Ludicrous Slapstick and Designs Spoil Covent Garden’s Così

28/01/2012

Mozart, Così fan tutte: Soloists, Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Sir Colin Davis (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 27.1.2012 (MB)

Cast:

Ferrando – Charles Castronovo
Guglielmo – Nikolay Borchev
Don Alfonso – Sir Thomas Allen
Fiordiligi – Malin Byström
Dorabella – Michèle Losier
Despina – Rosemary Joshua

Production:

Jonathan Miller (director)
Harry Fehr (revival director)
Jonathan Miller,
Tim Blazdell,
Andrew Jameson,
Colin Maxwell,
Catherine Smith,
and Anthony Waterman (set designs)
Jonathan Miller and John Charlton (lighting)
Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)

Cosi Fan Tutte Credits: Royal Opera Johan Persson

In principle, there could be no better way of celebrating Mozart’s birthday than hearing Sir Colin Davis conduct Così fan tutte. It was certainly advisable to think of this performance from the standpoint of hearing two well-loved knights from British musical life: Davis, of course the world’s greatest living Mozartian, and Sir Thomas Allen, marking his fortieth year with the Royal Opera.

For Jonathan Miller’s production, always a tawdry slight upon this most ravishing and sophisticated of operatic masterpieces, has not improved with age. The ludicrous slapstick – in this of all works! – continues at best to irritate, not least given its effect upon sections of an extremely poorly-behaved audience. When not coughing, chattering, dropping items, reading the subtitles out aloud, or making strange oinking noises (the row behind me), far too many people seemed to find the appearance of mobile telephones intrinsically, indeed overpoweringly, hilarious, their selfishly prolonged guffaws well-nigh obliterating the magical strains of Mozart’s – and Sir Colin’s – orchestra. Designs for the most part now simply look dull, outlandish costumes representing an attempt to breathe life into a corpse that should be put out of our misery. (It is extraordinary to think that no fewer than six people, Miller included, are credited for the set designs. What could they all have been doing?) To take the most brazen example: why ever would the girls be interested in the hideous biker transformations to which Ferrando and Guglielmo are subjected? They are certainly unrecognisable, so the disguise at least has worked; yet, however fickle Fiordiligi and Dorabella may be, they would be in need of psychiatric attention to forget two handsome young men in favour of what is put in front of them. The only glimmer of a real idea – and it is, to be fair, an interesting one, partly to be attributed to Rosemary Joshua’s fine acting skills – is the final outcome for Despina, who appears genuinely troubled by what she has seen. Was this, though, the doing of revival director, Harry Fehr? I do not remember it from before, though that may simply be a matter of fallible memory. Enough of the production: I have probably dwelt too much on it in the past and have granted it far too great a benefit of the doubt. Let us proceed to the more congenial matter of the music.

Davis remains a master of this score. If he did not perhaps quite scale the heights of greatness I heard in 2007 – probably the best conducted Mozart opera I have ever heard – then it is difficult to conceive of anyone nearing, let alone matching, him. As so often, the overture gave a clue, its opening bars somehow both sensuous and magisterial, the unbearable lightness of being that followed a true and poignant opening to the work as a whole. There is often more than one answer to a puzzle of tempo, but Sir Colin’s wisdom ensured that we never realised there was a puzzle in the first place, every number so seemingly ‘natural’ both in pacing and progress that one could not imagine it being performed otherwise, and every number of course integrated into a greater whole. That is the key to this opera, both in music and drama: the highest artifice, expressed with the greatest ease. (Would that Miller had been listening!)

The wind ravished, as they must, witnesses to the unspeakable pain that Mozart as musical dramatist inflicts upon us, more so, should we listen, than anything even in Wagner. There were a few occasions, however, when, in a house of this size, the excellent strings would have sounded even better had they been augmented. Paul Wynne Griffith’s witty, ever-musical harpsichord continuo proved a joy throughout, attesting – as did Davis’s conducting – to some of the truths voiced in David Syrus’ splendid programme note, ‘Interpreting Mozart Operas’. As Syrus, writes, ‘Directors don’t always welcome discussion of music when rehearsing recitative, and some prefer to treat the text as if it was as free for interpretation as a spoken play.’ How many times have we all suffered, as again here, from un-musical directors? And how greatly do we value directors such as Peter Konwitschny, and Stefan Herheim, who are musicians?

There was, quite rightly, an extended curtain call for our other musical knight, at which he was presented with a cake in honour of those forty years. The humanity of Sir Thomas Allen shone through both in his brief, typically modest response, and of course in his portrayal of Don Alfonso. (From my encounters, including an interview at Covent Garden, I can attest that every personal compliment paid him is – if anything – an understatement.) Allen held the stage as much through his visual as his musical assumption of the role: indeed, the two were quite properly indivisible. However many times he may have played Don Alfonso, the freshness is such that it might have been the first. He was, it must be said, equally fine in Salzburg, where he was blessed with a far superior production.

Joshua’s Despina was a pleasure too: far removed from the frequent portrayal of a servant several years past her best. (One only has to read the libretto to be disabused of that strange notion.) As agile of voice as on stage, hers is a Despina to be savoured. Of Charles Castronovo, I am afraid I can only repeat, word for word, what I said of Matthew Polenzani last year in Paris: ‘… he sounded strangely miscast. “Un aura amoroso” received great applause, but this was an emoting delivery, vibrato disconcertingly wide, the all-too noticeable ‘effect’ of his mezza voce more appropriate to Puccini than to Mozart. It was almost Pavarotti-lite …’ Così simply does not work – thank goodness – as La bohème.

The contrast with the superlatively sensitive Egyptian cotton spun by the orchestra was stark, similarly with Malin Byström’s Fiordiligi. There were a few too many times when she failed to maintain her vocal line, and as for the attempt a crude sexual humour upon a trill… Whether her idea or the director’s, it has no place in Mozart. Nikolai Borchev’s Guglielmo and Michèle Losier’s Dorabella occasionally lacked the proper degree of Mozartian chiaroscuro, yet nevertheless had much to offer in musical sensitivity.

Mark Berry

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