Magazine article The Spectator

Paradoxical Paradise

Magazine article The Spectator

Paradoxical Paradise

Article excerpt

Opera Cosi fan tutte

(Royal Opera, Shaftesbury Theatre) Fidelio

(English Touring Opera, Peacock Theatre)

With Opera North's treatment of Cosi fan tutte as a mere farce a few weeks ago, and Glyndebourne opening the season with it, I thought I would give the latest revival of the Royal Opera's production a miss, until I read the reviews. In the event it proved one of the most completely satisfying performances of anything that I have ever seen, an evening of paradoxical paradise, given the acutely uncomfortable state into which Cosi plunges one, and certainly in which it leaves one, after its absurd non sequitur of a conclusion.

Colin Davis was the transforming presence of the occasion, getting every tempo exactly right, taking the piece with the utter seriousness it needs, producing full, singing tones from the strings even in the merciless acoustic of the Shaftesbury Theatre, letting the music breathe at every point, indulging in welcome rallentandi at the end of arias where appropriate. For the members of the cast who have sung in much-acclaimed 'authentic' performances with original instruments and whirlwind tempi it must have been a revelation. Even the obdurate overture chuckled and sang, as it hardly has since Fritz Busch.

The first cast, which I saw, was of a standard of excellence in appearance, acting and vocal equipment which few operas can have been blessed with. Presiding with horrible insidiousness over the proceedings was the perfect Don Alfonso of Thomas Allen, as depressed by the success of his predictions as we were; only the people he manipulated seemed not to mind - an effectively sickening touch. Near the end when three of them are plighting their troth while Guglielmo wishes they could be poisoned, Allen, sitting aside, looked like a disgruntled frog.

Yet his voyeuristic interest in the plot was much more intense than in most productions, with constant silent appearances on stage, gesturing to the two male lovers to show them what to do next, communicating incessantly on his mobile phone, for once a plausible accessory, the perfect device for the idle schemer. The fundamental point of Cosi has never been made so powerfully: Don Alfonso is detestable, and yet he is completely right. So how are we to react? If we all took his view of human nature, we would be still worse than we are.

Joseph Kerman, in his celebrated attack on Cos, and I, in my much less celebrated expansion of his points, have argued that Cosi gets out of control because Mozart endows his characters with a depth of feeling which the libretto doesn't permit them, Da Ponte being wholly of the Alfonso way of thinking. …

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