One simple fact should perhaps dictate your decision to attend this latest revival of Jonathan Miller’s Così fan tutte, and that is whether you have seen it before. It is undoubtedly a strong production, which through a series of clever touches sets the action in the modern day while maintaining strong parallels with the original eighteenth century setting.
It is not, however, without its problems, not least because the laptops, mobile phones and Starbucks coffees that brought such novelty value when it was new in 1995 now feel so run of the mill. As a result, a second viewing is even more likely to make the jokes feel boring, and hence lead one to notice more cracks in the concept. It would therefore require a stellar cast to compensate for the productions own loss of magic, and whether the current ensemble is quite strong enough to fulfil that function is a matter for debate.
The two performances that certainly stand out do not come from the quartet of lovers at all. In Don Alfonso, Thomas Allen effortlessly combines a cool, manipulative presence with a loveably roguish persona. As he sings ‘Soave sia il vento’ with Dorabella and Fiordiligi, he shares convincingly in their sorrow while simultaneously making us aware that he alone of the three is putting on an act. Rosemary Joshua gives a priceless turn as Despina, shimmying around the stage in ‘In uomini, in soldati, sperare fedelt?’ with a confidence that shows that this maid has seen it all before.
Seldom, however, do the rest of the cast make their actions seem natural as opposed to planned and rehearsed, which when the staging features so much dancing, prancing and jiving is rather a drawback. Against the looming white walls of the scenery the comic gestures often feel two sizes too small for the area they are required to fill.
Nikolay Borchev initially seems to struggle to know whether to play Guglielmo as overly confident or enthusiastically naive, leading to some large, jerky gestures, although his voice is strong from the outset. Charles Castronovo feels smoother as Ferrando but lacks comic bite, and his performance of ‘Un’aura amorosa’ is highly pleasing while lacking the extra ingredient that would make it special .
The ladies get off to a stronger start. Both have broad, resonant voices, and Malin Byström’s dreamier tones blend well with Michèle Losier’s more direct sound. The characters feel too similar, however, with Losier’s Dorabella sharing too much in Fiordiligi’s hard-line stance against the strangers. Dorabella does not have to be a flighty, feisty figure from start to finish, but I remember the subtle way in which two years ago Nino Surguladze said so much about her character by kicking Guglielmo roughly before apologising flirtatiously
Things improve immensely in the second half as the performers embrace the comedy more effectively. Castronovo and Borchev capture the dual sense of thrill and shame that the soldiers feel as they win over each others’ lovers, as well as the sense of self-righteousness that underpins their rivalry. The vocal performances also feel a lot more expressive. In particular, Castronovo’s rendition of ‘Ah, lo veggio’ hits the ethereal heights that were just missed earlier on, while Byström’s performance of ‘Per pietà, ben mio, perdona’ features a beauty of tone as well as real emotional depth. In the pit, Colin Davis conducts with a controlled sense of passion that keeps the output balanced and elegant throughout.
On the opening night an event at the end transformed what was a good performance into a truly memorable evening. This was a touching presentation made on the stage to Sir Thomas Allen in recognition of his forty years at the Royal Opera House. How fitting that he should have stolen the show that evening, as he has undoubtedly done on so many occasions over the previous four decades.