Jonathan Miller's present-day production from 1995, once more in slightly updated revival at Covent Garden, rests on visual humour. Its repertoire of perfectly timed gestures, sartorial cross-referencing and delight in physical theatre unfolds within an unchanging plain white set – a blank canvas if ever there was one. A typical, well-pitched gag punctuates the second scene of Act 1: Fiordiligi (searching out that picture of Guglielmo to show her sister) relished the unmistakeable scrolling swipe of the iPhone user, perfectly timed to Mozart’s orchestral cues.
The audience loved it – perhaps only second to Sir Thomas Allen's opening gambit as Don Alfonso, in which an over-ambitious mouthful of canapé necessarily put his musical entrance on hold. Whether calculated or not, he had the audience charmed before he'd sung a note. And so it went on: the technologically enabled sisters from Ferrara boast high-end capsule wardrobes; Da Ponte's mysterious 'Albanians' are reborn as hairy bikers-cum-heavy metal fans; in their only-slightly-shiny grey suits of the opening scene, the Ferrando-Guglielmo coalition musters more than a passing resemblance to a fantastical Miliband-Clegg double act.
As Kaspar Holten's programme-book blurb enthuses, this is Mozart 'with mobile phones, Starbucks coffee and laptops'. Those hoping for an operatic escape from the daily grind, look away now. But for all its iPhone-toting attention seeking, the production remains in distinctly old-fashioned thrall to Mozart's score. There's a tendency, for instance, for the big numbers to be delivered completely static: admittedly welcome respite from what is at times too much stage movement, but also oddly awestruck, creating strange visual shifts between recitative and aria. More problematic, though, is Miller's reaction to the shift to musical expressivity in Act 2. The production's visual energy dribbles away, and we're left with singers getting down to the business of singing, in a huge and almost empty white space draped as though awaiting redecoration. It's hard to say why.
Just as well, then, that the singing was enormously enjoyable in its own right. Charles Castronovo and Nikolay Borchev were well matched vocally as the earnest lovers. Castronovo's robust but flexible tenor made for a dynamic Ferrando, suitably swaggering in Act 1 (even down to some khaki-clad press-ups) but at his most expressive in the Act II duet with Fiordiligi. As Guglielmo, Borchev lacked tonal focus at times but was a energetic dramatic presence throughout. Michèle Losier's Dorabella was at her finely detailed best after fully embracing the role of coquette in Act 2. Malin Byström's luxurious, dark tone made for an unusual but persuasive Fiordiligi, with impressive control over the entire range as well as a spine-tingling bottom register. Although her emotional centrepiece in Act 2 might in places have benefited from a simpler sense of line, her more Romantic rendition – hysteria scarcely suppressed – was extremely effective in this production's bare surroundings.
The best of the vocal performances, though, came from Da Ponte's two catalysts. Rosemary Joshua served up a sex-crazed Despina (beware the office party where she's in attendance), dominating the stage as she powered around in red stilettos, but equally captivating in her turns en travesty. Her notary in particular – equipped with laptop, pin stripes, trilby and absurd English accent – was a comic masterstroke, delivered with the authority of one utterly at ease with on-the-money vocal performance.
Sir Thomas Allen's Don Alfonso was a philosopher modelled more on Stan from Dinner Ladies than one of the Classical Greats, his moralising peculiarly winning in spite of its obvious difficulties for a modern audience. Indeed, in a performance explicitly dedicated to his 40 years on the ROH stage, Allen clearly relished his position as circus master. He delivered his recitatives with endless panache and even (to the audience's continued delight) clicked his heels with glee at the progress of his plan as he disappeared offstage. It’s hardly surprising after four decades that the voice is not quite what it once was. It nonetheless remains an impressive instrument, and one with changing affective powers: the famous Act 1 trio with the two sisters was not, perhaps, as firmly grounded as one might wish, but had a fragility – above all from the faint wavering of Allen’s pianissimo – which was suddenly, unexpectedly poignant.
The presence of the classified 'authoritative' Sir Colin Davis completed the impressive Mozartian line-up. Despite occasional coordination problems between stage and pit, the ROH orchestra provided their usual high level of musical service, while the chorus were an unobtrusive supporting presence as dark-suited office minions. There was little doubt, though, that the evening’s principal draw was not (pace the new Director of Opera) the phones and laptops of Miller’s production, but the singers, and above all Allen. Fêted at the curtain call with flowers strewn from on high (he returned the favour by lobbing a couple of bunches into the auditorium) and an enormous cake wheeled on from the wings, he proclaimed, 'I love this place'. After this performance (and forty years of others comparable), it’s not hard to see why 'the place' also loves him.
Photos by Johan Persson
Opera review: Così fan tutte at ENO
Opera review: Così fan tutte at Glyndebourne Festival Opera
Opera review: Così fan tutte at the Royal Opera House
Opera review: Così fan tutte at the Manhattan School of Music