Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto: Lorenzo Da Ponte
Translation: Ruth and Thomas Martin
Director: Brendan Wheatley
Conductor: John Beswick
Designer: Gabriella Ingram
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Cosi fan Tutte is one of the most problematic of Mozart’s operas. Until comparatively recent times it was neglected, certainly in Britain (too immoral or too sophisticated?), and it still creates problems of interpretation.
The plot is simple, the emotions complicated. Guglielmo and Ferrando, two young officers, are in love with two sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, and boastfully confident of their fiancées’ devotion to them. Don Alfonso, an older friend of the soldiers, bets the young men that their fiancées will prove unfaithful because that’s what all women do – “cosi fan tutte”. The officers are supposedly called away to war and return in disguise to put Don Alfonso’s theory to the test. After some time and much pressure, Fiordiligi and Dorabella fall for each other’s fiancé. Time for the officers to return in their own persons.
In Paul Wilson’s programme note, he states, “It is a profound error to attempt to judge Cosi fan Tutte from a 21st-century perspective”. Probably so, but it is necessary to create a context for the events which are simply manufactured by Don Alfonso. Why? Is it cruelty or curiosity or a desire to teach his young friends a lesson in life? If so, it’s an appalling one – in the same note Wilson correctly defends Mozart and Da Ponte against charges of misogyny, but Don Alfonso has no such defence. The ending of the opera is ambiguous – Brendan Wheatley smartly refuses to draw a conclusion about Guglielmo and Ferrando, but what about Don Alfonso? Should he get off scot-free?
Swansea City Opera is a small-scale company that takes opera to mostly middle-sized towns, many of them starved of opera. Despite its provincial-sounding name, it’s a truly international company, with a Swede, an Estonian and a South African (standing in for an Australian) in the cast of six. It’s always a pleasure to hear an audience member say, “This is the first time I’ve been to opera and I’m enjoying it.” However, as a response to Cosi fan Tutte, this production is attractive but rather bland. The only innovation, setting it in 19th-century British India, offers little except Don Alfonso’s elaborate costume. The young men’s disguise as Indians rather than “Albanians” (a people of whom Mozart’s audience knew nothing) scores on realism, but misses out on opportunities for farce.
Mari Wyn Williams (Fiordiligi) and Aurelija Stasiulyte (Dorabella) are just charming sisters (a touch of wildness or eccentricity or contrast might have helped), but vocally they are excellent. Williams at first seems to have rather a heavy soprano for Fiordiligi, but both encompass a series of taxing arias with accuracy, commitment and glorious tone. Ian Beadle (Guglielmo) proves the truth that a Wilson and Keppel moustache can unleash a comic personality and, in disguise, he’s a clever droll. With or without moustache, he fields an elegant baritone. July Zuma, the replacement Ferrando, has settled nicely into the production, even if his sweet tenor sometimes sounds a bit strained. Hakan Vramsmo is urbanity personified as Don Alfonso, a natural stage animal with polished legato delivery, but rather undefined as a character. The axis of scheming with the sisters’ feisty maid, Despina –whose appearances as doctor and lawyer are the main elements of farce in this moral comedy – is rather underplayed, but Jessica Robinson’s assured Despina confirms the promise of her previous SCO performances.
John Beswick’s reduction of the accompaniment to eight pieces – five strings and three woodwind – works well, but in an opera where sensuous woodwind writing is so important there is a definite loss, this despite noble efforts by the woodwind players, notably Pete Morgan on bassoon. At Harrogate the capable chorus was supplied by local group Cadenza.
Gabriella Ingram’s designs create a suitably opulent feel, stylish rather than elaborate. Despite the withdrawal of funding from the City of Swansea, standards of performance remain high and, as the pace picks up in the second half, with more sparky and well-balanced ensembles to go with complications of plot, reservations about the production lessen.
Touring nationwide | Image: Joe Moody