Nicholas Hytner's production for Glyndebourne of Mozart's third and last comic opera written by da Ponte, Cosi fan tutte, won high praise when it premiered in 2006. I saw it at the time and enjoyed the clean visual lines, the elegance of a set that converted easily, by human hand, from ante-room to drawing room to decorated courtyard, always set against a pale blue or deep blue cycloramic backdrop that effortlessly conjured up the Bay of Naples, where the opera is located. I enjoyed the performances too, the whole enterprise being crisply directed and well sung. So I looked forward with keen anticipation to this year's revival.
The first thing to say – to my ears at least – is that insufficient time has been spent in rehearsal (one of Glyndebourne's strongest points, surely?) to pull together all the elements in this Cosi that make it, at its best, one of opera's crowning glories, but at its worst, one of those operas that can 'near miss'. Precision of ensemble was not quite there, all of the time and in all the right places. Stage and pit did not always see eye to eye on where the pulse really resided, where the driving force of the music was taking us. And the sound of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment – so gloriously natural when playing at its best – seemed thin at times, with insufficient bloom to the strings and less than ideal balance between strings, woodwind and brass. There was something that was not quite right, something at the edges that just kept stopping the performance from 'taking off'. So despite the many, many good features of this production – and they are all still there – the cast and the performance that I saw were below the highest standards so often set by the Festival.
Let us start with the really positives (taking the virtues of the production as read: the revival has changed almost nothing, apart from allowing the principals to stray a tiny bit more out of character and to indicate to us audience that we are all in on this joke together). As Dorabella, the young German mezzo Barbara Senator never put a foot wrong. She has a creamy tone, sings with unforced ease, blended well in all the ensembles and made a really strong impression. I shall follow her future career with interest. Opposite her, Allan Clayton as Ferrando sang with full, open tenor sound and managed to spin those long, arching musical phrases that litter the part above and below the stave with ease and unforced naturalness: his breath control was superb throughout, and never more so than in the aria that traps so many promising Ferrandos, Un aura amorosa. Here we heard the graduated dynamic that is called for, and true pianissimo singing at the top of his range. Gorgeous.
I liked too the all-knowing, been-here-before Despina of Anna Maria Panzarella, who injected pace and energy into the proceedings at all the right moments. The voice is medium-sized, but has a tonal bloom that always keeps her singing musical: when this Despina was onstage, you watched and listened and found much to enjoy.
And so to the other half of the sextet, where my rapture was modified a bit. Robert Gleadow is an imposing presence and can produce an attractive baritone sound, not particularly strong in its lower register but perfectly acceptable overall. I found his musical phrasing patchy however, lacking the precision of line and dynamic that the role of Guglielmo demands, especially in the ensemble passages. Gleadow also fell prey to a besetting sin in Cosi, overacting. It is a very long joke to sustain, and cheap laughs early on in the evening come back to haunt you onstage later. So by the highest standards – and I think Gleadow is capable of a better performance than the one I experienced – this was a shade disappointing.
The converse is true of Pietro Spagnoli's performance as Don Alfonso – not a trace of over-acting, in fact much more the impression of a deadpan routine. There is a case to be made, and I have seen it several times in European houses, for Don Alfonso to be the completely detached master of ceremonies or puppeteer, but even in such characterizations, the voice has to dominate, the darker aspects of what Don Alfonso is up to have to be heard in how he sings the role. Spagnoli seemed to be singing mezza voce at times, marking the role adequately but not putting any energy into his vocal production. As a result there was a bit missing – I have hardly ever heard a flatter account of Soave sia il vento, the sublime Act One trio that should make your hair stand on end and your heart miss a beat. It may of course have been an off day, but overall I felt Spagnoli could have done much more with the role.
That leaves Sally Matthews as Fiordiligi, who did many things right but who is not yet quite – in my view – into the role. It is of course a fiendish part and truly triumphant Fiordiligis are relatively few and far between. What I found with Matthews' incarnation of the role was uneven tone in different areas of the voice – secure in the middle, with a nice quality of open soprano sound, she had much greater difficulties with the highs and lows of the role. The low register in particular is simply not powerful enough to give full, exciting value to the two showpiece arias, Come scoglio in particular. On the plus side, Matthews moved and acted attractively, bonded well with her 'sister' Dorabella and held a nice line in the ensemble passages. But she has not really yet developed the full vocal toolkit that can make this role so challenging and so exciting a sing.
In the pit was Sir Charles Mackerras, a supreme musician and a Mozartian through and through to his fingertips. I first heard him conduct Cosi at Covent Garden in the early 1970s and the experience has lived with me ever since. In 2010 at Glyndebourne I would say that Mackerras presided over an account of the score that exuded warmth, love and respect for the many challenges that the work poses, but without the split-second attention to detail that is needed to bring all the strands together. There was much that was lovely, and all the broad lines were there. What was missing was that connecting thread that makes all those involved respond as one. Of course, even a lukewarm Cosi under Mackerras at Glyndebourne is better than many accounts of the opera you will hear elsewhere: but by the standards that belong to the genius loci on the Sussex Downs, the sum of all the parts just failed to add up.
Photo credits: Robbie Jack (from the 2009 tour)