Heritage Opera’s Così fan tutte

19/04/2011

Mozart, Così fan tutte : (Opera buffa in two acts, K.588 (1790) Libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte. English translation by Chris Gill 2006, revised 2010): Heritage Opera, Haigh Hall, Wigan, Lancashire: 15.4.2010 (MC)

Production:
Musical Director: Chris Gill,
Director/Designer: Sarah Helsby-Hughes,
Producers: Sarah Helsby-Hughes and Nicholas Sales,
Stage Manager: Ellie Pappworth,

Accompanist: Jon Laird (piano)


Cast:
Ferrando – Nicholas Sales (tenor)
Guglielmo – Thomas Eaglen (baritone)
Don Alfonso – Martin Lamb (bass-baritone)
Fiordiligi – Sarah Helsby-Hughes (soprano)
Dorabella – Serenna Wagner (soprano)
Despina – Wendy Sharrock (mezzo-soprano)

 

Recently when discussing the opera scene in a large European city an experienced music critic said he doesn’t bother with any but the prestigious State Opera Company implying that everything else by comparison is inferior. This view is clearly ridiculous. Yes, with most renowned companies one will see the biggest names and no doubt pay a large premium for the privilege. From my experience those at the very top have further to fall and often disappoint, failing to live up to the elevated expectations of the audience. Some of the most enjoyable productions I have attended have been from the smaller companies; Heritage Opera fall into that category. Founded in 2006 Heritage is a fully professional touring company based in the North-West of England. The company present three or four fully staged and costumed operas each year. I have seen most of them and I’ve yet to be disappointed with any of their productions.

Previous encounters with Così fan tutte (Women are like that or Every woman’s the same) convinced me that Mozart’s comic opera would be right up Heritage Opera’s street and I was right. Mozart has provided splendid music for a highly entertaining fast moving caper bordering on the slapstick. Da Ponte’s libretto is built around a typically ridiculous plot with wagers, disguises and love intrigues that was considered rather risqué for some European sensibilities. The imaginative set involves a theme of the game of chess no doubt representing the various pieces manoeuvring to get the advantage over each other. Congratulations to Chris Gill for his giggly and well honed English translation of Da Ponte’s text.

At Haigh Hall near Wigan the long and fairly narrow Grand Ballroom was the fine setting for this the second night of Heritage’s production on their eight night April tour of Così fan tutte. At the moment the company only use a piano accompaniment which works wonderfully for these chamber-sized productions. I have heard that in the future there may be a collaboration with the outstanding Lancashire Sinfonietta. Now that would be something.

We have the wily philosopher Don Alfonso discussing the virtues of women with the young army officers, Ferrando and Guglielmo. To the sound of clinking glasses Alfonso agrees a substantial wager with Ferrando and Guglielmo that he can prove that their sweethearts the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella cannot remain faithful for twenty-four hours. A cast numbering only six is required for Così fan tutte and Heritage Opera like many other smaller companies work without a separate chorus.

Nicholas Sales as soldier Ferrando has a bright tenor voice. He combines an impressive verve with loads of charisma too. For my money he is the finest actor in the cast and seems especially at home with the characterisation required for comedy productions. Expressing his deep feelings for Dorabella, Ferrando’s attractive first act aria ‘The love that I feel when my arms are around me’ was movingly sung by the tenor. The versatile Sales also co-produced the staging. In the coquettish role of Dorabella, Serenna Wagner displays her penetrating and powerful tone. Excited by the prospect of her new love the compelling soprano was most expressive and girlish in her aria ‘I tell you love is clever’.

Baritone Thomas Eaglen in the role of the solider Guglielmo equips himself well. Seeming initially rather tense he relaxed noticeably over the course of the production. Eaglen’s smooth rich tones impressed me especially in his aria ‘Womankind, you are so very fickle’ from act two. I felt that the baritone had the finest voice in the cast. Still gaining crucial experience by the end of this production the baritone will have more confidence and improved stagecraft. As Fiordiligi the soprano Sarah Helsby-Hughes gamely entertained the audience with her warm tender voice so full of vivid colours and clear diction. Fiordiligi’s heartbreaking first act aria ‘Please forgive me, my beloved’ showed off the soprano’s beautiful mid range that easily compensates for any strain at the top. Appreciation is also in order to the talented Sarah Helsby-Hughes for her sterling efforts as co-producer and production director/designer.

Martin Lamb is highly responsive as the scheming Don Alfonso his performance amply emphasising his deep and rich bass-baritone. A fine actor with an arresting stage presence I was also pleased by Lamb’s impressive recitatives. The audience favourite was certainly mezzo-soprano Wendy Sharrock who, as the prankish chambermaid Despina, was suitably humorous and well cast in a part that allowed her personality to shine through effectively.

For me the highpoint was the peachy first act trio ‘The wind is like a feather, the waves are like kisses’ sung marvellously and assisted by Mozart’s glorious melodic gifts. The Finale was amusing and bubbly also determined and extremely well executed. Well deserved applause was given for the resolute piano accompaniment from Jon Laird. For Heritage Opera entertainment remains the watchword. The performance was a treat and I cannot imagine anyone going home disappointed.

Michael Cookson

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