Opera, Reviews, Stage

Cosi fan tutte review (Sydney Opera House)

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This merry tale about men betting on the inevitable infidelity of women was thought by Beethoven and Wagner as too inconsequential for Mozart’s musical talents. Most of the 19th Century dismissed it anyway as a scandalous anachronism.

But in this outstanding new version, British director David McVicar brings to Cosi fan tutte vivid theatrical energy and wit and a sharply detailed eye for the pathos of humans in love.

This is the final in his Mozart trilogy of new productions for Opera Australia, following Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni.

With designer Mortiz Junge, McVicar fully realises the Bay of Naples setting, the azure blue Mediterranean sea, full of heat and exotic promises, glimpse just beyond the worn elegance of an old chateau.

And inside, instead of 1790 it is 1900, when social change is accelerating but the sun still shines on a world not yet crushed by war. The shifts in scene, often aided by the small male chorus, between different seaside settings, is fluid and masterly, aided by David Finn’s subtle lighting.

From the start, as Italian soldiers drink and banter at the bar, the show leaps into action like a good Verdi number; giving authentic voice to the Italian of Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto. Ferrando (David Portillo) and Guglielmo (Andrew Jones) are smitten with their fiancées, the sisters Dorabella (Anna Dowsley) and Fiordiligi (Nicole Car).

They are enraged when the darkly cynical Don Alfonso (Richard Anderson) suggests their lovers could be unfaithful, cosi fan tutti, as with all women. Recklessly, they accept his wager to prove it so.

He orchestrates the solders leaving suddenly for battles abroad and we see the sisters inconsolable at their departure.   Alfonso recruits the sister’s plucky maid Despina (Taryn Fiebig) to his scheme; he has the soldiers return as exotically attired (and disguised) Albanians bent on wooing the women.

This is a long opera as we watch first Dorabella and then finally her more resolute sister fall to this seduction and trickery.   At one point, the Albanians resort to seemingly swallow poison and are only saved by the promise of a kiss – and Despina, madly disguised as a doctor, administering the latest in electro magnetic therapy.

You can see how easily this opera slips into farce and silly frolic. As well as pantomime funny business, another old trap is the frozen stand-and-deliver staging. The highly structured musical form of this Mozart opera particularly – with this game of love explored in its different duets, trios, quintets and sextets – make this traditional stillness an easy, lazy option, especially if its true that some opera singers don’t want to move much.

McVicar cuts through this by giving a dynamic choreographic life to Mozart’s musical formality, a matching movement of action and reaction which is always true. Trained as an actor himself, he reportedly is a formidable physical presence in rehearsal, provoking and illustrating details of characterisation to his cast.

Directors showing actors how to do it may be unusually domineering in the theatre but it helps in the opera world when singers have a distracted eye to the conductor – and may speak in different languages.

Whatever the technique, all performances in this Cosi are notably accomplished musically and dramatically. And our laughter of recognition at the detailing and irony of human foibles is frequent. Some of the cast are McVicar regulars having also worked in others of his trilogy.

Nicole Car is especially impressive, singing powerfully against temptation (“As the rock remains unmoved”) or later, poignantly with her gentle regret at her near lapse (“Dearest love, I beg your pardon”). She perhaps understandably does fall to Ferrando in disguise (not her betrothed, Guglilemo!), given the beautifully warm notes of young American tenor David Portillo. As he so successfully woos her, there is, as through Act Two, a growing sadness that such beauty is counterfeit, a game growing cold. His aria, yearning truly for “A breath of love”, makes this sadness even richer.

Taryn Fiebig is also exceptional as Despina, reminiscent of a rascally Bette Davis, and another of da Ponte’s lively servants with a gripe, but with a voice to sing all colours. She has a fine comic spirit and physical agility. While her disguise as a doctor was hilarious, the buffoonery of her disguise as the notary at the end was less so.

By then the laughs are thin anyway. It’s been a lengthy deception and our attention flags during the more static play out of Act 11.

The men are revealed in their true selves, the infidelities of the women are exposed, but we end anyway in a double marriage – this time with the new partnering. Mozart swells to a flourish, but it’s a quick finish – this we are told is a marriage built (only) on realism and reason.

With conductor Jonathan Darlington, McVicar and his team have forged a deliciously textured and moving synthesis of music and modern drama.

[box]Cosi fan tutte is on until August 13. Image: Andrew Jones as Guglielmo, Nicole Car as Fiordiligi, Anna Dowsley as Dorabella and David Portillo as Ferrando in Opera Australia’s Così fan tutte. Photo credit: Prudence Upton.[/box]

3 responses to “Cosi fan tutte review (Sydney Opera House)

  1. Two comment and two complaints …

    Great review of a brilliant production… Nicole shone. … Taryn was wonderful.

    David McVicar is a genius!!

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