Jokes Wear Thin in WNO’S Così Fan Tutte in Deckchairs

07/10/2012

 Mozart, Così fan tutte (Revival Premiere): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Mark Wrigglesworth (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 3.10.2012 (GPu)

Cast:

Ferrando: Andrew Tortise
Guglielmo: Gary Griffiths
Don Alfonso: Neal Davies
Fiordiligi: Elizabeth Watts
Dorabella; Cora Burggraaf
Despina: Joanne Boag

Production:

Director: Benjamin Davies
Designer: Max Jones
Lighting Designer: Philip Gladwell
Chorus Master: Stephen Harris
Harpsichord Continuo: Stephen Wood

 

The mature operas of Mozart – like the mature plays of Shakespeare – are no respecter of the academics’ neat and tidy generic categories. The absolute distinction between the ‘comic’ and the ‘tragic’ so beloved of the neoclassical descendants of Aristotle is useless in both cases. To be told that Don Giovanni is a dramma giocoso is hardly to be adequately prepared for the tonal, moral and emotional complexities (and ambiguities) of the work itself. A production of Così fan tutte which takes entirely at face value the description of the work as a dramma giocoso (as most reference books have it) or, indeed, as an opera buffa, as the programme for this production has it, is probably doomed to lose the rich and (admittedly) precarious balance that the work actually possesses.

Jill Paton Walsh’s novel A School for Lovers (1989), which makes sustained use of the opera (and finds an effective way of registering what is ‘modern’ in the work) moves towards a moment when one of the novel’s heroines characters comes to an important recognition (not that she is the first to reach this conclusion): “Da Ponte, no doubt, wrote an acid, clever, amusing and rationalist text, which invites her to think that what by and by proves false was false all along, in which romantic ardour of feeling is evidence of falsity. Did Mozart think that? Was Mozart writing parody, mocking the strength of first love? No, she is sure not. He is entering, accepting, blessing it with perfect expression. Perhaps the love in Così was of brief duration, but the music tells us clearly that while it lasted it was truly felt. And even the betrayals in the music do not taste bitter. One could say ‘all women do it!’ with contempt, with hatred of half the human race, but, as Anna thinks about Mozart, she sees there would be another way of meaning it, another tone of voice, much more probably his”.

Earlier in the novel one of its heroes quotes Taine to the effects that “On the stage there are two Italian flirts who laugh and lie; but in the music no-one lies, and no-one laughs; at the most one smiles; even tears are close to smiles”. It is such emotional and moral tension that it is wholly absent from this production of this wonderful opera. What we get is not so much opera buffa as opera buffissima. All the weight is on the comic, on the evocation of the audience’s laughter – and to be fair – the audience does laugh (and so did I). But I found myself increasingly conscious of all that was missing.

When I saw the original first night of this production – only some sixteen months ago – I was more tolerant of its buffic emphasis than I was this second time around. Many of the jokes wear rather thin at a second encounter, perhaps because as one becomes more conscious of that that thinness the sheer reductiveness of the approach becomes more worrying……. and because things weren’t quite as good musically this time as they were last time.

The Donald Magill fat lady in the deckchair, the candy floss, the allusions to Fawlty Towers and Hi-di-Hi! (down to the presence of a look-a-like of Ruth Madoc’s Gladys Pugh), the Punch and Judy show (some of whose characters emerge on to the stage life-size) – generates an abundance of business which often distracts both audience and (I suspect) singers from the power and beauty of the music and generates such a single-track comic mode that some of Mozart’s most ravishing and deeply felt music, when it does get the chance to be heard, as in Elizabeth Watts’ impressive performance of ‘Per pieta, seems inappropriately profound, as if it has strayed in from some entirely other opera.

Closing my eyes once or twice, so as not to be excessively distracted by the plethora of visual invention (some of it quite witty), the performance was, speaking purely musically, relatively disappointing. Neal Davies was his ever reliable self as Don Alfonso, without ever dazzling or really compelling; Elizabeth Watts had some fine moments, but didn’t sound entirely comfortable with some of the tempi set by Mark Wigglesworth. I have much enjoyed a number of previous performances by Cora Burggraaf, but on this occasion she seemed rather too busy mugging and gesturing to concentrate fully on line and phrase or to produce consistently the beauty of tone she has at her disposal. Andrew Tortise sang with a rather blanched and unvaried tone and never fully settled into a persuasively Mozartean idiom; Gary Griffiths who, like Neal Davies, was reprising the role he sang sixteen months ago, was a generally engaging Guglielmo, making the most of the physical comedy the production required of him, and singing with fair assurance of voice and purpose. Joanne Boag’s Despina was the most unalloyed success of the evening – a sparky, coherent creation (her character being recast, according to the programme as ‘a young single mother of Italian descent, working as a waitress and chambermaid in Botticelli’s ice cream parlour and guesthouse’ – sung with vocal certainty and bite. This was as impressive a performance as I have seen Boag give.

Da Ponte’s libretto and Mozart’s music are in agreement at the end of the work – in an evocation of the fundamental comic (which means more than ‘buffo’) virtue of reconciliation – but they were both subverted in the violence with which this production ended. The result was troubling but, again, with an unsubtle singleness of purpose at odds with this most ‘double’ of operas in which, to quote David Cairns, ‘Arcadian beauty and the clinical investigation of human frailty coexist’. Not on this occasion, unfortunately.

When the great classicist Richard Bentley had read Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer he reportedly said to the poet, ‘a very pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you mustn’t call it Homer’. To paraphrase: ‘a very funny opera, but you mustn’t call it Mozart’.

Glyn Pursglove

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