Certainly, laptops, mobile phones and Starbucks coffees are so run of the mill now that their appearance in the drama does not elicit the belly laughs that they once received.
In all other respects, however, the application of a contemporary setting works well because parallels are maintained with the eighteenth century, so that the opera’s basic points are sustained and built upon. The men are portrayed as yuppies in stylish suits, and just like eighteenth century officers they appear informal when keeping their own company, but still obey their class’s codes of behaviour. Similarly, because the sisters’ house is being redecorated, the bare white walls hand the proceedings a certain eighteenth century grandeur, whilst still keeping the setting predominantly modern.
The strong concept is supported by some handsome conducting (Julia Jones making a commendable Royal Opera House debut) and a superb cast. William Shimell, in particular, is a magnificent Don Alfonso. In the first scene, the character appears totally relaxed as he sits cross-legged, glances up from his wine glass and wipes his hands on his napkin. Nevertheless, in this multi-layered characterisation we occasionally glimpse the underlying sadness that leads him to want to expose these (or all) women, and the lack of vibrato in his strong voice only adds to the sublime effect. This Don Alfonso is not a loveable rogue, and nor does he boom or stride across the stage. Instead, he remains in control from the sidelines, frequently preventing other characters from interfering in the action with a mere wave of his arm.
Nino Surguladze is a suitably feisty Dorabella, and her portrayal of the softer sister is intriguing because we are never sure if her capitulation results from a tender heart or just downright fickleness. Certainly, however, as Guglielmo first appears in disguise, she kicks him roughly before apologising flirtatiously. Sally Matthews similarly shows how Fiordiligi’s harder attitude towards the strangers results from a harder (though more steadfast) heart. There is nothing hard about her voice, however, and its striking textures come to the fore as she crumbles in pain in Act Two.
Charles Castronovo excels in Ferrando’s arias, his light and tender voice still being bold enough to resonate in our ears. Troy Cook as Guglielmo gives a convincing portrayal of one who thinks too highly of himself as he wins over Dorabella and then ‘consoles’ Ferrando, whilst Helene Schneiderman is a delightful Despina, constantly giving the impression that she has simply seen it all before.
Elsewhere, there are some very telling moments. In the first act, we actually feel very little for the sisters’ displays of anguish because they seem so measured out. It is as if they are career women who have undergone enough management training to know what emotions to show and when, in order to maximise the outcome for themselves. Then at the start of Act Two the men present the women with several opportunities to recognise them, and feel totally put out when they don’t.
It is not unusual to emerge from Così fan tutte contemplating Don Alfonso’s true reasons for instigating the entire charade, but the sheer extent to which one does so here is a tribute both to the cleverness of the production and to the magnificence of Shimell’s performance. As is only right, we are never offered definitive answers, but this production does perhaps hint at one. Don Alfonso’s flirting with Despina throughout, coupled with the interesting ending, rather implies that it was a ploy to win the maid for himself.