Monday, 1 July 2019

1920's era silent films forms the inspiration for Adele Thomas' production of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte in the stylish new theatre at Nevill Holt Opera

Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro - Nick Pritchard, Martin Hassler, Carolina Lippo, John Molloy, Alexandra Lowe, Katie Coventry - Nevill Holt Opera 2019 (Photo Ellie Kurtz)
Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro - Nick Pritchard, Martin Hassler, Carolina Lippo, John Molloy, Alexandra Lowe, Katie Coventry - Nevill Holt Opera 2019 (Photo Ellie Kurtz)
Mozart Cosi fan tutte; Alexandra Lowe, Katie Coventry, Nick Pritchard, Martin Hässler, John Molloy, Carolina Lippa, dir: Adele Thomas, Royal Northern Sinfonia, cond: Nicholas Chalmers; Nevill Holt Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 30 June 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Flappers & silent films form the backdrop of Adele Thomas' production, presented in the elegantly sympathetic new theatre at Nevill Holt

Nevill Holt Opera (artistic director Nicholas Chalmers) has been going since 2013, operating at first in a temporary theatre inserted into the courtyard of the 17th century stables at Nevill Holt House. In 2018 this theatre was replaced by a permanent structure, a handsome wooden theatre constructed within the stable courtyard. It is a satisfyingly elegant solution to the problem of creating a modern theatre in an historic building. So it was with much interest that we made our first visit to the theatre on Sunday 30 June 2019.

Having opened its 2019 season of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Nevill Holt Opera continued the season with Adele Thomas' production of Mozart' s Cosi fan tutte (originally seen at Northern Ireland Opera). Nicholas Chalmers conducted the Royal Northern Sinfonia, with Alexandra Lowe as Fiordiligi, Katie Coventry as Dorabella, Nick Pritchard as Ferrando, Martin Hässler as Gulglielmo, Carolina Lippo as Dorabella, and John Molloy as Don Alfonso. Designs were by Hannah Clark with lighting by Kevin Treacy, Emma Woods was associate director and choreographer.

Different generations have seen Cosi fan tutte as problematic in different ways, being regarded as risque, vulgar or immoral in the 19th and early 20th century it only came back into the operatic canon after the Second World War, but contemporary directors see problems because of the work's implicit misogyny and the way the ending artlessly reverts to the status quo. Over the years I have seen a number of solutions to these apparent problems, whether it be having the women see through the men's disguises, having the women use doubles at the final wedding, or simply ending in emotional confusion. Adele Thomas set the work in America of the 1920s, pitting the experience of Don Alfonso and Despina against the innocence of the lovers.

But she chose to filter the whole thing through the films of the silent comedy era, with the result that for much of Act One it was difficult to be certain whether we were seeing real people and real emotions, or simply pretend. The singers entered into the concept with a will, and Hannah Clark's stylish designs contributed enormously, but there was a distancing effect which blunted the humanity and emotions of Mozart and Da Ponte's characters. Fiordiligi's 'Come scoglio' should come as a powerful statement that this is far more than a skittish comedy, yet here Thomas' staging emphasised style and stylisation over emotion. And there was the hint that perhaps she was concerned to provide the audience with an element of visual entertainment during what is a long aria.

Of course, the opera is problematic as it is certainly not naturalistic or realistic. After all no-one in the opera is quite what they present themselves to be (the two ladies from Ferrara are, after all, on holiday in Naples), and the end of Act One certainly needs a light touch. But it is with Act Two that the real problems occur, here the strong emotions get the better of the light comedy with Mozart's music essentially pushing the concept out of shape. Thankfully here, Thomas' concept was allowed to evaporate and the characters were allowed to be presented in a more straightforward fashion, so that we could sympathise.

The set was split level with a curtain between, which facilitated quick scene changes whilst hinting at cinema designs, and in one memorable scene in Act Two allowed Don Alfonso (John Molloy) to force Guglielmo (Martin Hässler) to watch as Ferrando (Nick Pritchard) succesfully wooed Fiordiligi (Alexandra Lowe).

We heard an admirably expansive version of the opera, with Fiordiligi, Ferrando and Guglielmo each getting both their arias.

Alexandra Lowe was a young Fiordiligi, holding onto her dignity as security and not quite as unshakeable in her resolve as her fine performance of 'Come scoglio' would suggest, and powerfully moving when she finally crumbled. Katie Coventry was the perkier, more curious sister, willing to go a little further and delightfully involved in everything that was going on. The two men both came over as charmingly dim, perhaps the best way to deal with some of the dramaturgical problems, and certainly these two were very definitely in thrall to John Molloy's older and charismatic, silver-fox Don Alfonso.

Nick Pritchard made an admirably comic Ferrando in Act One, yet both of his arias were sung with a serious attention to the line and admirably honeyed tone. Guglielmo's arias are perhaps less intense, but Hässler gave them great character, making the young man rather engaging.

Carolina Lippo made a sour, slightly hard-bitten Despina (here a maid), yet offset this with some brilliant comic timing. The result was perhaps slightly more serious than usual, contrasting with the initial frivoloty of the young people.

The new theatre seems the ideal size and acoustic for Mozart, particularly with its admirably deep pit, so the music and the words came over well. All the diction was good, but John Molloy was particularly communicative with his Italian.

The small chorus was hard working, not only did they provide the two choruses required, but formed the party goers who thronged the stage periodically and provided the lively context for the setting.

In the pit Nicholas Chalmers kept things moving admirably, keeping the music pacey in tandem with the production style. The playing from the experienced Mozartians of the Royal Northern Sinfonia was admirably stylish, with lively fortepiano continuo from Peter Davies.

I have found that the most successful production of Cosi fan tutte are the ones which trust the opera and remain as faithful as possible to the score and the libretto (Nicholas Hyntner's 2006 Glyndebourne production, which I saw in tour, is one such highlight). I felt that Adele Thomas did not quite trust the piece, and it was only as the action progressed that we got to seriously explore the characters and their emotions. The young cast entered into it with a will, and brought out the youth and inexperience of the four lovers. The production was very popular with the audience, they enjoyed the jokes and were kept fully engaged throughout what is quite a long evening.

I enjoyed hearing Mozart in this charming theatre with its lively yet intimate acoustic, and look forward to next season's Don Giovanni.

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