Staging Mozart and Da Ponte's Cosi fan Tutte can be a bit of a problem. If done exactly as written in the libretto, then the work can easily come over as cruel and misogynistic, but if you move too far away from Mozart and Da Ponte's concept, then the drama on stage is not supported by Mozart's music. The problem isn't just the lieto fine where the couples get back together, but threads its way through the whole opera. Paul Higgins solution, in his new production for English Touring Opera (ETO) which opened at the Hackney Empire on Saturday 2 March 2013, was to play by the book, but to set the action within the context of the youth of the protagonists and their lively hijinks.
Throughout the opera the relationship between the four young lovers was lively and very physical. Emotions were quick to rise and just as quick to change. This was also a very funny production. Not in the way of highly physical comedy; some productions use the mesmerism scene at the end of Act 1 as an excuse to introduce something riotous. Here Higgins was relatively discreet and the scene flowed naturally from the lively activity in other scenes. But he made the piece funny through character and through suggestion, with some rather obvious motifs such as the young men polishing their swords whilst the women were singing at the start of Act 1.
Principal in this comedy was the Despina of Paula Sides. Sides had been announced as indisposed, suffering from whiplash, but this did not seem to affect her performance unduly. She was a very feisty young Despina and was the mistress of the suggestive look, the arch pose and the unspoken comment. In some ways it was a slightly over the top performance, but this wasn't really a naturalistic production and Sides way with the character worked because it was so well done and so funny. Sides has a great sense of comic timing using her voice to great effect.
Richard Mosley-Evans was a good humoured and affable Don Alfonso and he was the most grandly dressed of the characters. Mosely-Evans avoided the slightly vicious element that can come into this character, and he tempered the misogynism with good humour. Rather than an avid manipulator, he came over as more of an observor, keen to appreciate the foibles of his fellows.
Laura Mitchell and Kitty Whately were beautifully matched as the sisters, creating a very real sense of belonging together. Mitchell has quite a slim line soprano voice but with a fine sense of line. She displayed admirable firmness and strength in her arias, with a nice shaping of line. Hers was a youthful Fiordiligi, serious but still flirtatious, not as uptight as in some productions. Whately was charming and characterful as Dorabella, allowing the richness of her mezzo-soprano voice to suggest all sorts of currents underneath. There might have been a danger of Whately's strong stage presence overbalancing things, but in fact she and Mitchell made complementary pairing with each taking strength from the other..
The two men, Anthony Gregory and Toby Girling, were similarly balanced. Girling has a lovely, flexible and warm baritone voice which he used to admirably shape Guglielmo's lines. Gregory has a fine, light tenor voice which he used intelligently. Though there were a couple of moments when he seem slightly pressed, he did not push his voice and floated the upper lines nicely. The two men worked well together, however when the two were dressed as the Albanians there wasn't quite the right amount of differentiation between them in terms of stage character.
Here I think we come to the slight weakness of Higgins's production, one which is perhaps owing to the necessary economy on which ETO works (limited budgets and relatively short rehearsal time). The stage action was quite plain, there was neither picnic nor entertainment just the cast listening to the off stage chorus during what can be a visually ravishing moment in some productions. Higgins staging had the virtues that we associate with ETO's productions of Handel opera, a staging of the music without too much overlayed extra action. But this requires the singers to create vivid characters to differentiate themselves and bring out the drama. This did not always happen: the young men seemed to be rather blandly personable and interchangeable and during Act 2 I felt a sense of the cast standing about, simply lurking on stage. This is not to say that the four singers were not working hard, and I think this is one of those productions which will bed down and develop as it goes along.
The opera was sung in Martin Fitzpatrick's English translation, one which retained the works liveliness whilst admirably avoiding too much colloquialism and slang. The cast's diction was strong during the recitatives, which meant that the plot was completely clear, but inclined to be a bit patchier in the arias.
James Burton was in charge of a 25-piece orchestra which was rather larger than the ones usually fielded by ETO. He elicited some fine playing from his band and we had a creditably stylish accompaniment. Burton kept tempos moving, so that the piece flowed nicely without feeling rushed, and he provided the harpsichord continuo.
This was an extremely enjoyable performance with a wonderfully well balanced, and very personable cast. Mozart's are difficult to bring off and the young principals here all impressed, with no weak links. Higgins's staging applies no gimmicks and takes the opera seriously, and I am sure that the production will develop in depth and intensity as the tour continues
Elsewhere on this blog:
- Le Nozze di Figaro at Guildhall Schoool
- Jamie Walton in Dvorak and Schumann - CD review
- Khojaly 613 - Never Forgotten - concert review
- An encounter with George Benjamin
- Britten boxed set - the Sixteen - CD review
- Robert Holl and Birgid Steinberger at Temple Song
- Britten Canticles - CD review
- Salomon Orchestra 50th anniversary concert
- La Favorite in Paris - opera review
- I was glad - Kings Consort - CD review