A Sparkling ‘Cosi’ in Holland Park

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Mozart, Così fan Tutte : Chorus and Orchestra of Holland Park Opera, Thomas Kemp (conductor) Holland Park, London 18.6.2012 (RB)

Ferrando: Andrew Staples
Guglielmo: Dawid Kimberg
Don Alfonso: Nicholas Garrett
Fiordiligi: Elizabeth Llewellyn
Dorabella: Julia Riley
Despina: Joana Seara

The programme notes reminded us that Così fan Tutte (usually translated as That’s what all women do) has the alternative title La Cuola Degli Amanti or The school for men in love.  Da Ponte’s two titles perfectly encapsulate the action and concerns at the heart of this most sublime of operas which perhaps more than any other shows the frailty of the human condition and the ease with which deeply felt human emotions can be manipulated.

Opera Holland Park chose to have a very traditional Regency drawing room set for the opera with a landscaped garden in the background.  The cast wore traditional 18th century costumes while the chorus were seated at the side of the production, observing the action and lending dramatic support at critical moments.  As the evening wore on, they added some candles and a lantern to light up the stage which created a lovely luminous glow in the encroaching darkness.

Thomas Kemp took the overture at a steady pace with the orchestra’s scampering woodwind creating the necessary effervescence and sparkle to set the scene for the evening’s comic proceedings.  There was excellent ensemble work in the first act with a nice sense of balance between the cast members and razor sharp exchanges.  In the two quintets Elizabeth Llewellyn in particular caught the sense of rapture in Mozart’s music, reminding us that these are real emotions the composer is playing with, while Nicholas Garrett’s Alfonso provided excellent ironic commentary with his cynical observations.  Llewellyn, Riley and Garrett created a luminously beautiful sound in the lovely trio ‘Soave Sia il Vento’ while Kemp and the orchestra subtly highlighted Mozart’s dissonances.  As the comic proceedings progressed, I was struck by the way Garrett’s Alfonso watched the action of the two couples from the sidelines:  you could see him visibly calculating how best to manipulate the emotions and behaviours of the four main characters.

Llewellyn’s Fiordiligi was excellent throughout and she succeeded in producing a rich, highly coloured tone for some of the more opulent music and the coloratura was generally well executed.  In her first aria, ‘Come Scoglia’ she achieved a sense of dramatic intensity while at the same time negotiating Mozart’s awkward leaps although I thought the vocal production of the music in the lower register could have been stronger.  Her second aria in Act 2 ‘Per Pieta, ben mio, Perdona’ was superb; here she projected a real depth of emotion.  The phrasing was fluid, elegant and refined and there was restrained and sensitive accompaniment on the horns and woodwind.

As Ferrando, Andrew Staples was also very good in the ensemble work.  Both his arias were exquisitely phrased and delicately nuanced although I would have welcomed a greater depth and weight of tone on occasion.  His acting was particularly good and he seemed to bring to life the exuberance of the character and his comic timing was very effective.  Julia Riley brought charm and wit to Dorabella and her Act 2 aria was executed with insouciance and elegance.  Joana Seara’s Despina was an absolute delight and the two comic personas of the doctor and notary were brilliantly realised and genuinely funny.  Seara’s aria at the beginning of Act 2 ‘Una Donna a quindici anni’ was uplifting and coquettish and sung with real brio.  There were no weak links in the main cast; Dawid Kimberg also did a good job although I thought there was scope for him to characterise Guglielmo more and his Act 2 aria was a little bland.

Other high points of this production included the riotous Act 1 finale where I was particularly impressed that the drama and music were blended in such an integrated way.  The action throughout this fast moving and potentially confusing scene remained exceptionally clear throughout.  The flutes could have perhaps played up the mockery of the put upon sisters in the opening scene but the comedy and action were generally well choreographed and the ensemble work well executed.  The wonderful Act 2 duet between Fiordiligi and Ferrando, ‘Fra gli Amplessi’ conveyed the sense of infinite tenderness and longing although the dramatic intervention of Guglielmo and some of the chorus during the music struck the only dramatically jarring note.  The unresolved Act 2 finale is a difficult piece to bring off but this production emphasised the space which had opened up between the lovers, with gimlet eyed Alfonso looking on, before the final inevitable happy ending.

Altogether this was an evening of first rate music in a gorgeous setting so go and see it if you get a chance.

Robert Beattie