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1995, ROH London, Cosi fan tutte

Cosi fan Tutte

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Composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Librettist Lorenzo da Ponte
Venue and Dates Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

18, 23, 25, 31 January, 3, 6, 8 February 1995

Conductor Evelino Pido
Director Jonathan Miller
Performers Ferrando : Bruce Ford

Guglielmo : Simon Keenlyside

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Don Alfonso : Thomas Allen

Fiordiligi : Amanda Roocroft

Dorabella : Susan Graham

Despina : Anne Murray

Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House
Production Costumes : Giorgio Armani

Sets : Jonathan Miller with Tim Blazdell, Andrew Jameson, Colin Maxwell, Catherine Smith and Anthony Waterman

Lighting : John Charlton

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Soundbites

Extract from the British Journal by Tom Sutcliffe for Opera News April 15 1995

Jonathan Miller’s new Così Fan Tutte at Covent Garden (seen Jan. 18) was better, but not much. He had one set — designed by himself and executed with the house scene-painters: a plain white wall that forced the action down to the footlights, some soft white Louis XV furniture and a small door that gave a limited garden view. The main interest dramatically lay in the continuing changes of costumes, designed by Giorgio Armani, all looking exactly the same. Alfonso (wittily performed by Thomas Allen) often set up his plots on a cellular telephone while leaning languidly against the doorpost. Despina, on the same social level as the sisters, wore a trouser suit rather than jeans. The men were in suits and flung scarves around their necks. The jokes wore thin, even if the costumes didn’t. The real problem was an absence of emotional or dramatic truth from beginning to end. And if Così is about the reality of love, it is essential to make any delusions of pain genuine.

Ann Murray was excellent as a mature Despina, more companion than servant. The quartet of lovers mostly sang well. Amanda Roocroft’s Fiordiligi is no longer as light in touch and fluid in tone as it once was. Susan Graham’s acting ability was not used profitably as Dorabella, and she sounded less alluring than she should.

Possessing a fine but smallish baritone, Simon Keenlyside was overparted and uncomfortable as Guglielmo, though his acting was typically assured. Bruce Ford’s Ferrando was excellent as far as it went. To free up the musical possibilities, Miller needed to challenge them all far more. Conductor Evelino Pido gave a run-of-the-mill performance of hasty Italian dispatch.

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Max Loppert, Opera March 1995

”Così” in limbo – and clothes by Armani

…It’s almost as though Dr Miller, having stimulated everyone with his Vesuvian spouting of ideas, then needs by his side a hard-headed, up-through-the-ranks Old Lag of the lyric theatre to help him winnow away the practical from the impractical, the workable from the problematic – into which last-listed category I personally have no doubt the basic premises of this Così fan tutte fall…

The understatement and muted colour range of the clothes carried an undeniable, Euro-First-Class elegance – mostly creams and pale beiges and pastels for the young women, who seemed to change costume at the least excuse; suits and ties for the young men, followed by a kind of Levantine-hippy style, complete with shades and skullcaps. This certainly chimed with the minimalist chic of the single set, designed by Dr Miller himself in tandem with five assistants, and consisting of pale, fashionably distressed walls with a back doorway opening on a visible patch of lawn and a lank-looking tree; a handful of chairs, a sofa with dust-cover, and a bed with a scattering of cushions made up all the props. It all added up to an expression of faultless corporate taste; the trouble was that as a theatrical environment – which on Radio 4’s “Kaleidoscope” programme Dr. Miller said he’d intended as a sort of Mozartian limbo – this slice of Naples (not!!, as they say in Wayne’s World!) proved for me cumulatively an awfully dull and dreary place to spend three-and-a-half hours in.

And when the conductor – who in any opera performance is, after all, the operative in charge of setting, controlling and maintaining dramatic temperature – turns out to be a Mozartian as imperturbably, ploddingly, invariably dull as the young Italian Evelino Pidò, then the Miller-Armani-Pidò version of limbo begins to seem rather too nearly and too often like the COED definition of the word: “Region on the border of hell”. Covent Garden, as everyone knows, is a theatre properly too large to house this divertimento for six voices; Così doesn’t play itself there at the best of times, and certainly didn’t in these circumstances. Pidò, whose Wexford performances and London Barbiere runs were praised in these pages, is a considerate conductor of singers – no drowning, no egregious applications of brake or accelerator – but, on this evidence, one with absolutely no appetite for Mozart opera’s comic gusto, its hilarities (there was not hint of a chuckle in the shaping of the overture’s curling-in-upon-themselves allegro-section phrases), its infinitely disturbing emotional amibiguities…

