Magazine article The Spectator

Scratching the Surface

Magazine article The Spectator

Scratching the Surface

Article excerpt

Cosi fan tutte; Summer Concert Royal Opera House

The Royal Opera, for its last revival of the season, got Jonathan Miller to make over his 1995 production of Così fan tutte, everyone's favourite Mozart opera these days, owing to its sceptical view of sexual relationships, combined with a subtle acknowledgement of how painful we often find it to be as fickle as we are, how unwilling we are to be so much at the mercy of our impulses. Mozart's own mixed feelings on the matter are shown by the interestingly different attitudes of his two spokespersons Don Alfonso and Despina to the same phenomenon: she is hard-bitten, resolutely superficial and mercenary, he is bitter, disillusioned, malicious. When he wins the bet that the girls will be unfaithful he is gleeful, Despina is upset and unsure about where she stands. No one has ever liked Alfonso but he is vindicated, and the four lovers claim to realise that, in the idiotic words with which they conclude the opera, saying that henceforth they will govern their lives by reason and be happy -- we know that there is very little chance of either of those things being true.

Miller has changed his production quite substantially over the years, though its most celebrated feature, the expensive clothes the characters wear, is retained. What their significance is remains unclear: are these people as bird-brained as most fashionconscious dressers are, or is it merely a little extra tease? What was very clear this time round was that Miller seems intent on steering away from the depths that the opera investigates, almost against itself, in Act II.

Act I should be funny and a bit painful, Act II, in my understanding, not very funny and very painful. Fiordiligi's realisation that, despite all her efforts, she has fallen for the 'Albanian', and the astonishing duet in which she finally submits to him, take us into realms nothing in the first act would have led us to expect -- as we follow her on her journey.

Miller doesn't; instead he makes the opera more farcical as it proceeds. Both Thomas Allen as Don Alfonso and Rebecca Evans as Despina are quite brilliant, but they are allowed not only to call the tune but also to draw our attention to themselves and away from the quartet of lovers.

Meanwhile in the pit Colin Davis conducts even more wonderfully than in the past, with many new emphases and small surprises, but nothing that disturbs the progress of this score. With the full resources of a contemporary orchestra the sound is plush and warm, which is where I incline to think that the Glyndebourne production I saw last year (caught, I hope immortalised, on DVD) is superior. …

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