Magazine article The Spectator

Rare Delight

Magazine article The Spectator

Rare Delight

Article excerpt

Opera

Rare delight

Così fan tutte

Opera North, Leeds

It's hard to know where to begin in praising the new (I was at the eighth performance) production of Così fan tutte by Opera North. I count it as one of the tiny number of near-flawless accounts of a Mozart opera that I have ever been to. So nearly flawless that it is doing it an injustice to discuss its ingredients separately, but there is no other way. Still, it is worth noting that one of my reactions to it, sometime after actually seeing it, was indignation that I so rarely witness a performance of anything in which the elements are in such equilibrium. There is hardly a gesture on the stage in this Cosl which doesn't arise from the music, either in the pit or the vocal line. Arias are followed with manifest concentration by the other performers, so that when Fiordiligi finally has her vast 'Per pietà' (the opera is sung in English, mostly very clearly, but I can't remember what the words of the translation are) on an otherwise empty stage, I felt compelled to listen with an intensity which I normally find difficult to muster for this overlong and over-florid aria. In an opera where the relation between the words and the text is so complex, this makes for uniquely satisfying results, given the director Tim Albery's profound understanding of that relationship. As Peter Conrad notes in the programme, the words are on the side of Don Alfonso, but the music pleads on behalf of the lovers, perhaps especially of the girls.

Alfonso is a tricky character to portray. Is he a demon of 'rational' cynicism, or a deep student of human nature, a disillusioned and vengeful would-be rake (as Conrad claims) or hardly more than the mechanism for getting the opera's plot moving? Albery wisely takes the last course, largely. Peter Savidge's Alfonso is saturnine, given to rueful chuckles, but otherwise almost expressionless, like the small amount of music, dry and unpleasant as it is, that Mozart allows him. But he doesn't become almost the focal point of the action, as Thomas Alien makes him.

The production is set up, indeed, as an experiment in a large box, with a magnifying glass for Alfonso to spy through; but mercifully not too much is made of this idea, though the stage does expand or contract at key moments, as the lovers undergo a bewildering enlargement of their world view, or foolishly relapse into their old one. Even the designs are complicit with the action, Tobias Hoheisel having set the whole thing in a grey room, and given (if it was him) the lovers various shades of grey clothes to wear at the start. …

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