John Cox’s Garsington Così focusses on the foibles of human nature and fragility of human relationships

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Garsington Opera 2022 [2] – Mozart, Così fan tutte: Soloists, Garsington Opera Chorus and The English Concert / Tobias Ringborg (conductor). Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 2.6.2022. (CR)

Gavan Ring (Ferrando), Polly Leech (Dorabella), Camilla Harris (Fiordiligi) and Seán Boylan (Guglielmo) (c) Julian Guidera

Director – John Cox
Designer – Robert Perdziola
Lighting Designer – Paul Bryant 

Ferrando – Gavan Ring
Guglielmo – Seán Boylan
Don Alfonso – Henry Waddington
Fiordiligi – Camila Harris
Dorabella – Polly Leach
Despina – Ailish Tynan

John Cox has struck lucky with his production of Mozart and Da Ponte’s last collaboration in several respects. Not only have Garsington Opera asked to revive it for this season (rather than James Fulljames’s intervening production from 2015) having first shown it in 2004, but his interpretation has also been mounted at San Francisco. Furthermore, its provenance, in having been commissioned originally in 2002 for the restoration of the opera house at Monte Carlo provided an aptly fortuitous source of inspiration (even though a different venue was eventually used for its premiere when that project was delayed) since that building is shared with a casino. Seeing as the opera’s scenario stems from a bet between Don Alfonso, and Ferrando and Guglielmo as to the fidelity of the latter’s’ fiancés, it makes irresistible sense to set the whole contest within a casino on the Riviera at the end of the Belle Époque, with Don Alfonso as the master of revels. The would-be marriages between Fiordiligi and Dorabella and the Albanians is tellingly staged around the same roulette table at which the bet had originally been made, suggesting with some comic panache the risk and anxiety that obtains in respect of any romantic partnerships and the degree of trust which has to be presumed for them to work.

If there is not already enough of an unsettling, Kierkegaardian angst in the realisation of that truth, and the capriciousness of the human heart – and in the programme note, by asserting that Mozart and Da Ponte ‘dismiss their masterpiece with a trivial finale that has no finality’, Cox seems to affect not to understand that the whole point of this apparently conventional lieto fine is, like everything else in the opera, meant to invert (even subvert) the traditional components of opera buffa and therefore to ring deliberately hollow – then an added degree of poignancy is brought about by the backdrop of WWI in this production. The outbreak of that conflict is the ostensible reason for the young men’s being called away early in Act I so that the experiment can take place, and the casino is turned over into a military hospital. But the real tragedy is that Ferrando and Guglielmo really are called away to battle at the end of opera, after their supposed reconciliation with their fiancés, making a dark joke both of the battles of love that have just been played out and of the value of even flawed, compromised romantic attachments. The menacing procession of helmeted soldiers from a dark, smoky background to draw the two chastened lovers away to the hell of war, evokes some sort of parallel with the fate met by Don Giovanni in Mozart’s previous opera, whilst also perhaps putting one in mind of Hans Castorp at the end of The Magic Mountain, also going off to combat in 1914; either way, certain punishment or death seems to lie in wait.

Despite those undercurrents of tragedy, this is generally a performance of levity and litheness. Henry Waddington presents a wry characterisation of Don Alfonso, obscuring the seemingly cynical nature of his actions and making him a humorous, urbane figure, singing with corresponding fluency. Ailish Tynan is a knowing, charismatic Despina, delivered with somewhat more subtle wit and wisdom than the sort of soubrette the role is sometimes turned into it. Tynan’s winning ease and flexibility with the music lends a convincing veneer to the opera’s paradoxical conceit that, as the servant, she has to guide her mistresses in the ways of the world.

The performance marks the changes in the music, in that it is the mezzo-soprano and tenor who tend to project more vociferously and urgently, than the usually more prominent soprano and baritone. Tellingly that is Gavan Ring, impassioned as Ferrando, who is the first to protest the constancy of his lover, Dorabella; and Polly Leech in that part, alluring and ripely voiced, who is the first of the two women to fall for the outlandish charms of the Albanian visitors. By contrast Seán Boylan is a more inscrutably, steadily confident Guglielmo, whilst Camilla Harris is an agile Fiordiligi – if a touch brittle in ‘Come scoglio’, she is more serene, even reticent, than her sister. It somewhat spoils the full dimensions of her character, however, that she already ornaments the first statement of ‘Per pieta’ – commendable as her control of those is, without the contrast between simple and more decorative statements of that aria’s sections, there is not the sense of her turning over thoughts in her mind and struggling with her contradictory emotions as she tries to fend off her growing feelings for hew new suitor. In consequence, such apparently icy, unchanging resolve perhaps tends to forestall some sympathy with her situation.

The lean performance from The English Concert’s period instruments ensures an efficient flow to the drama, despite occasional acerbic timbres and weak horns for part of Fiordiligi’s latter aria, for instance. Some quite leisurely tempos dispel urgency in a few numbers, but otherwise Tobias Ringborg’s direction from the fortepiano adds impetus, and Mozart’s characteristic writing for woodwind always strikes a consoling note here when it arises to comment on the action happening on stage. Transliterating the opera’s motto title bluntly as ‘women are like that, get over it’, the production also enlists compassion with the foibles of human nature and the fragility of human relationships, providing an apt counterpart to Monteverdi’s Orfeo (review here) which recounts the same theme, currently performed in alternation at Garsington Opera.

Curtis Rogers

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