United Kingdom Longborough Festival Opera 2021  – Mozart, Così fan tutte: Soloists and the Barefoot Band / Lesley Anne Sammons (conductor). Big Top, Longborough Festival Opera, Gloucestershire, 26.6.2021. (CP)
Director – Sam Brown
Designer – Naomi Kuyck Cohen
Lighting designer – Tim Mitchell
Fiordiligi – Anna Patalong
Dorabella – Idunnu Münch
Guglielmo – Marcus Farnsworth
Ferrando – William Morgan
Despina – Lizzie Holmes
Don Alfonso – John Molloy
In her planning for this year’s Longborough Festival Opera, Artistic Director, Polly Graham asked for a new orchestration of Così fan tutte. Quite a challenge in these abnormal times where consistency is frequently regarded as a success. Who took on the challenge? Lesley Anne Sammons, conductor of the now infamous Barefoot Band, volunteered to compose an orchestration which ‘will be like a Così you’ve never heard before. You will recognise everything within it, but it will be different.’ This latest orchestral innovation at Longborough is just that!
The reduced orchestration is not the only Longborough innovation this year. In her attempts to create a wonderful and unforgettable season – and comply with social distancing requirements – Polly Graham has acquired the Big Top through Lost in Translation Circus (yes, it really is a circus tent!) This is ‘music in the round’ as we imagine it and sung in English.
All the Covid rules are closely observed, and help is on hand to cope with the unfamiliarity of this environment. Wide gangways help, the actors love them, as it allows them to rush in and out as the plot Don Alfonso (John Molloy) hatches unfolds and he wagers to test the fidelity of two sisters, Fiordiligi (Anna Patalong) and Dorabella (Idunnu Münch).
Ever since 1790 and the first performance of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto, the idea of ‘all women being fickle, all men are the same’ has proven to be an astute wager. In his comedy of tricks and disguises, Mozart uses two henchmen to develop the celebration of easy morals of the then Naples, the last stop on the eighteenth-century Grand Tour. In the long-established tradition, Don Alfonso – henchman number one – holds the ‘fickle’ view, henchman number two, Despina (Lizzie Holmes), the servant, has the ‘equal misery for all’ view. Emotional eruptions are many, deceptions abound and relationships become strained. In a programme interview director Sam Brown suggests that Don Alfonso ‘realises that the couples are idealising each other; his desire is actually not to ruin the relationship of these people, but to make them realise that we love who we love’.
As Longborough patrons take their seats for this abridged Così, the two young, recently betrothed officers, Guglielmo (Marcus Farnsworth) and Ferrando (William Morgan) are engaged in a card school. Don Alfonso appears to hold all the cards, the wager is started, the two officers depart the scene, earlier than usual, leaving Despina to forge an unlikely relationship with Don Alfonso in an attempt to help her mistresses learn the art of survival.
Holmes (Despina) is recognised as a versatile and dynamic soprano; she certainly showed that with her two disguises, the doctor, and later, the notary, as Don Alfonso’s plans to secure a signed wedding certificate involving two new suitors very nearly succeeds. Much has happened before this last disguise is required. As the sister’s maid, Holmes joins in the charade and delights in her reputation as a ‘paragon of virtue’ whilst wiping clean the scrotum of one of numerous statuettes, figurines and busts which form the stage design. Circus rings do not lend themselves to expansive sets and designer, Naomi Kuyck Cohen had limited opportunities. However, the introduction of Toilet Duck as a poison the two new suitors pretend to use, added to the intrigue before the interval.
Both sisters were well cast. Anna Patalong (Fiordiligi) dressed in pyjamas for most of the first half, sings emotionally of her ‘sea of torment’ at the potential loss of her suitor, hoping ‘her fate will change’. Of the two sisters, she becomes the more entangled, whilst Idunnu Münch (Dorabella) sings with an elegant mezzo voice; she remains less likely to become involved with her new suitor and the relationship remains within the limits of playful flirtation. Making her Longborough debut, her performance is the more mature, reflecting her considerable experience in Germany since 2013 working with opera companies and singing with symphony orchestras across Europe.
The two suitors, Guglielmo and Ferrando take the disguise message to extremes – one reappearing as a green Viking, the other as the red Devil complete with long red tail and hugely intrusive codpiece. That poisoning pretence heralds the arrival of Despina to affect a miracle rescue with a ‘Venice magnet’, a machine to nullify the supposed poison. The sisters remain unmoved. Cleaners arrive in the ring as Act I ends!
The mating game continues long into Act II with frequent costume changes; the Viking beginning to look more like a Wotan, Fiordiligi giving up her suit of armour to sport a leather suit. Dorabella remains the more elegantly dressed and, one would hope, the least likely to be outwitted.
The continuing attempts of the two male suitors to entrap their betrothed has success as their seduction duets reveal contrasting personalities. Ferrando is indignant when he spots the locket he had given Dorabella. Tenor William Morgan unashamedly shows his despair. Baritone Marcus Farnsworth is delightfully playful in his role and enjoys his success in outwitting Dorabella. Despina appears dressed as the notary and the wedding contract is prepared, soon to be destroyed as all is revealed – the new husbands are the old sweethearts! At this point the statuettes, figurines and busts are piled high in the ring with the agreement that if you want to marry, marry a real person and not a work of art! The symbolism is not lost.
Mozart’s Così fan tutte survives this shortened version of the opera and the Barefoot Band do justice to its lively re-orchestration. Longborough Festival Opera continues to innovate but many will long for the end of restrictions and the return of all productions to the main house. The Big Top gamble paid off, just but only just!
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