To begin the season with yet another revival of Jonathan Miller's production of Così fan tutte – last seen earlier this year – almost made it seem like The Royal Opera wasn't quite taking it seriously, especially since ENO's season-opener is a new Faust and the Met's is the start of a new Ring. The staging is one of the least scenically ambitious in the company's repertoire, and although the cast boasted two of the all-time greats as Despina (Rebecca Evans) and Alfonso (Thomas Allen), the four other principals aren't exactly household names.
Yet there was a certain amount of ambition here. One of the ROH's latest ventures is the broadcasting of some of its productions to cinemas around the world, and it's a great success. Apparently, more than 200 cinemas in the UK, the US and Europe (including Russia) were able to enjoy the opening night, at a fraction of the cost of attending it in the house itself.
One can imagine the production having come across extremely well on the big screen. Although the set is perfunctory, Miller fills it with plenty of action. While Fiordiligi sings 'Come scoglio', Despina starts playing with her mobile phone. In another scene, Alfonso's mobile phone rings, and the ringtone is played by the fortepiano. Starbucks and the iPhone also feature, as does a laptop (on which the marriage contract is drawn), and the two boys arrive at the girls' house disguised as Hell's Angels. Pushing the singers to the front portion of the stage is a boost to their voices, too. Sometimes, I feel Miller gets it wrong: when the women hold their long pedal notes over Alfonso's solo near the end of 'Soave sia il vento', they turn round and look at him in comic desperation, distracting from the beauty of the music. The final moments of the opera, when Despina throws the money Alfonso has paid her back at him, also leave a peculiar taste in the mouth after so much humour. But taken as a show, it was a highly entertaining evening.
The other ambitious aspect of the production was the conducting of Thomas Hengelbrock, who will be bringing his period instrument orchestra to the house later this month to present a baroque rarity, Niobe, while the main company is in Japan. Frankly, he seems to have managed to make the resident orchestra sound like a period band, too: everything's short and sharp, vibrato is used sparingly and expressively, chords are neatly balanced. Occasionally, I found the tempos a bit extreme: Dorabella's first aria was a trifle swift, and some of the slower numbers in Act 2 were a little too slow. On the whole, though, it was a strikingly fresh orchestral performance, and something to savour.
Vocally, though, the main interest for me was in Rebecca Evans's ideal Despina. Combining a rich tone, an idiomatic sensitivity to the text and impeccable comic timing, her performance could scarcely be bettered. Her arias were both beautifully sung, and her participation in the ensembles was always noteworthy. I can't wait to hear her first Donna Elvira, at ENO, later this autumn.
Also wonderful was the Don Alfonso of Sir Thomas Allen, whose presence in this role in this production now seems essential. Although he is not as vocally fresh as he was, his conversational treatment of the recitatives is a masterclass in how to do it. And the sense that Alonso is a smart old philosopher, pulling the strings while everyone else bends to his will, was as sharp as ever.
As for the four other principals, they were all adequate and had something to offer, but none of them was ideally cast. For me, Maria Bengstsson's Fiordligi was the weakest: the tense, almost constant vibrato in her lower jaw seemed at odds with Hengelbrock's performance practice-conscious style, and although she acquitted herself acceptably in 'Per pieta', this was hardly up there with the great renditions of the role. On the whole, I liked Jurgita Adamonytė's Dorabella, in spite of some intonation problems. She has a warm tone and sense of the musical structure, and all that's lacking is a bit more spirit and vigour. Pavol Breslik's Ferrando went down well with the audience, and he certainly performs with some assurance, but there was a lack of dynamic variety and the tightness of his upper voice led to problems on the highest notes. As Guglielmo, Stéphane Degout also sang with some warmth but didn't quite convey the personality of the character.
Yet somehow, the evening hung together rather well. A strong sense of ensemble, some interesting conducting and the world-class Despina of Evans made it all worthwhile.
Photos: Mike Hoban
Cosi fan tutte runs until the end of September at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
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)