Review: Così fan tutte (Opera Holland Park)
Opera Holland Park presents a new production of Mozart's timeless dark comedy
Six years ago Opera Holland Park mounted a production of Mozart's third and final Da Ponte opera that was brilliant, unsettling and satisfying. Director Harry Fehr framed the opera as a proto-Truman Show: an 18th-century experiment played out in front of curious observers. It implicated the audience as much as the players in the opera's misogyny and thereby shone a new light on its problematic psychology.
Così fan tutte is tragedy, comedy and cruelty rolled into one, and notwithstanding some dubious sexual politics it remains Mozart's towering lyric masterpiece. Its structural restraint, with just six characters (barring the odd fragment of chorus work) to keep us company across three hours, ensures that the music's near-infinite variety takes the breath away. Contrast that with the busily populous plotlines of Don Giovanni or The Marriage of Figaro. But if the composer's musical inspiration is more concentrated, so is the unpalatable behaviour of that figure common to all three operas, the over-powerful man.
Scrub that earlier reference to misogyny. Misanthropy is nearer the mark because Don Alfonso, the gent in question, is equally heartless towards all four lovers in his game of ‘let's test their fidelity' as he persuades two impressionable young men to trick their fiancées up to and beyond their emotional limits. His aim? To prove a grubby thesis that "all women are like that" (to translate, roughly, the opera's title).
Whereas Fehr's production was revelatory, Oliver Platt's new Così contents itself with telling the tale. And as musical standards are sky-high I'm OK with that. Just mildly disappointed. Period costumes are lavish, the ornate fold-out set by Alyson Cummings has more going on than it might seem and the wide OHP stage has been tamed with panache, yet the opera's heart remains fixed in the score. This is a musical jewel box that conductor Dane Lam and the City of London Sinfonia unlock with exuberance and beauty.
Lam, one of two talented new generation conductors to whom OHP has entrusted its early-season offerings (La traviata's Matthew Kofi Waldren is the other) brings spark and sparkle to his beautifully shaped account. Barring a slowish introductory duet for the women it was hard to quibble with any of his choices, and his handling of Mozart's elaborate first-act finale was thrilling. He and Eleanor Dennis, in glorious voice, ensured that "Come scoglio", Fiordiligi's aching aria of constancy, was the evening's high point. (Dennis's other showstopper, "Per pietà", was sadly ruined by Platt's ludicrous imposition of some heavy-duty scene changing on the soprano. It's the worst directorial clanger since George the Horse anointed a Glasgow stage in Eugene Onegin.)
While there are too many scene transformations on a stage that doesn't need them, at least they give Rory Beaton's lighting the chance to shine. Once real-life night fell he conjured some spellbinding exterior effects.
Platt apparently sees arias not as soliloquies but as monologues, and so gives his silent characters distracting jobs to do while their counterparts get a song off their chest. Thus Ferrando (Nick Pritchard) reads a book while Guglielmo (Nicholas Lester) holds forth, and vice versa with a plate of dessert.
Lester is spry, characterful and in excellent voice. The best I've seen or heard him. Pritchard sings beautifully but has not been directed to evince much ardour, while Dennis and Kitty Whately's admirably sung Dorabella are given insufficient differentiation, for all that their voices harmonise divinely. Platt seems more interested in bringing the maid Despina to life – perhaps unsurprising since Sarah Tynan is such a catch in this secondary role. As for Peter Colman-Wright, he presents Don Alfonso very much as the gruff old puppet master. That works a treat in his character scenes but doesn't help the blend in ensembles like "Soave sio il vento".
A flawed Così, then, but an enjoyable one with some outstanding singing and playing. And for many punters I suspect that'll do nicely.