More often than not, Royal Academy Opera productions could be regarded as master classes for invention within modest monetary conditions. Their Così Fan Tutte is no exception: here too modest means create an entirely credible atmosphere which is often lacking in lavish professional productions. It is of note that, very wisely, RAO tends to present repertoire which had been conceived for small theatres in the first place. Thus with its 200 or so capacity, the Sir Jack Lyons Theatre (at the Royal Academy of Music) is an ideal venue for chamber operas like Così Fan Tutte.
The plot of the opera may be regarded as belonging to the genre of light-hearted opera buffa. But Mozart's music tells a different story: it shows the complexity of human emotions which include vulnerability, passion, jealousy, pride and shame. By manipulating the other five characters, Don Alfonso proves that all women are unfaithful. Although it is not meant to be part of the plot or, indeed, part of Don Alfonso's plan, he nevertheless shows that all men can learn to be seducers. So men and women are alike, they all do like this (Così Fan Tutte).
Director John Cox's reading of Cosi is witty, stays within boundaries of taste (contrary to so many Cosi productions which do not) and brave. He updates da Ponte's 18th century Naples scenario to modern day academia. The philosopher Don Alfonso becomes Alfonso, a lecturer in behaviour science, and Ferrando and Guglielmo are his students (who also study drama). Sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella are music students – apparently studying horn and cello respectively – while Despina is their landlady. The fictional professor Alfonso's lecturing on infidelity and manipulation in a production staged by an actual academy is a bold move. Is this a reminder that university professors can succumb to temptation of seducing vulnerable students in their charge? On the other hand, Cox's presentation of the four fictional lovers (and the chorus of soldiers and servants) as students brings the action on stage intimately close to the audience. We are observing student life on many levels. In reality we are witnessing an opera performed by students in their college. But, at the same time, we are also drawn into the complicated love life of students as well as into the world of unscrupulous landladies and into the seductive machination of the not always noble minded professors.
The production is realised with simple and logical means. Sixteen fellow students (of Ferrando and Guglielmo) keep changing sets and props, as required, as if setting up their experiments. The props consist of a few chairs, a table and – in the girls' lodgings – a horn case, a cello case and a music stand. The sixteen fellow students (or stage hands) double as the chorus, thus becoming more integral to the opera as usual for the chorus in other Cosi stagings.
Of the six solo singers, only one – Aoife Miskelly (Despina) – was able to sustain her excellence all the way through the performance which I attended. She could have been recorded without having to do any re-takes. John-Owen Miley-Read (Alfonso) astonished me with his variety of tone colours but the voice felt a bit tired for just a few notes towards the end. Alexander Sprague (Ferrando) seemed overtaxed (or perhaps nervous) in his first solo aria ('Un' aura amoroso', Act One) but he produced lovely tonal quality throughout the evening. It was a shame that during the three composed pauses in 'Un' aura amoroso' one could hear – admittedly only slightly – Royal Academy of Music students practicing presumably nearby. Initially both Runette Botha (Fiordiligi) and Katie Bray (Dorabella) had a few intonation problems in Act One (in particular, in the trio 'Soave sia ilvento') but both gained full control as the performance proceeded. Indeed, Botha's rendering of Fiordiligi's 'Per pietà, ben mio, perdona' (Act Two) was an admirable tour de force (in spite of the occasional but almost inevitable cracked notes in the taxing orchestral horn parts). As the other five singers already mentioned, Marcus Farnsworth (Guglielmo) also gave a credible and enjoyable performance. All six characterisations were carefully nuanced, no doubt through the insight and dedication of director John Cox. RAO students are fortunate to have such guidance, although they should not expect such standard of direction in their hopefully successful working life.
Conductor (and RAO director) Jane Glover took elegant tempi and she inspired excellent playing from the orchestra. Congratulations are due to the wind soloists (of the Royal Academy Sinfonia) who tackled their exposed solos in the Overture bravely and well. The orchestral intro to the Ferrando/Guglielmo choral duet (Act Two) was shown on stage as if it was recorded – Despina turned on the radio or a CD? – and it indeed sounded rock solid. Full praise goes also to the chorus who managed to sound truly majestic in spite of their relatively small number.
This was a production to cherish (and to preserve for future students of stage direction).
By Agnes Kory
Mozart: Cosi fan tutte at ENO (2009)
Mozart: Cosi fan tutte at Glyndebourne (2010)
Mozart: Cosi fan tutte at Covent Garden with Sally Matthews (2010)
Mozart: Cosi fan tutte at Covent Garden with Evans and Allen (2007)