Guglielmo: L’accettate? (You’ll take it?)
Dorabella: L’accetto! (I’ll take it!)
Guglielmo (aside): Infelice Ferrando! (Poor Ferrando!)
Guglielmo (to her): O che diletto! (What joy!)
The moment when Dorabella accepts the ‘heart’ from Guglielmo is one of the most ravishing in opera; fraught with bittersweet irony, Mozart’s music for her suggests from the beginning that she will be the first to ‘fall,’ and when she gives in to him his reaction is both wry and triumphant – to himself and to the audience, he comments that Ferrando is to be pitied, and to Dorabella, he exults. It’s followed by the sublime duet ‘Il core vi dono.’ In this Garsington opera production by John Fulljames, Guglielmo says ‘Infelice Ferrando!’ straight to Dorabella’s face, inches from her nose – no aside, and she ignores it. What are we to infer from this? That she’s perfectly aware of what’s going on? That it’s all a fraud anyway? Or is there some sort of esoteric post-post-modern gloss going on? It instantly brought to mind a production of Macbeth in which Banquo utters the lines “Thou has it now, King, Cawdor, Glamis, all / As the wierd women promis’d, and I fear / Thou playd’st most foully for it” straight to Macbeth’s face despite the fact that the speech is a soliloquy several lines before the latter’s entrance.
Why dwell on this? Simply because it encapsulates so much of what’s wrong with this production, as well as so much of what is worthwhile. Clearly, it’s the ultra-cynical Così in which the original pairings remain unrestored and everybody experiences tristesse at the end; however, Kent Opera did that to so much more moving effect, more than 30 years ago. Rather than the Ferrarese sisters’ house in Naples, our setting is the British Wedding From Hell, complete with chavvy ladettes, drunken soldiers, John Lewis – clad ‘Mothers of the bride’ and so on. It looks pretty, and there are plenty of cute effects such as the tandem on which the ‘Albanians’ arrive, the almost-trashed flower arrangements and the jolly swing – has someone been overdosing on Fragonard? We have all been to those weddings, but it’s about 20 years since girls swigging from whisky bottles was either daring or amusing, and as for producing a pair of scanties in place of the locket, was it worth the cheap laugh?
Fortunately, the musical values under Douglas Boyd were on a far higher plane than most of the production. There were a few niggles in terms of disagreement in pacing between stage and pit, including one very awkward moment, but in general the Garsington Opera orchestra gave an elegant, finely pointed account of the score. Elegance may have been in short supply in the stage pictures, but it was as much in evidence in most of the singing as it was in the pit, with especially fine performances from Robin Tritschler’s Ferrando and Ashley Riches’ Guglielmo. The tenor’s voice is not large but it is beautifully cultivated, with a sweet, beguiling tone; his arias were sung with apparent ease and he phrased the crucial arioso “Volgi a me pietoso il ciglio” most persuasively. He and Riches were as strong a pair of lovers as you’d hope to see on any world stage, the baritone’s finely burnished tones and confidence ideal for his role. Neal Davies’ Alfonso was characterized as a drunken misery rather than a sly cynic, but he rose above all he was asked to do with his characteristic professionalism and true classical technique.
The women were more variable, with Kathryn Rudge’s Dorabella the strongest in vocal terms; ‘Smanie implacabili’ was vividly characterized, and she blended mellifluously with the other voices in ensemble. Andreea Soare was dramatically adept as Fiordiligi although some of this fiendish music is a bit of a challenge for her; however, she sang ‘Fra’gli amplessi’ quite beautifully. Lesley Garrett has been singing Despina since before the other two were born, and the years have been kind to both her voice and her ever-vivacious person. The chorus of lads, ladettes and various pillars of whatever community this was meant to be, entered into the spirit of things with aplomb, with Kathryn Kingston an elegantly melancholic, mute bride.
Whatever the shortcomings of the production’s concept, it goes without saying that this is the perfect opera for this venue; indeed, there were times when more could have been made of the real garden setting. When the voices of the two girls and that of the tenor blend in the sublime canon ‘E nel tuo, nel mio bicciero’ whilst the baritone’s bitter counterpoint wishes that they were drinking poison, you are once more aware of the work’s at once tender and crushing ironies, in music which touches the heights of lyric grace and which needs no ‘interpretation’ in order to entrance.