Friday 5 September 2014

Opera Lyrica's Cosi fan tutte

Elinor Rolfe Johnson
Elinor Rolfe Johnson
Mozart Cosi fan tutte; Opera Lyrica, cond. William Cole, dir. Paola Cuffolo; Twentieth Century Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 4 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Young performers giving a technically proficient and dramatically engaging account of Mozart's opera

Opera Lyrica is giving two performances of their production of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte at the Twentieth Century Theatre. We caught the first performance on 4 September 2014, with Elinor Rolfe Johnson as Fiordiligi, Sarah Denbee as Dorabella, Kristy Swift as Despina, Peter Davoren as Ferrando, George Coltart as Guglielmo and Oliver Hunt as Don Alfonso. The opera was directed by Paola Cuffolo and conducted by William Cole, with Patrick Milne on continuo.

Opera Lyrica is a young company. Founded by Nicholas Simpson and Paola Cuffolo they aim to give opportunities to young singers and performers. For Mozart's Cos fan tutte they had assembled a talented young cast of six (the work was performed without the chorus) accompanied by an orchestra of eleven (string quartet plus double bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn) conducted by William Cole.

The performances took place the the Twentieth Century Theatre, a fascinating historic survival in Notting Hill. The theatre was originally built in the 1860's and part of a complex (some of which is now an antiques warehouse). Since being opened the site has gone through various vicissitudes (see the history on the Arthur Lloyd theatre history website). It is a large rectangular space, with a rear gallery and a lovely foyer to one side.

Like the recent performances of Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea by Ryedale Festival Opera (see my review), it was clear that Opera Lyrica had staged Cosi fan tutte on a very limited budget which had been spent on the right essentials such as rehearsals and musicians. Visually the performance was basic, with no sets (just black backdrops) and costumes from stock. But musically this was a performance of very high order. Mozart's operas are popular with smaller opera companies, but his mature operas are very unforgiving and it was to Opera Lyrica's credit that they fielded such a wonderfully balanced and technically strong cast, without a weak link. The performance was sung in Italian. There were surtitles, but the singers were so communicative and their diction clear that you hardly needed it.

The performance started as it meant to go on as William Cole launched into a very fleet account of the overture with his ensemble. You can get away with such fast speeds in a small group if you have good players, and it was clear that Cole did; the fast semi-quaver passages were played with fine clarity and precision. Having a small orchestra was of a great advantage, as Mozart's orchestration is very important and you miss a lot by reducing it to just piano. In the overture and throughout, I found myself repeatedly enjoying little instrumental details especially from the wind. Not everything worked, there was clearly some sort of communication difficulty between stage and orchestra (there was no pit, they were simply placed to one side in front of the stage), and some of the big ensembles went a little awry but Cole soon had things back on track.

The fleet nature of the performance continued after the overture and like the players, the singers seemed well able to cope with Cole's speeds giving the opera a natural flowing feel and never seeming rushed. We were treated to a pretty full version of the opera, the soloists got all their arias, but the performance never dragged.

Elinor Rolfe Johnson made a very demure Fiordiligi, masking a very strong technique with a seeming fragility so that the character seemed rather nervous but Rolfe Johnson gave us technically strong accounts of her arias. Come scoglio was far more than a showpiece aria, being a dramatically vital part of Rolfe Johnson's performance.  Sarah Denbee made a charming Dorabella, still the more skittish one but also with a core of inner strength. Her first aria, Smanie implacabili was extremely impressive. The two sisters formed a delightful and believable duo, in their dialogues and duets the two singers blended and complemented each other nicely.

Peter Davoren has quite a strong Italianate voice (he was in the recent Opera Holland Park Adriana Lecouvreur) which gave Ferrando a robustness which the role can lack with young tenors. Perhaps Un aura amorosa lacked the ultimate in surface polish, but Davoren's performance had a very appealing directness to it. Davoren made Ferrando quite a sober, rather intense young man complemented by the fact that George Coltart's Guglielmo seemed something of a comic. That is not to say that Coltart was not equally technically proficient in his arias, but what came over was his repertoire of sly glances and acknowledgements to the audience.

Kristy Swift made a wonderfully earthy Despina. Swift is clearly a comic natural and took all of Despina's business in her stride, communicating delightfully with the audience. She gave the role's music a rich, robustness (not to mention having a wonderfully fruity laugh) which complemented the sisters well and brought out the complexities of Despina's character. She was aided and abetted by the Don Alfonso of Oliver Hunt. Rather younger than many Alfonsos, Hunt performed the role vividly though his comic timing seemed more carefully studied.

It was clear that a lot of work had been done not only on the musical aspects, but in the way the singers interacted and despite our closeness to the stage this was a very engrossing, believable performance where the singers were 'present' at all time during the drama, whether singing or not.

In style, Mozart's opera varies between the more buffo elements and the big opera seria moments. Cuffolo's production used these to explore her themes of sense and sensibility, reason and romance in a highly intelligent way. The serious moments were very serious, and it was clearly that the characters were quite intense about them. But it was also clear, having young singers with bright, flexible and light voices, that these young people would bounce back.

The singers did not, perhaps, mine the dramatic intensity of the opera as much as they could, but that is something which will come with experience. Instead they gave us a Cosi which was fresh and engaging.

It seems a shame that this performance is having such a short run, and I do hope that Opera Lyrica can see a way to reviving it. 

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