Così fan tutte at ROH

The Royal Opera House’s new production of Così fan tutte attempts to dispel the title’s obvious misogyny by telling us that, in fact, it is all humanity who are fickle and deceitful. Most laboriously, this point is driven home when the some of the bulbs on the giant ‘Così fan tutte’ sign that descends over the stage are unscrewed to leave ‘Così fan tutti’. And it is this precisely this kind of heavy-handed concept that characterises the production.

The evening opened as it went on. The overture was from the start a touch too broad in tempo, and the mock period curtain call that accompanied it on stage, while wittily observed, went on long beyond when the audience had got the point. The production seemed to wander in a slightly aimless way across the centuries, with Don Alfonso in 18th century costume, and the four lovers and Despina in modern dress. From starting in the modern day Royal Opera House, for the farewell scene the action suddenly shifts to a 1940s train station. From there, the setting  continues to change, including a garden of Eden set, a dressmaker’s shop, and a baroque theatre set. While this shifting is perhaps intended to suggest the timelessness of  the moral of the title, all it did was leave the opera baseless and drifting.

Occasionally, the staging decisions worked as they were obviously intended to, especially in the second half, where the use of the theatre flats brought out the meta-theatre of Alfonso’s machinations, and allowed a little space for some of Fiordiligi’s conscience-wrangling. But in general, it felt unfocused rather than deliberately surreal, and altogether too clever for its own good.

Musically, the performance was mixed. Right from the start, Semyon Bychkov’s tempi were too broad and lugubrious. Mozart’s musical wit was therefore often lost, though the textures were clear and the orchestral tone beautiful. The cast, mostly young, and several of them making house debuts, were generally impressive. They provided a brightness and sparkle that the conducting lost.

Corinne Winters made an appealing Fiordiligi, with emotional fervour, though occasionally lacking some depth on the lower notes in ‘Come scoglio’. She was well-matched in vocal tone by Angela Brower as Dorabella, who also worked well with Alessio Arduini’s slightly lacklustre but decent Guglielmo. Daniel Behle truly shone as Ferrando, however, especially in ‘Un’aura amorosa’, for which the production for once stood still for a moment and let the music through. Johannes Martin Kränzle and Sabina Puértolas complete a cast who complement each other well – perhaps the most important thing in this ensemble opera.

In the end, we are left feeling slightly unsatisfied – a feeling that suits the ambiguous plot resolution, but not necessarily how one should feel after a truly successful performance.

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