Longborough Festival Opera’s Così with a modern slant

Mozart,  Così fan tutte: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Longborough Festival Opera/Gianluca Marcianò (conductor), Longborough, 16.6.2011 (RJ)

Fiordiligi  – Elizabeth Donovan
Dorabella – Louise Callinan
Ferrando –  Nicholas Watts
Guglielmo  – Rodney Clarke
Don Alfonso –  Sasa Cano
Despina –  Martene Grimson

Director  – Jenny Miller
Conductor –  Gianluca Marcianò
Set Designer  – Jane Bruce
Lighting Designer  – Guy Hoare
Costume Designer –  Hannah-Lauren Whitham
Choreographer  – Jo Meredith
Repetiteur  – Lesley Anne Sammons

I used to regard Così fan tutte as a contrived piece of frothy nonsense. Who in the world would place a bet on the constancy of their girl friends and play a leading role in a plot to expose their infidelity? Since then I have learned that Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, was not letting his imagination run riot, but actually based his plot on a real-life incident which became the talk of Vienna in the late 1700s. Such behaviour may raise eyebrows in the 21st century, but remember: this was the tail end of the Age of Enlightenment when every subject was considered suitable for rational scrutiny – even affairs of the heart.

Jenny Miller, the director of this new Longborough production, has clearly thought long and hard about the contradictions in this opera before reinventing it for contemporary audiences. She sets the action in modern times – or rather 50 years ago when flaired skirts were all the fashion. Fiordiligi and Dorabella look and behave like empty-headed debutantes; while Don Alfonso bears a passing resemblance to Dr Freud who, as we know, probed the depths of the human psyche in his attempt to explain who we are. “Who knows anyone in Così?” writes Miller in the programme notes. “When the girls fall for two new men, they are falling for masks, actors less ‘real’ than the boy friends they are abandoning.”

Her considerations result in a more serious Così than one is used to. And far from being a jolly romp the potential for tragedy hangs over this production. When Fiordiligi bares her soul in ‘Per pieta, ben mio, perdona’ (My love, forgive my madness) we see a girl who is utterly distraught and facing up to life’s realities perhaps for the first time. And though Guglielmo can’t help but snigger at his friend’s discomfiture when Dorabella’s inconstancy is revealed, he is beside himself with rage (‘Fior di Diavolo’) when his own betrothed finally succumbs to the charms of a stranger. Don Alfonso is a somewhat sinister figure observing the foibles of the young people with wry detachment rather than glee at the jackpot he is about to win.

The laughs are provided by Martene Grimson as the maid Despina, a working class girl who has no illusions about men and dispenses plenty of earthy advice clearly based on her own experiences. “Eat the fig, but don’t throw away the apple,” she advises her employers for whom she has little respect. Martene Grimson not only looks the part with her hair bunched up in a ribbon, cooking breakfast for the idle two, her sense of timing has the audience in stitches. In the guise of a doctor she tries to resuscitate the two Albanians with shock treatment tying everyone up with the cables of her equipment, and later she emerges from a wedding cake dressed as a notary to witness the wedding oaths.

Elizabeth Donovan and Louise Callinan playing the two fiancées, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, were well differentiated dramatically, and their singing was superb. Elizabeth Donovan, who represented Wales in the 2003 Cardiff Singer of the World, has a gorgeous, expressive voice and almost moved me to tears in the ‘Per pieta’ aria while Australian Louise Callinan sounded close to breaking point in the aria ‘Smanie implacabile’ as her beau goes off to war. The young officers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, played by Nicholas Watts and Rodney Clarke manage their difficult roles well whether they are boasting of their girl friends’ fidelity, pretending to be Albanians or comparing notes on the progress of their deception. Tenor Nicholas Watts makes a glorious sound in the wonderful aria ‘Un aura amorosa’, but Rodney turns in a fine performance too, both vocally and in the acting department. I was delighted to see the return to Longborough of last year’s Commendatore, Saso Cano, who added solidity to the well chosen cast in a cynical, understated manner.

This is the third of the Mozart/da Ponte operas to be produced at Longborough by the formidable partnership of Jenny Miller and conductor Gianluca Marcianò, and like the others it was very much a team effort. Three of the cast have sung here before and their familiarity with the Longborough set-up must have helped the opera to romp along so convincingly. I was amused when the young men donned sailor suits to go off to war looking like Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in On the Town; but when they turn up disguised as Albanians in trilbies, long coats and moustaches I felt the girls must have been severely myopic to be taken in by such a shifty looking pair.

All ithings considered, this was a very satisfactory, thought-provoking production. Jane Bruce’s set was minimal, but fit for purpose, with surtitles (if that is the correct word) projected onto the backcloth. Hannah-Lauren Whitham’s costumes were awful, but that’s how people dressed in the fifties. Musically, this was an excellent performance, with Gianluca Marcianò bringing out all the wit, elegance and pathos of Mozart’s music – and that, after all, is what counts. To quote Jenny Miller again: “Despite Da Ponte’s ultimately harsh and misogynistic libretto Mozart’s music bleeds the intensity of each character’s human experience and feeling.” It certainly did so on this occasion.

July will see productions of Verdi’s Falstaff and Wagner’s Siegfried at Longborough. For further information see www.lfo.org.uk.

Roger Jones