The programme for Jonathan Miller’s staging of Mozart’s third Da Ponte opera includes some neatly reasoned apologias for the tale’s dubious morals and its implication that a woman’s place is in the wrong. In the end, though, it’s the performance itself that best defends this marvellous opera. This seventh revival proves that with the right director, conductor and singers, no excuses are needed for Così fan tutte.
Conductor Thomas Hengelbrock makes a confident house début and presents the work as a cohesive entity rather than the parade of set pieces we sometimes hear. There have been evenings when the lengthy running time, shared among just six singers, has felt like a surfeit of sweetmeats; here, though, three and a half hours fly by. The odd plodding tempo early on is entirely forgotten by the interval as hints of tension (perhaps occasioned by the first night’s worldwide cinema relay?) give way to a transcendent second half.
Not that Thomas Allen was feeling camera-shy on opening night. Moments before taking to the stage as Don Alfonso, the arch-manipulator who poisons the trust between two pairs of devoted lovers, the great baritone gave an affable curtain speech to herald the new ROH season. Then, voice undimmed, he treated himself – and the audience – to a masterclass of upstaging and scene-stealing in a role he knows like the back of his hand.
Rebecca Evans is Allen’s match as his wily gopher Despina, her vocal timbre a pleasing complement to the Dorabella of Jurgita Adamonytè (in far better voice than last time I heard her) and the Fiordiligi of Maria Bengtsson. Evans makes the most of her disguises as a quack doctor and a fake judge, and she’s even more entertaining with her furtives slurps of Starbuck’s hot chocolate and her ability to sing through a mouthful of doughnut.
Miller’s modern-dress concept is a gift for the two male principals, who exchange Armani for army clobber before spending most of the evening in full-on hippy garb. The potential for physical comedy is fulfilled in spades by Stéphane Degout as Guglielmo; his agility and comic timing must have made the director purr during rehearsals. Degout’s wit, timbre and romantic presence are tailor-made for Mozart, and this interpretation comes close to matching his outstanding Papageno.
If the Slovak Pavol Breslik is less natural a comedian, he certainly has a dynamic and athletic stage presence. How many other singers could perform a Mozart aria while doing press-ups? Breslik has a pleasing tenor voice, but his characterisation of Ferrando is compromised by a slightly bland delivery.
In Maria Bengtsson, though, the ROH has found a shining star. While the production as a whole sometimes loses sight of the young women’s heartbreak, preoccupied as it is with sight gags, the Swedish soprano never flinches from its depiction. From her hushed singing of the Ave verum phrase in the Act One quintet ‘Di scrivermi’ to the pin-drop intensity of Fiordiligi’s great ‘Per Pietà’ aria in Act Two, Bengtsson leaves the listener rapt.
- Mark Valencia