Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Così fan tutte, Royal Academy Opera, 29 November 2010

Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, Royal Academy of Music

(Don) Alfonso – Frederick Long
Ferrando – Roberto Ortiz
Guglielmo – Charles Rice
Fiordiligi – Ruth Jenkins
Dorabella – Katie Bray
Despina – Mary Bevan

John Cox (director)
Gary McCann (designs)
Jake Wiltshire (lighting)

Royal Academy Sinfonia
Jane Glover (conductor)

This Royal Academy Opera production of Così fan tutte proved considerably more enjoyable than a number of higher profile Mozart performances I have endured recently. (ENO’s Don Giovanni stands, unfortunately, freshest in the mind.) John Cox’s production translates the action to an academy of its own, recalling the work’s subtitle, ‘The School for Lovers,’ and emphasising the action’s focus upon experimentation – and, it would seem, its questioning of ‘scientific’ results. The young men are students in behavioural science and army reservists; Alfonso (he loses the ‘Don’) is their tutor, wishing to test his hypothesis that women are genetically programmed to be promiscuous. Their girlfriends, still sisters, are musicians, and Despina both Alfonso’s research assistant and the girls’ landlady. Both she and the male students have training in the dramatic arts, which they put to use in disguising their identities. It works well enough, given the widespread supposition that a modern audience cannot accept a work to be set when and where it was intended. I have no particular problem with such updating, which at least seems to have been thought through; the only real issue is that it, rather than the work’s dramatic core, tends to become the point at issue. Abstraction, as witnessed for example in productions for the Salzburg Festival by Hans Neuenfels (I seem to have been the only person who liked that) and Karl-Ernst and Ursel Hermann, probably works better.

However, there is something to be said for a production that speaks specifically to its audience, in this case a collegiate institution and friends. Gary McCann’s designs painted the lecture theatre, Despina’s house, and so on very well, whilst the lit evocation of evening from Jake Wiltshire was particularly pleasing – and credible. Jonathan Burton’s surtitles veered between recomposition to fit the production conceit and a more literal approach. Such is ever an issue when it comes to relocation, but the split approach proved a little confusing at times (unless one actually knew what was being sung, which one can hardly assume – and if one could, there would be little need for titles).

Jane Glover, Director of Opera, conducted the Royal Academy Sinfonia and a sixteen-strong student chorus. The latter does not have that much to do but nevertheless did it well. Orchestrally, Mozart is a cruel taskmaster indeed, for there is truly nowhere to hide in his scores; there were perhaps a few too many orchestral slips and infelicities. A certain edge to the upper strings – too few in number really, even for a small theatre – and occasional intonational problems could not be entirely wished away, though the former would seem to have been related to Glover’s general brusqueness. She delineated the structure clearly enough – a definite advantage – but seemed reluctant to allow the music to breathe, to permit it to seduce us, which after all is or should be a good part of the dramatic point. One could not help but wish that the occupant of the International Chair of Conducting and Orchestral Studies, Sir Colin Davis, had been in the pit. The cellos, however, often proved delightful, as did a number of woodwind soloists.

What, then, of the Academy’s singers, for whom this acted as a showcase? There were two casts; I caught the ‘second’, though that is purely a numerical matter, not an issue of quality. Ruth Jenkins’s Fiordiligi impressed. It is not easy even to cover the notes – and it will be painfully evident if the soprano fails to do so – but Jenkins imparted a good deal of meaning to them too, her parodies of grand opera seria arias especially noteworthy. Katie Bray proved a good foil as Dorabella, her acting skills of a high standard too. Mary Bevan’s Despina was of a similar class to Jenkins’s Fiordiligi: not at all irritating, and more rounded a character, musically as well as on stage, than we often experience. One thing that all singers had in common, of course, was their youth: this holds advantages in straightforward dramatic credibility and disadvantages in terms of vocal maturity. I felt that Frederick Long’s Alfonso, who obviously does not ‘need’ to appear young, therefore suffered a little on stage: no fault of his own, and he sang well, though the ‘elderly’ moustache perhaps did him no favours. Roberto Ortiz’s Ferrando, however, often lacked the vocal security the cruel role of Ferrando requires, and his style diverged a little too much from the Mozartian, likeable though he may have been on stage. As Guglielmo, Charles Rice generally impressed, his swagger increasing as time went on, making payback the more moving. There clearly lies a good future ahead for many, perhaps all, of these artists.