If Don Alfonso owns the action in Così fan tutte , Thomas Allen owned this performance; marking his 40th anniversary at Covent Garden (on Mozart’s 256th birthday) and receiving a special on-stage tribute after the curtain call. In fact, there is a sense that Allen can do no wrong in this house - the audience responded with delight at every little comic gesture – and despite a voice no longer in full bloom, his presence was compelling and authoritative, with plenty of variety and subtlety to offset the often pantomimic style of Jonathan Miller’s production.
Speaking of the production, it claims to be a contemporary staging which has been updated since its first run in 1995. Well, it certainly has plenty of camera-phones, and I noticed that this revival had incorporated Beyoncé’s ‘Single Ladies’ choreography during Fiordiligi and Dorabella’s ‘Prenderò quel brunettino’ in act 2. A lot of the ‘contemporary’ touches came over as half-hearted and superficial, as if to evade conservative audiences’ complaints of over-tampering. So in a sense the production has its cake and eats it; gathering appreciative laughs for token modern allusions without offending or violating too many expectations.
The singing was mixed. In this area, Rosemary Joshua’s cougar-like Despina was the most consistent and enjoyable. She brought grace and precision to a confident portrayal which rivalled her mistresses in glamour.
The quartet of young lovers all seemed to reveal their strengths in one of their arias, and their weaknesses in the other. Malin Byström generally seemed to have a shaky first act as Fiordiligi, sounding throaty and unnaturally dark, to the point that her soprano seemed hardly differentiated from the mezzo-soprano of Michèle Losier, as Dorabella. (Given that the characters are sisters, this issue could be debated either way.) ‘Come scoglio’ did not really hang together, and the high notes were breathy and harsh. Though this latter problem somewhat persisted in ‘Per pieta’, the lyrical, low-lying main theme was beautifully sung.
Losier’s Dorabella was a little too out of control in the histrionic ‘Smanie inplacabile’ but full of warmth and charm in the coquettish ‘È amore un ladroncello’. As for the men, Covent Garden seems to favour a tenor who can successfully be casted in La Traviata , as well as Così fan tutte . Consequently, Charles Castronovo was effective in Ferrando’s ardent, passionate and desperate moments (i.e. much of act 2), but too heroic and lacking in elegance in the gentle, breezy music of ‘Un aura amorosa’. Nikolay Borchev was rather one-dimensional as Guglielmo, acting with flailing arms and juddering head; like a hyperactive child. Although the character may not be the most mature or sophisticated, I felt that even a small amount of Thomas Allen’s subtlety could have gone a long way for this performer, who was most susceptible to the pantomime caricature. His singing sounded angry and metallic, which was useful enough for ‘Donne mie’, but less so in ‘Non siate ritrosi’, ‘Il core vi dono’ and just about any other moment which called for a lighter touch.
Colin Davis’ conducting was leisurely and easy-going, and while the singers did not always seem comfortable (occasionally rushing ahead), it was a cohesive and well-rounded performance, with some especially beautiful string playing to be heard in the orchestra