Losier’s Dorabella disappointed, her arias dragged and she was a real victim of the aforementioned hamming up. When singing together, however, the singers had an extraordinary harmony, without which this opera, the apex of Mozart’s ensemble skills, falls to pieces. Allen’s, Byström’s and Losier’s trio, ‘May the Wind be Gentle’ was particularly beautiful.
Sir Colin Davis was conducting and consequently the orchestration was masterful, restrained and delicate (though, astonishingly, often out of time) The woodwind were particularly good and the solo horn (presumably Richard Bissill), accompanied Byström’s ‘Please, My Beloved…’ aria wonderfully.
All in all, it is an enjoyable and sophisticated production, but don’t get up at 5:30 am to queue; as far as I can tell, it’ll be with us a long while yet…
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