Mozart produced three great operas with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. Cosi fan Tutte was first performed in Vienna in 1790 and, despite a brief period of popularity, it disappeared from the stage until revived by Richard Strauss in the early twentieth century. It is now rarely away from the roster of the major houses but it still seems to confuse and befuddle the creative teams that attempt it. Though this very enjoyable and highly comic production mounted for Nevil Hall Opera is a treat for eye and ear, it does not really do justice to the complex psychological story that lies beneath the glittering surface provided by Mozart’s sublime music and da Ponte’s witty, if misogynistic, words. There seem to be no lessons to be learnt here in the School for Lovers which is the second part of the full title of the opera – and might have been the main title if Mozart had stuck to his guns.
Guglielmo and Ferrando are two young men who seem to believe that their lovers, sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, are perfect. Their friend, Don Alfonso, warns them that they expect too much and that they would be wise to remove the women from their pedestals and love them for who they really are – “are they goddesses, or are they women?” he says. The young men won’t listen and eventually agree to take part in a scheme cooked up by Don Alfonso to test the credulity of the men and the fidelity of the women. The men pretend to depart for war then return in disguise to woo the women. Don Alfonso is assisted in running his subterfuges by Despina, the women’s worldly-wise maid. Don Alfonso’s predictions prove all too true.
The production looks wonderful. We are in the 1920s and the action takes place during a riotous party complete with flappers and Charleston dancers and with plenty of references to the silent films of the era. Scenes end with the spotlight shrinking to focus our gaze on the key characters, blinking amidst the frivolity that surrounds them. And Alexandra Lowe as Fordiligi and Katie Coventry as Dorabella thrive in this milieu, both giving performances of style and charm. It is clear from the outset that Coventry’s Dorabella is less “inhibited” than her sister, as her passionate farewell to Ferrando illustrates in the first Act. Lowe’s Fiordiligi is a more complex character and, as she begins to admit to herself that her love for Guglielmo is not invulnerable, Lowe comes into her own musically and dramatically.
As Ferrando, Nick Pritchard has an ideal tenor voice for Mozart’s music and his beautiful delivery of Aura Amorosa is charming despite some unnecessary comic business. Martin Hassler is a blustering but virile Guglielmo, all too self-satisfied about his success with Dorabella. John Molloy channels David Niven for his take on the arch-manipulator Don Alfonso and he strikes the right note of world-weary cynicism but his voice does not sound comfortable in the higher reaches of the vocal line. Carolina Lippo as Despina is more ‘older sister’ than ‘maid’ and her advice to the girls in her two arias was sung with plenty of musical invention.
Director Adele Thomas’ response to the aspects of the story that modern audiences find so difficult to take – particularly the normally unconvincing disguises adopted by the young men – was to ramp up the humorous business. This worked up to a point but it sometimes intruded into moments when the music has something rather different to say. Before the final notes of Come Scoglio die away the flappers’ party appear again to shimmy across the stage. Even the sublime Aura Amorosa was interrupted before the end by Ferrando’s search for a party hooter down the back of a sofa. That the production seemed to miss some of the more poignant and ambivalent moments in the drama was down to this relentless search for laughs.
Fortunately conductor Nicholas Chalmers kept a tight rein on the score and produced some beautiful sounds from the excellent Royal Northern Sinfonia. And the stunning new auditorium in the beautiful setting of Nevill Holt Hall is a perfect place to stage this wonderful Mozart masterpiece.
- By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
- Directed by Adele Thomas
- Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte
- Conducted by Nicholas Chalmers
- Performers include: Alexandra Lowe, Katie Coventry, Nick Pritchard, Martin Hassler
- Nevill Holt Opera
- Until 2 July 2019