In any case, the production problem, as I saw it, went much further. In this super-cool monochrome environment, super-coolly (or, I myself think, super-boringly) lit, it was extremely hard to know – until dangerously late into the performance, and despite the best efforts of an (by and large) absolutely spiffing cast – who these people were, especially when details of the modernization seemed consciously intended to blur their plot and character-outlines. Updating this opera causes root-problems anyway (although these seemed to me far better faced, if not wholly solved, in the Opera Factory Così fan tutte-on-the-beach); but when, as we learn, these sisters are chic designers, and presumably jet-setters with experience of all the various international Emporii Armani, then such lip-service as they pay to notions of love and fidelity in the opera’s early scenes requires from us viewers a huge amount of disbelief-suspension. (Can these power-players in the fashion-world never have been separated from their lovers even once prior to curtain-rise?) Who on earth is this Despina? – an “assistant”, according to the programme, a cool, Armani-trouser-suited figure of middle-aged detachment as classily dressed as her padrone and thus impossible to comprehend in her role as jolly intriguer. And since her servant occupation is largely dispensed with – apart from an initial, curiously uncomfortable pouring of chocolate – so out of the window goes the whole fascinating substratum of class tension which this bottomlessly complex and mysterious opera also contains in its make-up, and which Despina embodies.

It is also worrying that the modernization leaves behind it a trail of loose ends, Da Ponte details that in the Miller treatment just don’t and won’t fit in. Ferrando and Guglielmo become Blue Berets off to peace-keep for the UN – OK; but after the quintet, wouldn’t they depart by helicopter? Admittedly we see no sign of the sea, or of the “barca” carrying them off, and there was no translation of “barca” in the surtitles (actually, the production seemed at times more closely geared to the wretched captions than to Da Ponte’s words). Alfonso’s portable ‘phone was an enjoyable joke, especially in Thomas Allen’s superb rendering of the role (more of him later) – OK; but then wouldn’t he simply use it to call for a doctor when one was required? When Ferrando and Guglielmo have hair roughly the same light-ish colour, which one is the “brunettino”, which the “bel biondino”? Worst of all was the large cut in the recitative prior to “Fra gli amplessi”; in this performance Fiordiligi called Despina to fetch their lovers’ swords, helmets and tunics from their cupboard, but we never thereafter learnt how the donning of disguise transformed Fiordiligi’s whole appearance (“Oh come ei mi transforma le sembianze e il viso!”) – a key moment of psychological perception in Fiordiligi’s development, and one which Miller’s version of the opera chose to sacrifice. This, to me, is lazy production: holding regardless to a Bright Idea even when it fails to fit the opera’s small print.

In fact, and in contradiction to much of what I said earlier, there were moments of production enjoyment in both acts, partly because some of Dr Miller’s modern-machine additions were mildly diverting (Dr Despina brings the Albanians back to life with some fearsome heart-pumping equipment), partly because in Act 2 there were affecting moments – but always in passing, never as fundamental features of a Così production’s ineluctable momentum – that made one longingly speculate what a thought-through Miller Così fan tutte might be like. When, at the start of Act 2, Dorabella recommends a little light diversion with the Albanians, Fiordiligi suddenly clutches her sister’s hands as with great seriousness she asks, “Ma i nostri cori?”. This was heart-stopping – and there were other instances like it in the expressions of bitterness and pained half-reconciliation on the closing stages.

More to the point, the staging seemed to inspire almost all of its participants beyond the call of duty. In this Così production Ann Murray ended up (as Marilyn Monroe’s Sugar Cane would put it) with “the fuzzy end of the lollipop”: having to undertake her first Despina in these circumstances does neither singer nor character any sort of favour, and all Miss Murray’s considerable vocal professionalism and stage presence could not make it otherwise. (It was hard to keep out of mind’s eye and ear the relaxed, warm, earthy Mature-Woman Despina of another mezzo, Anne Howells, in the previous Covent Garden Così fan tutte production, by Johannes Schaaf – one of the very few points in an otherwise horribly sour, graceless Mozart inscenation could count in its favour.) Bruce Ford and Simon Keenlyside wore their clothes, particularly their “Albanian” ones, with perfect manners and address – if Mr Keenlyside, an operatic comedian of the highest class with a rare sense of timing, was sending things up ocasionally, his way of doing so was deliciously delicate, ben trovato indeed. His forward, vibrant lyric baritone sounded in excellent trim, although he failed to deliver “Donne mie” with quite the courteous air, half-triumphant, half-teasing, it needs (a different conductor would no doubt have helped him do so). Mr Ford’s exquisite, vocally superfine, technically impeccable caressing of “Un’aura amorosa” from the supine position reminded one, by default as it were, that Ferrando’s music is the most difficult of all the Mozart lyric-tenor roles, and that it takes a singer of a certain mature experience as well as of vocal aptness to carry it off. Of “Tradito, schernito” the same can be said; we were denied Ferrando’s second aria, a mistake given a Ferrando of this calibre.

