sun 17/12/2017

Così Fan Tutte, Opera Holland Park | reviews, news & interviews

Così Fan Tutte, Opera Holland Park

Così Fan Tutte, Opera Holland Park

An underpowered and under-characterised evening of Mozart

Opera Holland Park's 'Così fan tutte': 'When you clock the fact that more laughs are elicted by the surtitles than the action, you realise something’s amiss'Fritz Curzon

With the obvious exceptions of Verdi’s twin masterpieces Otello and Falstaff, Così fan tutte is the most Shakespearean of operas. Centuries before anyone invented the term, it’s nothing less than opera’s most elegant study in sexual politics. Written with the textural richness and emotional reversals of Much Ado About Nothing, it needs acting/singing performances of true depth in order to succeed. Harry Fehr’s new production adds a framing device of conscious performance, but intriguing though this is, it distracts from true engagement with the heart of the work.

Intent upon underlining the analytical nature of Mozart and Da Ponte’s experiment in love, he and designer Alex Eales set up a stage within a stage, a traditional, in-period, indoor/outdoor space in which the women are wooed. On either side of them on the wide Holland Park stage sit not only the period-dressed chorus but, when not in the action, the leading characters. As Nicholas Garrett’s stern Don Alfonso makes plain with a large glass bell jar, they are attending a quasi-scientific lecture, one in which female loyalty and male behaviour will be tested.

In the harsher emotions of the second act, Llewellyn's entire performance blossoms

It’s a smart idea but Fehr runs away with it, encouraging those watching to overdo the self-conscious “reacting”. When Fiordiligi almost falls for the disguised Ferrando, it causes near uproar in the onstage audience, with one of them jumping up and gesticulating wildly. Cogent though that is, typically, it pulls focus away from the main action. More problematically still, that degree of activity in the frame gives Dawid Kimberg and Andrew Staples’s Guglielmo and Ferrando more to play against, but reacting with those on stage comes at the expense of them playing to us. 

Meantime, back at the real plot, things are a shade underpowered, not helped by Thomas Kemp’s conducting. There are a few passages of shaky ensemble and, from the less-than-driven overture onwards, the undeniably civilised orchestral playing often lacks attack. That’s missing, too, in some of the playing. 

Given the convincing detail of the libretto (not a phrase one can use about many operas) it’s faintly depressing to watch standard-issue performances. To be fair to Joana Seara, there’s nothing actually wrong with her pertly sung Despina. But the amusingly aged and squeaky voice she adopts when disguised as the notary is the only surprise she delivers all night, as the rest of the time Fehr simply lets her do knowing “maid acting”.

He also fails to solve “the Dorabella problem” for Julia Riley (pictured right with David Kimberg). Until she succumbs to Guglielmo, Dorabella is rather under-characterised and Riley is given little more to do than be alternately girlish and thoughtful.

Dawid Kimberg grows convincingly angry as Guglielmo – it’s well-nigh impossible to stand out in the role – but he is saddled with the production’s insistence that the men’s disguises (especially the hair and daft moustaches) make them look and act daft. But if that’s the case, why do the women struggle but then fall for them? The plot device affords comedy opportunities aplenty but the action here is too generalised, and when you clock the fact that more laughs are elicted by the surtitles than the action, you realise something’s amiss. 

Elizabeth Llewellyn’s supremely dignified Fiordiligi is the night’s highlight. Like her voice – already a glowing, autumnal soprano but dropping tantalising hints of more expansive roles to come – Llewellyn (pictured below, centre) is going places. She, too, suffers from lack of imaginative direction in the first act, singing an assured “Come scoglio” that supplied everything that was required yet nothing unexpected. But in the harsher emotions of the second act, her entire performance blossoms. 

The arresting ache she finds in her wholly arresting “Per pietà” is balanced by the sincerity of Andrew Staples’ (pictured below, second from right) “Un’ aura amorosa”. His beautifully sustained pianissimo singing of the da capo section was as easeful as you could wish for. He began his career as a choral scholar but has escaped the constraint of the overly clean English tenor sound bred by the choral tradition. There’s also a promising Italianate ring to his voice that brings real excitement. 

Most productions showcase the emotional concerns and vocal opportunities of the wronged women. It’s fascinating and highly unusual to discover a production concentrating on the men and their manipulation. But by failing to explore and dramatise the effect on the women – the unhappy ending lacks dynamism and is of more interest to those on stage than the audience – Fehr’s overbalanced experiment grows sadly distancing.

Elizabeth Llewellyn’s supremely dignified Fiordiligi is the night’s highlight

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Comments

I totally disagree. I thought this was one of the best, most well observed Cosis I have ever seen! Joana Seara spares us the steal the show histrionics of say a Lesley Garrett Despina - thank god. While the boys acting in disguise was hammy - it sort of fits the bill. And to have a realistic Despina kept it from toppling over. I also loved that the received knowledge about Dorabella and Fiordiligi were challenged intelligently. D wasn't just a flirt and F was attracted to Ferrando from the word go- singing about the cameos. Loved it, loved it. Dress warmly though as you will feel some of the wind even inside the bell jar of the Holland Park tent.

I agree with Rob. I loved the production and thought the bell jar idea was clever and actually intensified the drama. I thought all the cast were superb and it was the most moving Cosi I have seen. And I found Gugliemo and Ferrando very attractive in their disguises!

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