United Kingdom The Grange Festival 2023 – Mozart, Così fan tutte: Soloists, The Grange Festival Chorus, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / Kirill Karabits (conductor). The Grange, Alresford, Hampshire, 10.6.2023. (CK)
Director – Martin Lloyd-Evans
Set designer – Dick Bird
Lighting designer – Johanna Town
Fordiligi – Samantha Clarke
Dorabella – Kitty Whately
Ferrando – Alessandro Fisher
Guglielmo – Nicholas Lester
Don Alfonso – Christian Senn
Despina – Carolina Lippo
My first thought as a first-timer at The Grange Festival – other than being entranced by the whole experience – was: what a wonderful place for Mozart! I have seen Così fan tutte at Covent Garden, and (much worse) Le nozze di Figaro and The Magic Flute at the Met: in a big opera house the action can seem distant, the music merely pretty, the intimacy lost. Here, everything is in scale, in sharp focus: Mozart’s music is projected in all its beauty, its depth of feeling, its fire – not least because of the commitment of the players of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and the dynamism of their long-time conductor Kirill Karabits. Martin Lloyd-Evans’s production puts us face to face with an absurd, entertaining and increasingly troubling drama from which we cannot avert our eyes, and a set of moral dilemmas that we cannot ignore: the splendid revolving set subverts our attachment to a single point of view.
Though the production (from designer Dick Bird) is often sumptuous to look at, it is set not in some idealised garden retreat but in a bustling Naples, open for business transactions of all kinds. Over a doorway centre stage is an Eros, aiming at whoever goes in: it is apparent that while the men boast of the fidelity of their wives-to-be, they do not consider themselves bound by any such restriction. Boys will be boys. If the girls give any thought to an intrigue, it is not because they are inconstant minxes, but because they are bored by the role assigned to them by a society run by men, and a diversion would be welcome.
It is beautifully sung by all the principals. Samantha Clarke’s Fiordiligi is outstanding, with richness, clarion brightness and a ringing top: her Come scoglio is thrilling, her Per pietà moving and wonderfully expressive (and what a frisson, in this house, from the obbligato horns!}. Alessandro Fisher’s unfailingly sweet-voiced Ferrando moves from a cartoonishly buffo figure in Act I (think Jos Sedley in Vanity Fair) to a genuine lover in Act II, touchingly smitten and ultimately lost: his Tradito, schernito was a good deal more than an outburst of wounded male pride, and his duet with the finally melting Fiordiligi – Fra gli amplessi – felt like the heart of the opera (does it have one? I think so). Most troubling of all was Christian Senn’s finely and attractively sung Don Alfonso: emphatically not the old man of Victor Borge’s caricature (‘I used to chase girls … but I can’t remember why’). Although he remains aloof from the games he instigates, there is something about him of the deadly charm of Valmont in Laclos’s contemporary Les Liaisons dangereuses. How about that as an alternative subtitle for Così?
The Oxford Dictionary of Music concludes its entry on Così: ‘The opera requires carefully rehearsed ensemble work.’ It certainly gets that here: from the anxiety of the parting lovers (faked, of course, by the men) in Di scrivermi onwards the ensemble singing is a continual and potent joy. Though Ferrando and Guglielmo (Nicholas Lester) are blessed with the perfect appearance for a comedy duo, the girls are funnier: one of the great pleasures of the evening is enjoying the interaction between Fiordiligi and Dorabella (Kitty Whately) – the palm for most mobile face going to Fiordiligi.
Things become more serious in the second act as the foursome detach: without a partner to feed off, they become more sharply individual, and in a series of arias and duets we get to know them better – not always to their credit. When Despina (Carolina Lippo) eventually arrives in her second disguise as the notary, she opens her case and the magnet she used to cure the poisoned Albanians falls out: we are simultaneously amused and appalled at how remote the simple farce at the end of Act I now seems.
For a moment, it appears that the final tableau will present the three men on one side of the stage and the three women on the other, drawn up like opposing armies: but the formation breaks, and we are left with an angry Guglielmo tearing up the marriage contract in front of an imploring Dorabella, and Fiordiligi and Ferrando apart, seemingly paralysed in a limbo of uncertainty. Don Alfonso gets his money, Despina gets nothing, and the sex war goes on.
The women retain the balance of sympathy, as Mozart surely intended; we suspect that if it had been the men on trial (as, of course, they are – but only by the audience), it would have been a much shorter opera. It is too simple, of course, to attribute the beauty to Mozart and the cynicism to Da Ponte. To paraphrase what is written in the programme-book, the title is not a summary of the opera: the opera is an interrogation of the title. This fine and probing production suggests that when Germaine Greer labelled Così a comitragedy, she was right.