Opera North: Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte at Leeds Grand Theatre – Reviewed

From its very beginnings, Cosí Fan Tutte ossia La Scuola Degli Amanti (perhaps “They’re All The Same or The School For Lovers”) has had a rough time of it from the critics.

Written immediately after the social and political upheavals of 1789 in Paris, it was taken to be an Enlightenment attempt to remodel comic opera protocol, too radical for the ancien regime, of course, yet falling short of
Revolutionary romantic ideals. The nineteenth-century grew to condemn it as salacious and obscene – even Beethoven considered it “immoral” – only for the twentieth century to dismiss it as trivial and misogynistic.

Anthony Gregory as Ferrando, Henry Neill as Guglielmo and Quirijn de Lang as Don Alfonso
Conductor Clemens Schuldt, Director Tim Albery, Set and Costume Designer Tobias Hoheisel, Lighting Designer David Finn

And today? At risk of over-thinking it, Cosí is now deemed to be a complex, ambiguous fusion of opposites, a collision of faked and genuine emotions, frivolity and worldliness, delicious parody and discomforting social commentary, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses with heart”, according to the librettist Da Ponte’s biographer, Rodney Bolt.

Alexandra Lowe as Fiordiligi, Gillene Butterfield as Despina and Heather Lowe as Dorabella

Gauging which extreme we are witnessing at a given instant adds to the work’s intrigue and allure. Tim Albery’s 2004 production immediately established itself amongst the very best versions, not least for draping a modern sense of humour with the costumes, manners and other trappings of an eighteenth-century setting. Opera North’s revival brings
predictable rewards for its audience. If anything, it seems even better than before.

Gillene Butterfield as Despina, Alexandra Lowe as Fiordiligi and Anthony Gregory as Ferrando

On the face of it, the plot of each of two sisters failing to notice that their respective boyfriends, having apparently set off for war, return in disguise to seduce the other sibling, stretches even operatic storylines beyond any plausible elastic limit. What motivates the soldiers to this risky experiment is a wager with the wily Don Alfonso, who insists that the ladies will succumb to amorous diversion. Is it cruel and degrading to all four lovers or an artful demonstration that women have more choice than merely to get chosen? Perhaps, eighteenth-century theatre never set itself to question established social norms more than this.

Heather Lowe as Dorabella, Henry Neill as Guglielmo and Gillene Butterfield as Despina

Musically, a revolutionary feature of the score is the egalitarian notion that none of the six characters will dominate with big solo arias. Though these are included, nicely showcasing each individual voice, the abiding fraternal (and sororal) hallmark remains one of voices in combination, a discourse of equals. I doubt if any other opera by then had been so designed.

Anthony Gregory as Ferrando and Heather Lowe as Dorabella

Don Alfonso sparks the evening to life, a fittingly dispassionate portrayal by Dutch baritone and ON regular, Quirijn de Lang. It is he who gestures for the start to the Overture and the action to commence. Tobias Hoheisel‘s set is contained within the confines of an enormous Camera Obscura and the Don is soon polishing its lens to remove any powdered artifice so that our scientific voyeurism may begin.

Heather Lowe as Dorabella, Alexandra Lowe as Fiordiligi and Gillene Butterfield as Despina

Henry Neill‘s Guglielmo and Anthony Gregory‘s Ferrando, as the soldier swains, are suitably indignant at the suggestion of any insincerity in their own betrothed, whilst simultaneously denigrating that of the other. Of the women, Alexandra Lowe as Fiordiligi and Heather Lowe as Dorabella – not real-life sisters – begin as pure and steadfast, resisting to varying degrees, but the end result is heartache, emotional awakening, contrition and a final reconciliation.

Heather Lowe as Dorabella and Henry Neill as Guglielmo

Gillene Butterfield‘s Despina, the sisters’ worldly maidservant, throws her lot in with Don Alfonso’s intrigues, turning up as a parodied Doctor Mesmer and a lawyer/celebrant to oversee the proposed marriages. The individual characterisations are convincingly brought off, whether in love, anger or comic bewilderment, but, predictably, with so many deceptions and realignments afoot, Opera North’s assembling of blended voices for the beautiful, charming and elegant ensemble numbers is the production’s real delight.

Henry Neill as Guglielmo and Heather Lowe as Dorabella

In the pit, conductor Clemens Schuldt sets off the overture as a fast romp, the prominent woodwind exchanges energetically highlighted – and the pace is never allowed to flag. The more sedate numbers receive a tasteful caressing, marking him as a natural and sympathetic Mozartian. However, even concluding in apparent reconciliation, there is not the expected happy after-glow for the audience. The ambiguous ending leaves the exact final pairings in doubt and there are grown-up questions left unanswered as to whether any of the four are ever to feel quite so deeply again.

Henry Neill as Guglielmo, Quirijn de Lang as Don Alfonso and Anthony Gregory as Ferrando

Certainly, what Mozart and da Ponte created here is no facile, frivolous affair. How ever-changing attitudes have regarded the work over the years, let singers treat with caution perhaps the one critic who matters …

Henry Neill as Guglielmo, Heather Lowe as Dorabella, Gillene Butterfield as Despina, Alexandra Lowe as Fiordiligi and Anthony Gregory as Ferrando

The original Fiordiligi was one Adriana Ferrarese Del Bene, whose vocal exploits had already taken Vienna by storm. The Rapport von Wien raved, “In addition to an unbelievable high note, she has a striking low [register] and connoisseurs of music claim that such a voice has not been heard within the walls of Vienna in living memory”. The librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte liked her – she had recently become his mistress – and the Emperor himself had given him the run of the theatre.

Anthony Gregory as Ferrando, Heather Lowe as Dorabella, Henry Neill as Guglielmo and Alexandra Lowe as Fiordiligi

Mozart was less impressed. La Ferrarese had sung Susanna in a revival of The Marriage of Figaro, for which she demanded two new arias – divas were in charge in those days – and what he provided, as usual geared to fit the singer’s strengths, went down well both with her and the public. What irritated the composer was her tendency to drop her chin to reach the low notes and throw back her head to take on the high ones. Though she was given some lovely florid numbers elsewhere, in Fiordiligi’s impassioned aria in Act I, Come scoglio immoto resta (“As the cliff remains unmoved by winds and storm, this soul remains strong in faith and love”), Mozart included a series of huge leaps in the vocal line, more reminiscent of his virtuosic instrumental writing. It is the grand vocal exhibition of the entire opera and, according to William Mann in The Operas of Mozart, had La Ferrarese’s head bobbing back and forth “like a chicken”.

A genius at play.

Sung in English with (sometimes) useful English surtitles.

Further performances on 10th, 14th, 16th, 21st and 23 February, all at 7 p.m. then touring Nottingham, Newcastle, Salford Quays and Hull until 06 April.

Photography by James Glossop.

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