The term 'classic production', while it encompasses some of the operatic greats, nevertheless often brings with it a sense of rigidity, of works frozen in a heyday increasingly removed from contemporary sensibilities. Among those directors whose works tend towards the 'classic' Jonathan Miller currently reigns supreme. Yet there is something about his work, and about his willingness to redirect and reinterpret, that often spares his revivals the fate shared by so many of the other ageing greats.
His contemporary Cosi has been a favourite since its first staging in 1995, and now returns directed by Daniel Dooner (although the presence of Miller himself at the opening night curtain calls suggest that he might have had more than a hand in some of the changes). Set in a world of suited city boys and power females, with a fair smattering of laptops, iphones and Starbucks coffee cups, the production is at pains to move with the times. While such details can often appear self-conscious and unnecessary, here their integration into the plot – Dorabella's 'picture' and proof of her infidelity comes captured on a camera-phone – works surprisingly well, heightening the sense that a well-directed Cosi always gives of being authentically contemporary both in style and sensibility.
The set remains as beautiful and daringly simple as ever. A single room serves as frame throughout; swathed in dustsheets, with piles of discarded cushions littered around it is a study in imperfection, both in the sense of a blotted canvas – the grey damp working its way down the cream coloured walls is gently evident – and more significantly in the sense of being incomplete, unfinished. This world and its characters are a work in progress, constantly forming and reforming through the course of the opera without ever committing to a single emotional course or moral conclusion. The elegant proportions of the set and its furnishings hark back to the eighteenth century, a nod to the opera's origins that is both cheekily self-conscious and an interesting framing device.
The focal point of the set however is the mirror that occupies centre-stage throughout. A touchtone for the characters, it thematizes the opera's underlying concern with appearances. This is a work in which seeming and being, seeing and perceiving are two very different things. Miller's is not a production that seeks to woo its audience into liking or excusing its heroes and heroines; their self-regarding vanity and fascination with image is played out in the constant preening of the women and the childish posturing of the men, who prance and pose in front of the mirror with their new outfits and toys of war.
Central to the production is the character of Don Alphonso, who emerges here as something of a cipher. Played so often as an ageing mischief-maker, in the hands of experience Mozartian William Shimell he became something more sinister - a benign yet provocative Shakespearean figure, whose apparent absence of motivation or depth is profoundly problematic. Singing with understated control, Shimmel delivered a genuinely exciting and generous performance, and his exchanges with Helene Schneiderman's Despine were some of the evening's highlights.
Scheiderman, who has previously sung Dorabella in past revivals of this production, was a perfect foil to Shimmel. Her comedic skills were much in evidence, and she gamely sang at various points while eating a doughnut, while holding a pen in her mouth, and while wearing a full surgical mask. Despite this, her vocal clarity of tone and technical assurance was unquestionable, and her worldly-wise yet affectionate relationship with the girls was both humane and hilarious.
The young lovers themselves were a little more of a mixed bag. It was truly an evening of power women, as Sally Matthews (Fiordiligi) and Nino Surguladze (Dorabella) outshone their male counterparts to almost embarrassing degrees. After a slightly bland start, Surguladze grew into a doe-eyed and loveable coquette of a Dorabella. Initially a little overpowered in ensembles, she gained in assurance, and her Act II duet with Fiordiligi 'Prendero quell brunettino' was a delight.
Matthews is rapidly turning into a British operatic institution, turning in consistently superb performances. Her acting ability coupled with her undeniable vocal skills are a potent combination, and were put to good use here in the difficult character of Fiordiligi. Playing up to her neuroses and uptight nature, Matthews was able to create a believable arc for her development, growing through a compelling 'Come Scoglio' which showcased her power at the lower extremes of her range, and culminating in a 'Per pieta' that was tender and glowing.
While nothing was especially wrong with the Charles Castronovo's Ferrando or Troy Cook's Guglielmo, neither entirely succeeded in transcending their extreme costumes (as hippie and metal-head respectively) and projecting much in the way of character. Castronovo's dark-toned voice was pleasant, but tonally a little unvaried and occasionally sounded a little fragile at the top. His 'Un'aura amorosa' was competent, but unexciting. Cook's Guglielmo similarly was stronger in comedic ensemble scenes that in his arias, bringing insufficient charm or vocal presence to his seduction.
In the pit British conductor Julia Jones was making her Royal Opera debut. Tonally she achieved much lightness and energy from her orchestra, which played well alongside the youthful onstage activities. Unfortunately however there were more than a few moments where orchestra and stage parted company, yet hopefully such glitches will be ironed out as the opera settles into its run.
This revived production has lost none of its youthful energy and sparkle, and with its irreverent approach to recitative and strong acting is bound to win many new converts to the concept of non-traditional staging.
Photo credits: Richard H Smith