Back at Covent Garden for its sixth revival, Jonathan Miller’s Royal Opera/Teatro dell’Opera Rome co-production of Mozart and Da Ponte’s Così fan tutte here is perhaps most notable for the house debut of conductor Julia Jones, British but almost a stranger to these shores.

Like Jonathan Nott and Donald Runnicles, she has made her career away from these shores – like Nott particularly in Germany, but also Austria (where she has been a regular at the Vienna State Opera for ten years), Switzerland and now Portugal. So a wholehearted welcome to her and her spirited marshalling of Mozart’s last collaboration with Da Ponte, leading a particularly strong female ensemble in what is, in effect, an exquisite six-hander.

On stage it is Sally Matthews who steals the show with her extraordinarily observed Fiordiligi. While Miller’s men seem to be all-too-readily playing a game, Matthews is anguished at the amorous possibilities laid before her, heightening her character’s perplexity, first at her sister’s happy acceptance of Despina’s idea of dallying with the so-called “Albanians,” then at her own feelings as she falls for Ferrando in disguise.

There was raw emotion on display on her showpieces, Act I “Come scoglio immoto resta” and Act II “Per pieta, ben mio, perdonna all’error”, that put much else on stage in relief. I also liked the Despina of Helen Schneiderman, who sang the role of Dorabella in this very production during its first revival. She brings a knowing maturity to Despina that worked very well, and didn’t overplay the funny accents for the doctor and notary, letting the costume and her body language work the comic effect.

Ah – the costumes. When first seen in 1995, Jonathan Miller’s co-designed blank set (still like unfinished stucco work) was graced with Armani-designed clothes. In subsequent revivals, as the production has ‘evolved,’ other design houses have provided the fashion, including Marks & Spencer. Although uncredited, I understand that Zara is the provider for this latest reincarnation, revived by Daniel Dooner. Certainly, the production delineates the sisters successfully so there is no confusion as to who is who (and who, at which point, is meant to be in love with who).

Unfortunately, however, the availability of a fashion house doesn’t alter the men’s Albanian garb, which has remained resolutely the nonsensical love-child between the hippy generation and an obscure chapter of the Albanian Hell’s Angels. Guglielmo’s sparkling skull t-shirt prefigures Damien Hirst’s 3D diamond-encrusted effigy, but has little else going for it, particularly not the long leather coat and trousers, bottomed with cowboy boots and topped with a bandana. If Miller’s intent is to update the opera, with its iPhones, then the soldier’s attempts at disguises are far, far too-dated, as if struggling out of the 1970s. I know that Albania is still regarded as a backwater, but this element of the production, for me, simply doesn’t work.

Miller returned two years ago to update the production, which is presumably where the iPhones came in, rather than the then-new mobile phones in the original production. Even the fortepiano’s burbling the old-style aural moniker of a mobile ringing tone seems out of date nowadays. Perhaps – given its newsworthiness this week – the notary’s laptop could have been replaced with a bang up-to-the-minute Apple iPad! Yet, if this were a true updating, the characters would never meet – it would all be done on Face Book.

It all leaves the young men at a great disadvantage, and although both Charles Castronovo and house debutant Troy Cook as Ferrando and Guglielmo have pleasing voices, their costumes and actions sell the opera short. As good an analogy as to the cosmetic nature of the production as I can summon is the mirror which has a central place on stage, and in which, all the characters preen themselves (even the men as soldiers…).

William Shimmel is a rather too-subtle presence as Don Alfonso, while Nino Surguladze’s flighty Dorabella reveals less of her character than Matthews’ Fiordiligi. Miller was on hand to take a bow (he’s busy down the road rehearsing his New York City Opera production of Elixir of Love that opens next month at ENO) at the end.

So, a mixed bag. Although the production sells Mozart and Da Ponte short, there is much to enjoy musically and performances will settle through the run. Go for Julia Jones and Sally Matthews.

- Nick Breckenfield