Of all the great Mozart operas, Cosi Fan Tutte is the one I have always had trouble with. What is it all about? In particular, who is Don Alfonso: tormentor or avuncular friend, bloodless cynic or ageing roué, misogynist or mentor? It’s easy to admire the poise and invention of the music, but remain totally uninvolved. The difficulty in finding a true context for the opera is probably the prime reason why many notable productions in recent years have used a clearly defined, but inauthentic, milieu: Peter Sellars with Despina’s Diner or David Freeman on the beach.
The first time Cosi Fan Tutte made sense to me was in Tim Albery’s formidably intelligent production for Opera North in 2004. Now it’s revived – and it still makes sense. Don Alfonso is the philosopher/scientist, smugly secure in his own rational view of the world, and it’s in a spirit of experiment that he makes the bet with his young friends, Ferrando and Guglielmo, that their lovers, the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, will prove unfaithful.
Tobias Hoheisel’s set is dominated by a huge camera, the instrument of the experiment, and from the outset Don Alfonso’s attention constantly wanders to it. He is in control: he opens up the camera to reveal an 18th century drawing room, he alone can walk through the fourth wall, at the end of Act 1 he brings down the front of the camera to imprison the poor humans who are his control group. He wins his bet, but dangerous emotions are afoot by now and in the final ensemble the young people break through the fourth wall and he is left, a failed experiment, in his own laboratory – brilliant!
In this interpretation the youth of the four lovers is an essential element (the emotions that are unleashed come as a surprise to them as well as Don Alfonso) and this revival casts four fine young singers. Unfortunately, while the men convince from the outset with their amiably puppyish joking and posing, the sisters are just too stately. Vocally, too, Elizabeth Atherton and Victoria Simmonds need the first signs of fury before they sing with any freedom, though by Act 2 Atherton is in splendid voice for Per pieta ben mio perdona.
Allan Clayton’s Ferrando admirably fulfils the potential of recent Opera North performances: richly lyrical, with plenty of passion and bite when required, together with a disarming stage personality and a nicely understated line in silliness. Quirijn De Lang’s Guglielmo, equally droll and vocally precise, complements him perfectly. Amy Freston, full of personality, wit and expressive movement, is rather small-voiced: Despina has some great lines, we need to hear them. No such problem with Geoffrey Dolton (Don Alfonso), an urbane 18th century observer of that foreign race, humanity.
Andrew Parrott’s idiomatic conducting allows for lingeringly slow tempos for some of the sisters’ conscience-tugging, but generally provides a brisk account of the score, with splendidly detailed playing from the orchestra featuring deliciously varied woodwind tones.