Mature experience of this sort seems to me one of the qualities crucially needed for Fiordiligi (not least a Covent Garden Fiordiligi). Yvonne Kenny touched the problem in Hugh Canning’s “People” profile of her (Opera, December 1992, p. 1393) – “I was hoping I would be able to sing [Fiordiligi] back in Europe, but that hasn’t really happened. People are now casting [her] with 25-year-olds, but it’s a really gruelling sing. I think it takes a mature singer to really pull it off.” Elisabeth Söderström was 40 when she first sang the role for the Royal Opera, in the January 1968 revival; but people with even the longest operatic memories will surely have to search their mental storehouses hard to come up with a more moving, emotionally substantial or musically accomplished exponent of the role than Söderström. I mean no discourtesy to Amanda Roocroft when I suggest that in this sense (and not in terms of the actual number of Così perfomances under her belt, which is already considerable), her Fiordiligi still comes across as an apprentice.

As ever the sheer generosity with which she throws herself into a production was endearing (I liked the light way she touched in the “…and another thing !” production joke running through “Come scoglio”); as we know from Glyndebourne and the Eliot Gardiner Così enterprise and recording, she has no difficulty with the notes. But there is a sense of automatic pilot in her phrasing, of not finding the musical point of pressing it home, which in a “limbo” Così of this sort was subject to ruthless exposure. Miss Roocroft’s note-emission technique may be one thing (as a matter of personal taste I have to confess that the “warm” quality of her lower notes often strikes my ears as muzzy), but word-singing technique is another, and no less important. When a Fiordiligi’s first words sound like “Ah, gua-ah so-eh-ah”, and her emotional crunch (at the moment of surrender to Ferrando) is voiced as “Fa di me queh che eeh ah”, it’s disheartening. As soon as, in that opening duet for the sisters, the voice of the Dorabella entered for the first time, the contrast was a shock: Susan Graham sounded not only more focussed in word and tone, but brighter and almost more soprano-like. Does she, can she sing Fiordiligi? It would be interesting to know, seeing that Miss Graham is an actress of utmost charm and distinction – that Chérubin last year was not fluke – and a singer of great beauty and eloquence (whose tone carries for me strong reminders of the young Yvonne Minton, than which praise comes no higher). This is not the hint even faintly that she was wasted on Dorabella – altro che!; but occasionally such a confident, tall, well-presented younger sibling seemed in danger of unbalancing the sextet.

Finally, what saved Dr Miller’s – and Covent Garden’s – skin more completely than anyone hat any right to expect was the simply astonishing Don Alfonso of Thomas Allen. By now nothing this singer does should come as a surprise (remember that dead-fish-handed, nervously bespectacled Beckmesser?), yet the sheer mastery which he held the stage – often doing no more than sitting still and pensively watchful on a side-stage chair – proved both exhilarating and awesome. He looked wonderfully sleek in the various crypto-Mastroianni outfits Armani had devised for him; played hilariously with his ‘phone and his Italianate command of gesture and diction (in an anglophone cast all expert – Miss Roocroft apart – at hitting a bull’s eye with every word, Mr Allen was the star); and exposed, as the evening wore on, a vein of steel, a cool indifference to the emotional turbulences and tempests of silly youth, that seemed all the more troubling for not being underlined.

Mr Allen’s baritone is no longer quite the rounded, muscular instrument of 20 years ago; the timbre seems now to contain more rasp, less “ballast” in it, and when Alfonso has to provide the organ-pedal of the farewell trio, there was a feeling of the lowest notes having to be touched in. But everything, in what was, after all, a first performance of a complex and demanding role, was achieved with such superlatively confident and compelling artistry, such consummate ease, that even the most exigent Beckmesser in the audience must soon have forgotten to scratch his slate.

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