The last of the three great Mozart-Da Ponte collaborations, Così fan tutte, remains an enigmatic work, and is all more the fascinating because of it. The opera’s timeless theme and bittersweet narrative have inspired a whole range of interpretations from the feminist to the farcical. This latest run of Jonathan Miller’s production, however, takes a middle-of-the-road approach, with a great deal of humour and less of the dark emotion that has tainted earlier revivals.
The action is transposed to present-day Naples, with Fiordiligi (Dorothea Röschmann) and Dorabella (Elina Garanca) presented as flouncing WAGS and their beaus, Guglielmo (Lorenzo Regazzo) and Ferrando (Matthew Polenzani), a couple of city slickers.
I have reservations about the guys’ choice of costume when they appear as strangers’ to challenge their girls’ fidelity boots, bandannas and black leather does seem a little over-the-top but the story calls for an exotic disguise and two Easy Rider-types playing air-guitar to the strains of Mozart is indeed an exotic sight on the Royal Opera stage.
One of the problems of modern updates, of course, is the fact that they date so quickly themselves. On its first outing in 1995 Miller’s production was very much a child of its time: Guglielmo and Ferrando were the archetypal yuppies, the lurid costumes were taken from Armani’s latest line and (gasp) a section of recitative was sung into a mobile phone. Times have changed. Now characters fuss over digital photos and the outfits are designed by Sabine Lematre in rather more tasteful shades, though Miller’s neutral, neoclassical sets remain.
Röschmann gives a fine performance and Garanca, making her Covent Garden debut, is nothing short of a revelation; her characterisation is brilliant and her voice ravishing. Both are well complimented by Regazzo and Polenzani, who also debuts here. Perhaps and this is nitpicking the articulation in Dammi un bacio o mio tesoro’ could have been clearer, but they are an impressive quartet of voices under Colin Davis’ authoritative baton. Rebecca Evans is also on top form as the meddlesome maid Despina, here a gossipy PA who attempts to placate her clients with Starbucks coffee and tranquiliser pills, and Thomas Allen makes a marvellous Don Alfonso. It’s a part Allen knows well (this is his fourth revival), which he plays as a sort of one-man Greek chorus and sings with great assurance.
The key to the success of this interpretation is the subtlety of contemporary reference. It fully engages with a modern audience but Mozart’s delicious wit is never overshadowed by gimmick Miller displays a real sensitivity to the score. Such insightful direction coupled with a number of thrilling performances proves this Cos a winning production.