“It lowers all women, cannot possibly please female spectators…” Schröder’s famous view of da Ponte’s libretto for Così is neatly echoed in this Jan Philipp Gloger production, first seen in 2016 and smartly revived here by Julia Burbach. Since the cynicism towards the women is brashly emphasized, whilst the two young male lovers are romanticized to the point of near-absurdity, the concept rejects the subtle, nuanced humanity of the score in favour of multiple ‘send-ups’ of classical tradition. Fortunately, the singing is never less than musical and often reaches very high levels.
Dahlings! I am overwhelmed by your applause! I am but the servant of my art! – seems to be the message of the ‘final curtain’ opening; well, why not, since the opera is partly about reversal of expectations? Not that any of the luvvies who won Oscars on the previous night would have uttered the last phrase there! This was a funny start to a sometimes puzzling production which often seemed to be trying to cram in so many ‘drama within a drama’ notions, and so much ‘clever’ irony that it left itself puzzled by what was going on.
Sir Thomas Allen has spent decades consolidating his urbane, sly Alfonso, and his was a definitive portrayal. Presumably, he was compelled to stay in 18th-century costume throughout in order to emphasize the artificiality of the genre, whilst the others swapped vaguely 20th-century outfits with near-farcical frequency. Whatever.
Gyula Orendt is a genuinely gifted stage performer – he had us all in stitches with his Nardo in Glyndebourne’s La finta giardiniera a few years ago, and his comic talent has continued to grow. Vocally, he was suave and persuasive, with a finely nuanced performance in the wonderful Il cuore vi dono, which was sung with absolute sincerity and blessedly free from ‘interventions’ – so good to see Dorabella receive a locket and not a pair of scanties.
Serena Malfi’s Dorabella also shone in this scene, her warm mezzo perfectly matching Orendt’s tone, and she made the fiendish Smanie implacabile sound easy, despite having to exaggerate her emotions in am-dram style. Salome Jicia’s Fiordiligi was the voice of the evening, with shining top notes and a pearly gleam in the middle register. ‘Per pieta’ was confidently sung despite being taken at a very slow tempo, and her singing of ‘Fra gli amplessi’ and the duet which follows was a model of Mozart performance as well as being beautifully staged.
Her Ferrando was engagingly characterized and very well sung by Paolo Fanale, whose slightly astringent tone sometimes brings Alfredo Kraus to mind. ‘Un aura amoroso’ had just the right blend of elegance and vulnerability, although, as with ‘Per pieta’ the conductor seemed to really want to wring it out.
Serena Gamberoni’s Despina was feisty and very high-energy – the production saw her as a barmaid dispensing chocolate martinis, heaven knows why, but her singing was fluent and pleasing and her ‘impersonations’ low on the embarrassment scale – which is a compliment.
In the pit, Stefano Montanari drove the orchestra on at a whizzing pace during the faster numbers, and slowed things down to positively languid whenever the opportunity arose. His fortepiano continuo was witty and well-timed, and he clearly loves the work with a passion.
The chorus has little to do in this opera, but as ever it provided an example of what ensemble singing should be. Ben Baur’s garish ‘bar’ sets are clever and his Rococo ones (complete with sliding flats) beautiful, even if they were presumably meant to be seen with an ‘ironic’ eye.
This production does not do much to illuminate the complex issues inherent in the story, but it presents a slickly done, often amusing version of the libretto and is remarkably faithful to Mozart’s music. Despite an overindulgence of artifice at times, this makes for an enjoyable evening and would be an excellent introduction to the opera; the couple behind me in the Stalls laughed at every joke.