Opera: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto: Lorenzo da Ponte
Director: Benjamin Davis
Reviewer: Barbara Michaels
The Public Reviews Rating:
Mozart’s final comic opera, Così Fan Tutte, is one of the most human and soul-searching of comic operas yet was originally considered immoral. In today’s climate this is hardly the case. The story, set in Naples in the late 1700s, tells how two young men, Ferrando and Guglielmo, become involved in a debate with their cynical bachelor friend Don Alfonso as to whether or not their respective fiancées Fiordiligi and Dorabella, would ever betray them. The two men decide to disguise themselves as soldiers and, in order to test the girls’ fidelity, woo each others lovers, enlisting the help of the girls’ maidservant Despina in order to do so.
All this may sound lightweight as operas go, but – as so often in Mozart – there is an element of seriousness beneath the banter. Director Benjamin Davis’ update of the action to a British seaside resort in the Sixties focuses on the light side, although some may question whether an opera set originally in sunny Italy loses its intrinsic flavour in being transferred to our cooler shores.
Davis’ innovative concept includes depicting Ferrando and Guglielmo as Italian sailors, Don Alfonso as the leader of a troupe of pier entertainers, and Despina as a waitress. The set, brilliantly conceived by designer Max Jones and skilfully lit by lighting designer Philip Gladwell, is full of detail, to the extent of including a Punch & Judy show and a man-size crocodile. While some might consider this to be overkill, once again the Welsh National Opera succeeds where others might fail.
A cast of solo artists proves itself more than equal to the task of bringing Mozart’s elegant score to life in a modern day setting. Among them, Elizabeth Watts as Fiordiligi is outstanding, significantly so in the duet with Ferrando, Sorgi, Sorgi (Go) in Act I, and in the difficult eight-minute aria in the second act, giving a glimpse of the more serious themes behind the comedic. As Dorabella, Dutch mezzo-soprano Cora Burggraaf sings with clarity and verve; blending well with Watts in the duets or contrasting in others as the aria demands. Mention must also be made of Scottish soprano Joanne Boag. Cheekily upfront as the maid Despina, Boag obviously relishes the comedy role and performs it with enthusiasm.
Among the male soloists, baritone Gary Griffiths returns as Guglielmo, the role he performed when this production was premiered last year, and once again turns in a fine and accomplished performance, proving yet again that he can act as well as sing. As his opposite number Ferrando, tenor Andrew Tortise has also sung the role previously, although not with the WNO. Tortise performs well, both in his duets with Griffiths and throughout the opera, holding his own in the quartet in Act II with Ferrando, Guglielmo, Despina and Don Alfonso where his gentler tenor could have been overwhelmed by either of the stronger male voices.
Neal Davies as Don Alfonso – billed as “An Italian immigrant and pier entertainer” – pops up in almost every scene, coping expertly with the difficulties of a role that is central to the plot.
Opera cognoscenti may consider that there is insufficient depth to Davis’ production, but at the end of the day this Così Fan Tutte is fun.