World War Two Setting for Oxford’s Così fan tutte

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Così fan tutte Opera in two acts: Soloists, Oxford Philomusica & Echoris choir / Marios Papadopoulos (conductor), New Theatre, Oxford, 1.5.2015 (CR)

Sung in Italian with English surtitles

Fiordiligi, Julia Kogan
Dorabella, Martha Jones
Despina, Danae Eleni
Ferrando, Thomas Hobbs
Guglielmo, Benedict Nelson
Don Alfonso, Donald Maxwell


Director, Poppy Burton-Morgan
Designer, William Reynolds
Costume Designer, Kate Lane

In her programme note, director Poppy Burton-Morgan dismisses Così fan tutte in a throwaway comment as a ‘silly tale’, and also proclaims her intention to ‘tell this story in a way that humanises these six characters so that they become real people rather than archetypes’. This will come as a provocative surprise to the many of us who already regard Mozart’s comedy as one of the most sublime and astute explorations in musico-dramatic terms of the dynamics and politics in the relations between the sexes, complementing the examination of the excesses of male sexuality in Mozart and da Ponte’s two other collaborations, by subjecting the operations of the female heart to scrutiny. Perhaps the reason that Cosi has never been quite as obviously popular as Figaro and Don Giovanni is that there is no real cathartic resolution in terms of discovery, punishment or repentance as such, and there remains the unsettling notion that the same foibles exhibited could come to the fore again. There are some who may well, therefore, wish to ward off the opera’s inconvenient and disturbing message with such thoughtless comments.

Nonetheless, Burton-Morgan’s setting of the drama during the Second World War – where the two sisters become English landgirls in a Kentish community, and their two mysterious would-be lovers are American GIs – clearly evokes the issues at stake and the understandable temptations the girls face with their lovers abroad at war, as they think. This concept wrought virtually no damage upon the original, except that Despina was transformed as a clergyman to solemnise the marriages of the sisters to the GIs, rather than as a notary. The sets were simple, in keeping with the austere atmosphere of wartime;  for example with the iron-framed single beds in the girls’ room bearing witness to a puritanically chaste set-up which could surely only invite a succumbing to temptation. Towards the end of ‘Soave sia il vento’ there was a nice symbolic touch as Dorabella let go of her heart-shaped helium balloon, betokening the opportunity for emotional freedom about to come her away, and in the subsequent scene as Despina urges the girls on in their romantic ventures, Dorabella rode off on Despina’s bicycle as another sign of that beckoning freedom – and doubtless also a ‘town bike’ is what we were supposed to think.

Although not flawless musically, the cast worked well together in sustaining the narrative of trickery, and emotions under stress. Standing above that with lightly-worn worldly wisdom were Donald Maxwell’s Don Alfonso and Danae Eleni’s Despina. Maxwell was avuncular and good-humoured rather than bitingly cynical, with a warmth to his singing, if it was occasionally slightly weak. Eleni exemplified Despina’s irrepressible spirits with a sparkling performance, not milking the comedy of her disguises as the doctor and the notary any more than necessary.

Of the two sisters, Julia Kogan’s Fiordiligi made for a more assertive musical presence on stage (notably in her Act One aria ‘Come scoglio’) though this was understandable in view of Martha Jones’s standing in at short notice for Anna Lapkovskaja as Dorabella. In any case, they each contrived distinct musical characters and vocal colours compared to the other. Thomas Hobbs and Benedict Nelson also achieved the same as Ferrando and Guglielmo respectively. Hobbs’s sonorous mellifluous tenor voice (redolent almost of a haute-contre, reflecting his background in earlier repertoire) was charming in ‘Un’aura amorosa’ notwithstanding some slightly insecure tuning. In the baritone part of Guglielmo Nelson exhibited a certain degree of swagger justifying his taunt to Ferrando on first successfully seducing the latter’s lover, that he must have ‘a something little extra’ to do such.

Under Marios Papadopoulos, the Oxford Philomusica took a leisured approach in their performance which successfully yielded some of the riches in the score, though elsewhere lacking dramatic thrust – a quality which Mozart’s operas, above most others, really requires to be brought out. One of the reasons he is acclaimed among the supreme masters of the form is that his musical responds directly, like quicksilver, to every twist and turn of the drama on stage or the emotional life of its characters, and a performance should correspond to that. Certain parts in this interpretation lacked tension, therefore, such as the Overture and the accelerating pace of the concluding sequences of both Acts’ finales; also the alternating slow and fast sections of ‘Per pietà’ should have been more contrasted. However, slower music was more ideally poised and mellow;  for example the sparse opening of the latter aria or the exquisite trio ‘Soave sia il vento’, and the declamation of the opera’s motto “così fan tutte” (“they are all like that”) was suitably – though also ironically – solemn. Worth mentioning too was Mats Lidströms’s expressive contributions on the cello as a part of the continuo.

One other niggle was with lapses in intonation, more usually from the brass than other sections of the orchestra. But this is to some extent forgivable, seeing how exposed the musical lines are in Mozart’s lucid textures. The problem (if that is the right word for it) is that – as many great performers continually find – much of Mozart’s music is simply more beautiful than it can be adequately realised. Be that as it may, this production and performance offered an approach to Mozart’s ravishing work which overall comprised coherence and integrity.

Curtis Rogers


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