The Royal Opera’s Così fan tutte Revival Marred by Ham-fisted Conducting and Production

03/03/2019

Mozart, Così fan tutte: Soloists, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Royal Opera Chorus (chorus director: William Spaulding) / Stefano Montanari (conductor). Royal Opera House, London, 25.1.2019. (MB)

Serena Malfi (Dorabella) in Così fan tutte (c) Stephen Cummiskey

Production:

Director – Jan Philipp Gloger
Revival director – Julia Burbach
Set designer – Ben Baur
Costumes – Karin Jud
Lighting – Bernd Purkrabek
Dramaturgy – Katharina John

Cast:

Ferrando – Paolo Fanale
Guglielmo – Gyula Orendt
Don Alfonso – Thomas Allen
Fiordiligi – Salome Jicia
Dorabella – Serena Malfi
Despina – Serena Gamberoni

First the good news. With one partial exception, there was much splendid singing, and stage performance more generally, to enjoy from an entirely new cast for the first revival of Jan Philipp Gloger’s Così fan tutte (reviewed here first time around). Our pairs of male and female lovers were nicely differentiated, whilst blending with equal skill and pleasure – crucial in an opera with so much ensemble writing, endlessly varied, endlessly revised and renewed. (There is dramaturgical genius in that, of course, not that sceptics and outright decriers – believe it or not, there remain a few – bother to think about that before regaling us with their ‘thoughts’ on the work.) Salome Jicia and Serena Malfia made for a sparkling pairing of ladies from Ferrara, linear clarity matched by complementary contrast such as one might enjoy in a fine wind ensemble. Much the same, perhaps still more so, might be said of Paolo Fanale’s Ferrando and Gyula Orendt’s Guglielmo, the former’s arias as sweetly sung, tenderly phrased as anyone might reasonably ask. Serena Gamberoni’s keenly sung Despina was properly knowing without lapsing into the unduly arch. Thomas Allen’s Don Alfonso had its moments, but it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that this, a role he long made his own, is now a vocal challenge too far, whatever his continued enthusiasm on stage. Hand on heart, I cannot say that any of these performances surpassed those at Holland Park last year, but I doubt that anyone would have had serious grounds for disappointment either.

There were, alas, grounds aplenty for disappointment in both the conducting and the production: concerning the former, rather more than mere disappointment. Described in the programme as ‘charismatic’, Stefano Montanari certainly made his presence felt  However, charisma entails a gift, not a curse, be it divine or otherwise. It is difficult to think of anyone more deserving of the claim than Mozart. If only we had heard a little more of his work and a little less of Montanari’s extraordinary – extraordinarily ignorant, too – arrogance. Arrogating to himself the fortepiano continuo too, Montanari went on to show us that he has little ability at conducting but considerable ability at obscuring scores with his own, allegedly witty, yet in truth tediously predictable, sonic vandalism. To begin with, his ‘contributions’ remained within the realm of the unnecessary, if still highly irritating. The level of premature ejaculation soon, however, reached the level of medical emergency, at times entirely taking leave of Mozart’s bass line and harmony so as simply to present some ‘songs from the shows’. It was the sort of thing a bumptious first-year organ scholar might have done over late-night drinks, albeit more cleverly; here, the results were quite unforgivable. Occasionally hard-driven, Montanari’s conducting was more often merely flaccid: nothing to do with speed, everything to do with a lack of harmonic and formal understanding; it was as if the performance were led by the lovechild of René Jacobs and Marc Minkowski. For a performance of Così fan tutte to drag so much is an achievement of sorts, not one I wish to hear repeated. To hear it in the house that was once Sir Colin Davis’s was little short of scandalous.

Some changes have been made to Gloger’s production since its first outing, presumably by revival director, Julia Burbach. In the first act in particular, they are to its benefit, tightening and clarifying, although the second act fizzles out much as it had done before (if slightly differently). It is, perhaps, indicative of the state of British opera audiences that anyone would see something remotely adventurous in the hamfisted attempt at metatheatricality on show – ‘show’ being the thing – here. Clichés abound, without apparent awareness that clichés they are, and therefore might be played with. The more promising moment remains the substitution of applauding members of the real cast, initially seated in an audience box, for the cast in eighteenth-century garb on stage. There is nothing wrong with the idea that the characters might learn from a performance of the work; it has much to commend it. There is everything wrong, however, with the confusion – somewhat mitigated now, yet only somewhat – with which that is allegedly accomplished. Identities, acts, characters are not ambiguous; they appear simply not to have been thought through, rather as if this were an early sketch for a production rather than the finished article.

As for Gloger’s preposterous claim, allegedly justifying such confusion, namely that to be ‘realisable in realistic terms’, the female characters must ‘know from the beginning of the second act that the “foreign men” are really their own boyfriends,’ it is difficult to think of a graver admission of incompetence. By all means play with such an idea, should it prove dramatically fruitful. The idea, however, that such banal realism has anything to do with the work, that ‘we decided to explain…’ signifies anything other than a catastrophic misunderstanding of the opera’s artificiality and its dramatic consequences, is both saddening and infuriating. Perhaps there is scope for further revisions; I certainly appreciate the attempt. I cannot, however, claim to be hopeful. Like Montanari’s conducting, if less so, the production thinks itself far cleverer than it is. More seriously, neither seems remotely to appreciate not only the intelligence but the profundity of this most ravishing of operas.

Mark Berry

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