Così At The Seaside in Cardiff

Mozart, Così fan tutte: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, Daniele Rustioni, conductor, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 20.5.2011 (GPu)

Conductor: Daniele Rustioni
Director: Benjamin Davis
Designer: Max Jones
Lighting Designer: Philip Gladwell
Chorus Master: Stephen Harris

Ferrando: Robin Tritschler
Guglielmo: Gary Griffith
Don Alfonso: Neal Davies
Fiordiligi: Camilla Roberts
Dorabella: Helen Lepalaan
Despina: Claire Ormshaw

The advance publicity which told me that Benjamin Davis’ production of Così fan tutte was set at the British Seaside in the 1960s rather made my heart sink. I expected to hate this translocation, at the very least to find myself seriously distracted from the work’s sheer musical beauty and from the complex intellectual/moral/tonal issues of this subtlest of operas. The actual experience was a great deal happier than my expectations and I was very far from hating it. To get the business of distraction out of the way – Davis’ production was rich in comic invention and, for the most part, this was enjoyable and had its relevance; my one real unhappiness was that the overture was accompanied by some admittedly funny business on stage, and audience laughter obscured much of the music, so that its subtleties and its preparation for what was to follow was largely lost.

The modern rediscovery of Così has surely taught us that it is shot through with ambiguities and fascinating internal contradictions. It has been interpreted as utterly cynical; as a kind of idyll; as a work embodying the escape into, and return from, a period of carnivalesque inversion; as misogynistic; as thoroughly sympathetic to the social position of women; as pure playfulness; as an Enlightenment ‘tract’; as an exposé of the contradictions of enlightenment thought, and much else. Any one production is necessarily reductive; one would no more expect a single production of the opera to get to the ‘truth’ about it than one would expect a single production to articulate all that is to be found in one of Shakespeare’s great plays or any one performance of a great symphony to communicate ‘all’ that it is and has to say. In its emphasis (at least until the closing moments) on the ludic, this particular Così lost quite a lot; but it found a lot too.

I have always found it interesting that when Lorenzo da Ponte referred to the opera in his Memoirs he called it simply La scuola degli amanti. Like most substantial comedies, Così is concerned with a process of education. Da Ponte’s title puts the emphasis on the men, Mozart’s on the women. But both are ‘educated’ in the sung work. Superficially the men appear to learn that, in the words of Don Alfonso, absolute female fidelity is no more to be found than the ‘Arabian Phoenix’ is (the only bird visible in this production was a solitary seagull). But if Ferrando and Guglielmo have any capacity for self-reflection they surely learn other things too. They learn something about male hubris; about hypocrisy and double standards of sexual morality; about the absurdity and cruelty of their own behaviour. And Fiordiligi and Dorabella? They surely learn something about the meaninglessness of some of the rhetoric they have been taught (by a patriarchal society) to employ in talking about their own emotions; they learn something about the gap between rhetoric and reality where love and desire are concerned; they learn something (to adopt the directorial idiom of this production) about the danger of ‘holiday romances’. Men and women alike should surely have learned something about the destructive folly of judging the behaviour of others (and even more difficult, oneself) by the application of inappropriately unrealistic ideals.

For all its considerable comic creativity, Benjamin Davis’ production didn’t conceal or distract from such themes. That such lessons are not easily or comfortably learned, that the experiences undergone by all four young lovers are painful and confusing (are all/any now quite sure that their original partner is still the right one for them?) and that there can therefore be no simple ‘happy ending’ was rather strikingly demonstrated in the production’s closing moments, where the British seaside cliffs on the backcloth had been joined by a Neapolitan volcano and a thunder storm was in full swing. For all his comic inventiveness, Davis was clearly well aware that this is a serious comedy, not a mere romp. Indeed, some of the comic invention reinforced the ‘seriousness’ very effectively. That a British seaside resort should be possessed of a Punch and Judy booth was only right and proper; that, in the Act I finale some of the puppets from that show (notably the Crocodile and the Constable) should come alive and mingle with the human characters was a little more surprising. But, of course, it provoked or reinforced wittily the awareness that at the same moment that the puppets were becoming ‘human’ the reverse transformation was also happening – the four young lovers were becoming the ‘puppets’ of Don Alfonso and Despina.

Some of the other comic detail domesticated the narrative entertainingly – one member of the holiday-camp redcoats was a perfect copy of Ruth Madoc’s Gladys Pugh from Hi-de-Hi! The fat lady sunbathing came straight from a Donald McGill postcard. There were some lovely visual jokes – the boarding house and café (Botticelli’s Gelateria, no less) boasted a the central figure from Botticelli’s Birth of Venus with her modesty protected not just by hair and hands but also by an extra-large ice-cream cornet. Max Jones’ set was attractive and thoroughly functional – that Act II should open with the cleaning of sinks and toilets in an upstairs room of the boarding house was a reminder both of the class dimension of the opera (it has things to say about class assumptions as well as about gender presuppositions) and, comically, of the ‘reality’ necessarily underlying lofty ideals.

Musically there was little to complain of and much to enjoy. Daniele Rustioni (making his debut with the company) and the orchestra sustained an attractively Mozartean idiom, unrushed but with a crisp, persuasive momentum. There were no significant weaknesses amongst the soloists. The male and female pairings worked very well together. The light sweet tenor of Robin Tritschler complemented the rather broader tone of Gary Griffiths. Tritschler sang ‘Un aura amorosa’ quite beautifully and acquitted himself well elsewhere; Griffiths revealed a real capacity for physical comedy and created a knowing, hubristic bluster that made one relish his come-uppance when it arrived. This was one of the best performances I have heard from Tritschler and Griffiths – not long graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama – looks to be very promising. Camilla Roberts always puts her voice to good dramatic use and here she was moving and convincingly ‘troubled’ in her big arias, a sense of inner conflict finely conveyed. Helen Lepalaan’s Dorabella was (appropriately) a creature of less emotional substance, but one of great charm, in terms both of stage presence and voice. The Don Alfonso of Neal Davies was vocally assured (I have never heard Davies be anything other than that) and he made fair dramatic sense of the character, eschewing simple cynicism but conveying exasperation at the youthful idealism (which he sees as setting them up for a fall he is perfectly willing to contrive) of the two young amanti. The chief lesson to be learned in his scuola is that all are flesh and blood, that “Natura non potea / Fare l’eccezione” (Nature can’t make exceptions), a truth Davies’s Don Alfonso seemed to see as applying to male and female alike. As Despina Claire Ormshaw acts well, sings stylishly, and conveys both the character’s sparky self-confidence and her underlying pain and anger.

So, my anticipatory sinking heart was entirely inappropriate. But for all the comic invention, all the light thrown on human absurdity, I didn’t, either, leave the theatre with heart uplifted. Nor should one at the end of this particular opera. As David Cairns puts it in his book on Mozart’s operas, “Così fan tutte, with all its charm, is an unconsoling work”. Indeed it is. But as George Meredith put it, “the true test of comedy is that it shall awaken thoughtful laughter“. Così certainly does that, and so did this production.

Glyn Pursglove