sat 15/06/2024

Così fan tutte, Welsh National Opera, Cardiff | reviews, news & interviews

Così fan tutte, Welsh National Opera, Cardiff

Così fan tutte, Welsh National Opera, Cardiff

Classic masterpiece about sexual frailty switched from Naples to Barry Island

Helen Lepalaan: Dorabella on the pierAll images by Catherine Ashmore

“I’ve seen an asp, a hydra, a basilisk”, Fiordiligi sings as she tries to ward off Ferrando in the second act of Mozart’s cynical dissection of true love.

Benjamin Davis’s new production for WNO converts these beasts into a crocodile, a dragon, assorted dogs and a teddy bear: and not as figments of Fiordiligi’s overheated imagination, but as the all too real promenade furniture of whichever British seaside resort Davis and his designer, Max Jones, have chosen as their 1950s version of 1780s Naples.

With this kind of relocation, you can usually tease out some kind of connotation which lends “relevance” to the stuffy old nonsense that comes in the form of opera libretti. But this particular concept, which betrays the text at almost every point, seems to defy serious consideration, except as one of those smart after-dinner ideas (“Wouldn’t it be fun to set Bohème on an airbus?”) that ought by rights to be scraped off the plates after the guests have left. From the moment when Davis drowns out the overture with audience cackles at the antics of what the programme indulgently calls “a community of pier entertainers”, you know you’re for it.

Thereafter, one bright idea follows another in a relentless stream of pink, yellow and mauve vulgarity, McGill-style, complete with fat-lady-in-swimming-costume, and culminating in Despina singing “Una donna a quindici anni” in an upstairs bathroom waving a lavatory brush and Guglielmo screwing Dorabella in a postcard kiosk. True love may have been a sham in Mozart’s Vienna; but in Benjamin Davis’s Barry Island it’s barely even a distant memory.

It’s hard to pass by such visual horrors, not least when they clash so blatantly with the music’s unfailing style and refinement. It might, I suppose, be argued that Mozart himself set up an equivalent conflict by cloaking the repulsive goings-on of da Ponte’s libretto in some of the most exquisite music ever written. But the cynicism depends specifically on a certain uniformity of surface idiom: it was precisely these people, in their elegant dresses and with their enlightened protestations of fidelity and moral correctness, who so quickly gave way to the first real emotion that ever entered their lives, and who then (and this is the crucial point) so readily discarded it again the minute it was exposed as based on a fraud. In the world of McGill, the fraud is no more than a double entendre, to which any kind of refinement is simply alien.

Having got this off my chest, I’ll say that, if you shut your eyes, there is plenty to like about the performance. Even visually there are things, if you can ignore the imagery; Davis is an experienced staff director with the company, and he knows how to manoeuvre his cast (a bigger one, in this sense, than da Ponte allowed for) around the stage. This is a well-choreographed production. And musically it is strong. Camilla Roberts is a genuinely touching Fiordiligi, finely controlled in her two big arias and perhaps suffering the least from promenade life, though she might have been spared “Fra gli amplessi” over a wash basin; Helen Lepalaan, from Estonia, does suffer a bit, and tends to overact with it, but sings stylishly – a fashionably soprano-ish Dorabella (in fact, Roberts at times displays the stronger chest register of the two). Claire Ormshaw is a clever, musicianly Despina, if a shade small of voice, especially when made to sing out from interior rooms of Max Jones’s Gelateria Botticelli.

The men have their ups and downs. Robin Tritschler delivers “Un aura amorosa” as exquisitely as any tenor I’ve heard since Luigi Alva, forces a little at other times, but is all the same a fine, watchable Ferrando, even with a false nose. The Guglielmo, Gary Griffiths gets a moustache as well, together with yachting shorts (would any girl fall for such a twerp?), and his singing also coarsens now and then. His half of “Il core vi dono”, perhaps the greatest of all seduction duets, was disappointing, though it did the trick for Ms Lepalaan. But his self-righteous little rondo about the frailty of women was enchanting -doubly so, of course, for its sheer brazen hypocrisy. Neil Davies’s Don Alfonso, in this production “a pier entertainer”, survives his check suit and pork-pie hat as well as could be expected, and also survives Mozart’s mean refusal to give him a decent aria, dispatching his witty fragments of this and that in fine style – though where his philosophical view of life and love comes from is by no means apparent.

In the pit Daniele Rustioni controls all this very capably and with an easy, undemonstrative style. The playing, especially by the wind sections, is superb. Rustioni’s isn’t the most emotionally pointed Così I’ve heard, but it preserves faith in the essential idiom of this long-suffering masterpiece.

If you shut your eyes, there is plenty to like about the performance

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Granted, it's not the most subtle production you'll ever see. But it is funny - there was plenty of unforced laughter from the audience on Friday. And Cosi fan tutte is a comic opera, after all.

Llandudno, October 2012. Amateur dramatics, dissappointing and weak. Other than Elizabeth Watts in the second act, nothing memorable. I wish I'd stayed at home. Worse than Jeptha, earlier in the week. I'll be much more careful about tickets for this company in the future.

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