Perhaps I was unlucky with the direction of the wind, but my seat for Opera Holland Park’s new production of Così fan tutte was an extremely cold place. I survived (with several layers of woolly jumpers and a winter coat) but I cannot help wondering: do the performers have to work under similar conditions? How does one rate artistic input against wind, draft and cold? And should artists be exposed to such conditions? I hasten to add that I liked all of what I heard and much of what I saw. But what could have been a more dramatic rendering of Cosi is likely to have been somewhat dampened by the unfavourable weather conditions. It was also unfortunate for the audience that one of the surtitle screens was out of order. Management duly apologised for the inconvenience but if you sat to the right of the centre of the auditorium, you were left without any surtitles. Fortunately most of the audience seemed to be familiar with Cosi but for a first timer the draft, cold and lack of comprehensibility (of the opera’s plot) could sadly have been a turn-off for life.
All six principal singers were excellent. They sounded ideal in their roles even though Dorabella’s soprano part was taken by mezzo-soprano Julia Riley (whose looks and singing style reminded me, rightly or wrongly, of a young Felicity Lott). Tenor Andrew Staples (Ferrando) sang with gentle and intelligent lyricism; some of his phrasings showed great care for voice-leading. Passion is also part of Staples’ interpretation but he never shouts that is never endangers the beauty of his tone production. Nevertheless, some of his top notes on this occasion were not as beautiful as he might have intended. Bass-baritone Dawid Kimberg (Guglielmo) tackled his part with great confidence; singing seems to come naturally to him. Baritone Nicholas Garrett (Don Alfonso) delivered his vocal lines as if he was talking. This is, of course, perfect for Don Alfonso’s character who philosophises on the frailty of human nature. Soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn (Fiordiligi) took a while to warm up, perhaps literally, to her role. But eventually her personal warmth presented Fiordiligi as very nice young woman (rather than a silly, mistaken girl). Soprano Joana Seara (Despina) did not go for cheap laughs; her vocal delivery was perfect and she made the role of maid credible. Her disguises as the doctor and the notary were less credible but if we (or, to be more precise, the characters of Fiordiligi and Dorabella) believe that the disguised Ferrando and Guglielmo are the strange Albanians, then the doctor and the notary in the mix do not stretch credibility too far.
Conductor Thomas Kemp responded to the lyricism of Mozart’s score with sensitivity. He let the phrases and shapes speak for themselves; quite rightly he did not impose some artificial drive into this charming and largely philosophical musical discourse. Kemp also remembered to emphasize crucial instrumental input, which Mozart uses at relevant sections of the libretto. Thus sighing winds, jubilant timpani notes, virtuoso clarinet passages and deliberately painful trumpet sounds served as commentary to da Ponte’s words. Kemp was ably assisted by the City of London Sinfonia – how do they manage to play so well in such cold weather? – and by the Opera Holland Park Chorus.
Up to a point, what we heard in the music was matched by what we saw on stage. Director Harry Fehr staged the opera at the time when it was written, with appropriate 18th century frocks (designed by Alex Eales). Fehr also invested the main characters with credible emotional details (which are so richly portrayed in Mozart’s score). However, the intimacy of the plot was perhaps compromised. Not only are the pairs of lovers as well as Despina puppets in Don Alfonso’s hands (as intended by librettist da Ponte) but in Fehr’s staging they are permanently watched by large crowds who at times include the three male protagonists. The main action takes place in the centre of the stage (in a country house, designed by Alex Eales). Chorus members are divided into the two sides of the stage where they are spectators most of the time. Occasionally they indicate their views on what they see, other times they become the chorus proper (although they always sing from notes which seem to be more like stage props than notes necessary for chorus members). It is fair to say that, with permanent chorus participation of one kind or the other, our interest is permanently maintained. However, what we gain in dramatic staging, we lose in intimacy. At no point of the evening are Fiordiligi and Dorabella left alone, yet Mozart’s music indicates loneliness as well as a whole range of other emotions within his score.
Opera Holland Park’s new Cosi production is a performance of musical distinction and of considerable although partially debatable dramatic insight. Go but make sure to dress warm.
By Agnes Kory
Listen to OHP's podcast on Francesca da Rimini here: http://www.rbkc.gov.uk/subsites/operahollandparkpodcasts.aspx