Royal Opera @ Covent Garden, London, 25, 28, 30 September, 6, 9, 14, 20, 23 October 2004
It's astonishing to think that until the 1950s, Mozart's Cosė Fan Tutte was hardly ever performed anywhere in the world.
In recent times, however, the social and moral issues which the work presents have been revealed as being surprisingly modern, perhaps more relevant to modern society than either Don Giovanni or Le Nozze di Figaro.
Cosė also features a ravishing score, packed with biting comedy and poignant beauty, and is now appreciated as one of Mozart's finest works.
The story is typically convoluted, but basically tells of a wager between an aging philosopher, Don Alfonso, and two young men, Guglielmo and Ferrando, that their lovers would not be constant to them if they were left alone for a short period. So to prove Alfonso wrong, the two men pretend to depart to war and return disguised (in this production) as Hell's Angels. They swap lovers and are horrified to discover that their girlfriends, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, put up relatively little fight to their advances. In the end, however, they realise that they are still in love with each other, and all are reconciled.
Jonathan Miller's production has become a favourite at the Royal Opera House since it was first seen nine years ago, and it has been slightly updated to include drinks from Starbuck's and videophones, for example. Although the single set becomes a little wearing after three hours - and I can't believe it took the five men credited in the programme to design it - Miller's production is entirely in the spirit of Mozart and Da Ponte's creation. It's hysterically funny, and yet captures the heartache of all four lovers as they discover their true selves. It is perhaps this latter element of the opera which is most difficult to pull off, and they almost succeed this time around.
The problem, unfortunately yet inevitably, lies in the casting. Who can sing Mozart these days? Of the four young singers, only Kristine Jepson as Dorabella was convincing. From her first entrance she demonstrated a ringing tone, a sense of strict rhythm and fabulous coloratura, and although this was her Royal Opera debut, I hope she'll return soon. Guglielmo was played by former prize-winner at the Cardiff Singer of the World, Christopher Maltman, and although he overacted and was not quite able to produce a sufficiently luxuriant sound for his Act 2 solo passages, he was nevertheless enjoyable in the ensembles.
The two blots on the landscape were the American tenor and - especially - the American soprano. Charles Castronovo's Ferrando was inoffensive enough for most of the performance, but then came Un' aura amorosa. Oh dear. It is a taxing aria at the best of times, and he couldn't face the challenge. He was also lacking in his commitment to the drama sometimes, the polar opposite of Maltman's Guglielmo in his sleepy approach to acting when he was not the centre of attention.
Worst of all was Catherine Naglestad as Fiordiligi. Occasionally she produced a half-tone of beauty, every now and then she impressed, but mostly she was out of tune and out of synch with the orchestra. Come scoglio was particularly poor - she should go to Schwarzkopf for lessons - and she succeeded in ruining the only piece from Cosė everyone knows, the trio Soave sia il vento.
The stars of the show were undoubtedly the old pros, Thomas Allen as Don Alfonso and Nuccia Focile as Despina, the women's assistant. They sang and acted with perfect nonchalance, cunning, deception and dexterity, and believe me, it is worth going to see this production for their performances alone. Focile was particularly good, hitting all the notes with idiomatic Italianate attack - she was the only native Italian singer in the cast - and Allen's understanding of his character came across, as did his clear love of the role.
The orchestra was in reasonably fine form under Stephane Deneve, although the overture was given a lacklustre account.
If you want a fun night out, you can't go wrong. If you want to hear fine Mozart singing, it's only available sporadically with the current cast.