Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Così fan tutte, Guildhall, 5 November 2018


Silk Street Theatre

Guglielmo (Benson Wilson), Ferrando (Filipe Manu), Don Alfonso (Christian Valle),
Fiordiligi (Alexandra Lowe), Despina (Zoe Drummond), Dorabella (Carmen Artaza)
Images: Clive Barda

Fiordiligi – Alexandra Lowe
Dorabella – Carmen Artaza
Despina – Zoe Drummond
Ferrando – Filipe Manu
Guglielmo – Benson Wilson
Don Alfonso – Christian Valle

Oliver Platt (director)
Neil Irish (designs)
Rory Beaton (lighting)
Caitlin Fretwell Walsh (movement)

Orchestra and Chorus of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Dominic Wheeler (conductor)

Despina and Ferrando


Precisely where and when Così fan tutte takes place should be a matter of sublime indifference – or at least of individual taste. It is ‘about’ many things, but eighteenth-century Naples – should that actually be the less exotic yet still ‘othered’ neāpolis of Wiener Neustadt? – is not among them. Not intrinsically, anyway. These things can happen anywhere, at any time; these emotions, these physical and metaphysical truths are for many of us as close to universal as makes no matter. Nevertheless, the idea of a southern port city as a venue for touristic licence may well prove an apt setting for what is at dramatic stake. It helped Mozart and Da Ponte tread the fine line between realism and artifice that is surely fundamental to this, (one of) the very greatest of all operas; it also did to outstanding effect in Opera Holland Park’s new production this summer.  

Guglielmo and Dorabella


In a different way, or at least in a different southern port setting, so too does it in the Guildhall’s new staging. I only realised after the event – indeed upon starting to write this paragraph – that the director had been one and the same: Oliver Platt, albeit with a different design team. Perhaps, then, there was something after all to my hitherto innocent thesis of a common theme, notwithstanding the move forward a couple of centuries to the 19-80s to Alfonso’s Bar. Close to an American (West Coast? San Diego?) naval base, with all the potential for conflict between transience and long-term ‘home life’ that might imply, mood was superficially very different, likewise the consequences for particular directorial choices. Rarely, if ever, for instance, have I seen quite so raucous an opening scene, as the licentious ways of the naval boys (and at least one girl), their partners, and their would-be partners got under way, our quartet of lovers to be schooled taken from their number. That sense of a social context, however – a meaningful social context rather than a mere setting, ‘pretty’ or otherwise – remained common to both productions.

Don Alfonso and Despina


So too, again in different ways according to the different requirements of this particular production and performance, were the spatial, eminently musical visualisations of Mozart’s extraordinary and extraordinarily telling musical symmetries and oppositions. Così fan tutte is a labyrinth and a laboratory like no other, as worthy a successor to the experimental Bach of the cantatas as a precursor – a successor too – to Tristan und Isolde. Indeed, though Don Giovanni was the Mozart opera Pierre Boulez said he had long wished to conduct, yet never did; it is surely Così he should ultimately have come to, not least in light of his revelatory late recording of the Gran Partita, KV 361/370a. Whatever the ‘incidental’ detail of tequila shots, of entertainment in sombreros, of Despina the notary as Judge Judy, the fundamentals – related, not necessarily identical – were present both in Holland Park and at the Guildhall. So too was the existential devastation, the clear-eyed, merciless refusal to transcend, of the close.

Despina


For that to be the case, of course, one needs musical drama too – indeed, musical drama above all. This one took a little while to get going: perhaps more a matter of opening night nerves than anything. The Silk Street Theatre acoustic did not help, I suspect, not least when married to a certain, rather surprising heaviness of hand – tending, in the Overture, even to the brutal – from Dominic Wheeler in the pit. Throughout the first act, some of his tempo choices were distinctly odd: not so much in themselves – as a listener, one should always be willing to adapt, to rethink in that respect – as in relation to one another. (Once again, doubtless idiosyncratically, I thought of Boulez and his admiration for Wagner’s Essay on Conducting, not least the claims for proportionality rather than ‘absolute’ tempo therein.) The second act worked much better, though, blessed by some gorgeous woodwind playing, even if the strings were a little too often thin of tone.

Dorabella


There was much both to enjoy and to admire in the singing – as there must be, if a performance and production are to have the slightest chance of working their dramatic effect. Carmen Artaza’s dignified, often exquisitely spun line, trickily married – that tightrope I mentioned above between realism and articificality – to sparky, well-defined personality proved a particular joy as Dorabella. So too did the patent sincerity of Filipe Manu’s Ferrando, his second-act aria truly moving, Benson Wilson’s Guglielmo a swaggering yet not insensitive contrast. Fiordiligi will always prove a great challenge: one to which Alexandra Lowe rose with considerable success in a performance finely differentiated from Artaza’s, her soprano coloratura meaningful as well as accurate. Christian Valle’s Don Alfonso ruled the roost as he must, Zoe Drummond’s excellent Despina intriguingly disillusioned at the close. Called upon to do far more in the way of acting and movement than would usually be the case, members of the chorus impressed too, individually and corporately. This, as the cliché has it, was considerably more than the sum of its parts. After all, if ever there were an opera to demonstrate both the truth and depth of what might first appear to be, and indeed what might actually, be buffo cliché, it is Così fan tutte.



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