Così fan tutte: “impressive throughout and glorious in parts”

Jessica Harris sees the Welsh National Opera perform Mozart’s masterpiece at Birmingham Hippodrome.

As one of Mozart’s most performed operas, it’s no surprise that many of the melodies in Così fan tutte are familiar to us. But hearing them again doesn’t make them any less enjoyable, and in this production by Welsh National Opera the quality of singing is impressive throughout and glorious in parts.

The equal weighting of the leads gives an ensemble feel to the whole, whilst the unusual vocal contrasts in many of the duets, Sophie Bevan’s soprano with James Atkinson’s bass, and Keyleigh Decker’s mezzo soprano with Egor Zhuravskii’s tenor, work well. Bevan’s voice has a tremendous range, with a warmth and depth that is truly beautiful. Zhuravskii’s delivery is rich and mellow. Their solos are a joy to the ear, whilst their duets, full of passion and conflicting emotions, are enchanting. Duets between these two lead men and two lead women are also wonderfully toned and charming.

Performances of all four of the lovers are at times comedic and at times lovelorn. Rebecca Evans as Despina displays some lovely comic moments, and her soprano voice is expansive and powerful. José Fardilha as Don Alfonso adds gravitas but sometimes lacks volume when singing with full orchestration.

There is much fun to be had from the plot of this opera. Don Alfonso persuades Ferrando and Guglielmo to accept a wager that their fiancées, sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, could ever be unfaithful. To test their fidelity, and egged on by Alfonso and Despina, Ferrando and Guglielmo disguise themselves and, as new would-be lovers, attempt to seduce the sisters. Will they succumb to the men’s advances, and who will end up with whom? And will the four lovers learn the difference between love and desire, or will the contradictions remain? Così fan tutte translates into English as Women are like that, a premise that would not have offended Viennese sensibilities of the time.

However, the opera’s alternative title, La scuola degli amanti (School for Lovers) is the one which this interpretation is based on. The setting makes for a production which is accessible and entertaining. Yet it also leads to some eccentric choices in staging and costuming and to a rather odd taste in the mouth.

Whilst references to the sexual themes of Così fan tutte might be expected as a means of developing humour and ambiguity, props in this production are crude rather than subtle, explicit rather than implicit. Phallic mushrooms and naked statues of Adam and Eve bear little relationship to the wider stylistic setting of a school room. Costuming, with both leads and chorus dressed as gauche school children, Fiordiligi and Dorabella with Alice bands, pigtails, bobby socks and all, dominate the stage.

The lack of grace or polish emphasises child-like qualities which sit uncomfortably with the overt sexual innuendo of the production. The point is made through surtitles that late 18th century Vienna was a libertarian place where, according to Despina, 15 year-old girls might be expected to know the ways of the world. But stylistic choices do little to bring out wider nuances of the opera and sometimes work against the singers’ delivery of its deeply tender melodies and words.

Fiordiligi was performed by Sophie Bevan, Dorabella by Kayleigh Decker, Ferrando by Egor Zhuravskii and Guglielmo by James Atkinson. Despina was performed by Rebecca Evans and Don Alfonso by José Fardilha. It was directed by Max Hoehn, and conducted by Tomáš Hanus.

For the sheer beauty of the music, Così fan tutte is worth seeing if WNO tours it in the future. And for pure high quality, there is little that can beat WNO’s singers and musicians.

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Pics – Elliott Franks.