In reviewing student or ‘non-professional’ opera productions, some allowances can be made, but not too many. In the case of Con Opera’s production of Cosi fan tutte the pressure to make allowances is minimal. And with this work the music is so glorious that one can let it pass over and not really listen. Moreover, there is the ‘problem’ of the ending that can be read in a number of ways. This production takes on the ambiguities very well even if the director claims the focus is more on the trickery.
Our heroes are not aristocratic Albanians. Instead, we have a couple of knock-about, shooting and fishing Aussie blokes, who instead of pretending to be off fighting have become fly-in-fly-out miners for Rio Tanto.
The two sisters Fiordiligi, soprano Livia Brash and Dorabella, mezzo soprano Barbara Jin, who carry the burden of the piece, first appear behind a screen at the back of the stage. They are contained physically but less so in presentation. They are dressed beautifully, but not quite completely. A lot of leg is being displayed. There is more than a suggestion of courtesan. Yet their attire is completed with the exposure of hoops used to complete the dressing of a lady. Moreover the maid Despina (soprano) Ashlee Woodgate, is dressed even more scantily, although her hoop is only partial. More than the leg is exposed. So what are they: the sisters and the maid? Such overt behaviour might be expected, but not tolerated, in the lower classes, but gentlewomen ought not indulge in such behaviour (or at least not be caught at ‘it’).
So how is the ambiguity between restraint and sexual display to be reconciled – or not! The instrument is the cynical Don Alfonso bass, Con Associate Professor Michael Halliwell, who persuades the paramours that women are fickle, and left unsupervised, will be naughty. As well as the boys, the naughty maid Despina, is in on the subterfuge. An avuncular, Halliwell, resembling a western ‘preacher’ in the first half, and cut price Sydney Greenstreet in the second, directs the action. His singing is suitably restrained, although his personal ‘business’ I thought, was a little too ‘old school’. Nevertheless the first time viewer of the opera suspects that temptation will triumph, at least for a while.
The sisters are shattered when the boys go off mining in far west. The slagheaps look rather like throw away hills from a very constrained production of the Sound of Music. And the chorus, with not much singing to do, dressed in mostly white with Mardi Gras helmets, complete the picture, although one of their company is clearly a naughty nurse. Many of sight gags in the production are work of the chorus, most particularly, the nurse, who pratfalls and hugger muggs throughout the performance.
The second act features some of most Mozart’s lyrical music. This time, the dress of the ladies owes more to the 1920s, albeit with the continuing encumbrance of the dress hoops. More liberated but still constrained! The cast on the day I saw the opera were more than equal to the big sing of the second act. All the participants pour out their love and their desperation. The lads about the perfidy of their lovers, while the ladies are in the thrall of boy cross ‘lerv’. The tenor, Chris Byrg, is a little underwhelming in the first act; shines in the way tenors should, in the second stanza. The baritone, Tristan Entwistle, maintained clear rich tone in his set pieces, and from an acting point of view, is the more mischievous of the two blokes.
Of course, yet again, the women have the biggest burdens to carry. The soprano, big voiced, tall framed and brassy blonded, Livia Brash, excels. The horrendous runs and octave leaps are handled, not so much with ease, but with the courage to go for broke. In a world where sopranos proliferate, this young woman can more than hold her own. The mezzo role, sung by Barbara Jin, is presented with some subtlety. In the first Act, she a bit overwhelmed by the vocal power and stature of her sister, but in second act her singing was affectingly beautiful. Meanwhile a sassy, but super smart Despina, entertains by pulling out all the tricks in her various guises! Despina is a wonderful role for young singers requiring agility of voice, and more than taste for humour. In this production, Ashlee Woodgate, achieves this with comic perfection. This opera, moreover, needs to be underpinned with effective playing from the pit and that was certainly forthcoming under the musical direction of Stephen Mould!
And so for the ending! Do the ladies, subject to trickery, finally submit? On the surface this seems so, but there is ample evidence with the constraints of marriage the sisters will give their respective husbands a run for the money. And the tricksters Don Alfonzo and Despina are left empty handed.
Cosi fan tutte used to be one of my least favourite Mozart operas. That view has changed, and this production and the talents of the singers and the instrumentalists, suggests no allowances needed to be made. All in all a well calculated and performed ‘hoot’!
Con Opera’s Cosi Fan Tutte | 8-15 October 2016 | Sydney Conservatorium of Music