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Saturday 28 January 2012

Da Ponte "Cycle", Part II: Cosi Fan Tutte

Cosi Fan Tutte is the most perplexing of the Mozart-Da Ponte collaborations, and also the one with the most cultish following. The libretto is full of ambiguity and contradictions (and by extention the characters too), Da Ponte not concerned with detailed characterisation and realistic sentiment here as with Figaro or in extremes and contrast as in Don Giovanni, but in a complete exploration of the games and rules of the human courtship ritual, and how sexuality unconsciously affects our intentions and actions. If we feel a slight etiolation after the intensity of the previous two operas, there is a strange symmetry and poise introduced which is utterly new. Notable too are the amount of nature metaphors, with Mozart rendering them onomatopoeically in the score a la Strauss, most memorably in the always gorgeous trio Soave sia il vento, (here the ravishing highlight of the evening). The implication that human beings are a part of the natural world, beholden to its biological and physical laws rather than separated from it by free will is part of what makes this opera slightly uncomfortable viewing. The score is of course masterful, and again so different from Don Giovanni or Figaro. Here individual characterisation is subordinated to the central themes of the opera, and this too is reflected in Mozart's vocal writing - in ensembles, characters often sing in simple thirds and sixths and the artless fluidity and perfect symmetries that Mozart affects along with its consistent and palpable feeling of Mediterranean warmth make it by turns beguiling and mystifying - the strangest, meanest and loveliest opera he wrote. Although Don Giovanni and especially Figaro are regarded by most people as Mozart's most vital essays in the genre, people seem to obsess most about Cosi and its veiled meanings, messages and music.

Jonathan Miller's production has been revived often at the ROH since its inception in 1995, here with Harry Fehr taking the directing reins. Some things it does rather well - it captures something of the light, open warmth of the score (though not nearly so well as the most recent Glyndebourne production), the youthfulness of the characters in all their vanity, humour and inconstancy, and the feeling of inevitability and perpetual changeability of human nature. It's a sassy, genuinely funny and modern updating, including endlessly interpolated jokes involving mobile phones, laptops and other contemporary paraphernalia, which all seems very in keeping with the spirit of the score - it's the most timeless in setting and modern in sentiment of the three Da Ponte operas. Some things I thought were less convincing such as the two women's progress from proud, pouting lovers, in love with being in love, to their temptation and initial resistance, and final acquiescence to their new lovers - They were both so steadfast in the first act that this change seemed inexplicably sudden in act two, as if there had been a missing scene during the interval which we were not party to. Usually Dorabella is played as a total Flibbertigibbet, with Fiordiligi following suit only with more pained soul searching (making her the more interesting character psychologically, and as Mozart ensures, musically too), but here they seemed too similar in Act I for us to see this contrast. The ending of the opera is famously ambigious, and here there is no resolution offered at all - the lovers simply run off stage, distraught and heartbroken, with Despina genuinely upset for her part in the day's antics.

Malin Byström took on the role of Fiordiligi, one of the most challenging of all Mozart's female roles. While she is clearly a young singer of talent and she can do some very beautiful things with her voice, she didn't seem quite settled here - intonation was regularly slightly wayward and the registers weren't ideally blended. Michèle Losier, has a very bright, light mezzo voice and made a good, if slightly bland Dorabella. In fact she sounded very much like a soprano, and if I closed my eyes it was sometimes difficult to tell the two sisters apart. Both of their acting was funny and melodramatic, if never particularly realistic, though in this production that might not have felt right.

Charles Castronovo was a charming Ferrando, sensitive in his acting, and his unforced lyric tenor sounding truly lovely and youthful in this role. Niklay Borchev as his friend Guglielmo was louder and more forthright in his demeanor, but he never demonstrated anything like a piano phrase, and though the voice has an attractive, fruity timbre, more vocal colours might have been welcome. Rosemary Joshua presented an even more cynical Despina than usual, here seeming more like a superbly dressed nanny to the two girls, than a younger maid; vocally, she was more than a match for the part. The role of Don Alfonso is an absolute walk in the park for the always superb Thomas Allen, who adds a touch of class to this otherwise perhaps slightly indifferent cast. The voice is less vibrant and quieter than it once was, but like John Tomlinson, it almost never seems to be a problem because he's such a consummate master of the stage and just inhabits characters to the point where it no longer seems like you're watching a singing actor on stage, but a true person of flesh and blood.

It was truly remarkable also how much better the playing of the ROH orchestra was under Colin Davis than it had been for Don Giovanni. The gorgeous details of the orchestration were brought out with panache, and under Davis everything was elegance and lightness. A bit more warmth would have been nice throughout and often the ensembles were not vocally very well balanced, with Fiordiligi and Guglielmo's lines coming more to the fore than was comfortable. This was an enjoyable, but not exceptional performance of the work then, and a bit more musical and dramatic intensity would have been welcome, as well as perhaps a deeper exploration of what the work is about.

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