Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Così fan tutte review – The Royal Opera revives Mozart’s opera about fidelity

26 June 2024

Glorious singing makes Jan Philipp Gloger’s cluttered and confusing staging almost bearable, but it’s a close call.

Così fan tutte

Così fan tutte (Photo: Clive Barda)

First seen in 2016, as a replacement for Jonathan Miller’s venerable staging that serviced the Royal Opera well throughout the ‘90s and early ‘00s, German director Jan Philipp Gloger’s take on Mozart and Da Ponte’s opera about the fidelity of women refuses to take the work at face value.

Given the misogyny that courses through the opera – that all women are unfaithful strumpets who will drop their knickers at the first opportunity – that may not seem too bad a thing. In this day and age few directors, if any, would dream of staging this opera as its creators intended, and many have found perfectly plausible ways to circumvent the bitterness that lies at its heart. However Gloger’s view of the piece is muddled, as the lines between artifice and reality are often blurred.

During the overture Don Alfonso leads a traditionally-consumed set of principals in a series of curtain calls, whilst members of the cast watch, supposedly as part of the audience for a performance of Così fan tutte before they take to the stage. Don Alfonso and Despina are seen to be directing the action, which over the course of the evening takes place in Ben Baur’s cluttered and continuously changing sets – a replica of the Paul Hamlyn Bar, a ‘Brief Encounter’ station for the men’s departure, dressing rooms that rise from beneath the stage, a grassy knoll, complete with a serpent-entwined tree. And so it goes on. It’s evident from the start that the two sisters haven’t been duped in the slightest by the trick that Don Alfonso and their lovers are playing on them – how could they, given their lovers’ disguises, comedy moustaches, are hardly disguises at all.

I was left wondering what Gloger was trying to say about the piece, given his thoughts seemed so submerged in metaphor and symbolism, and it left me hankering after Miller’s beautifully observed staging that evolved with every outing. I get that we need to revisit these operatic warhorses, but we deserve something more coherent than this potpourri of half-baked ideas.

“…Gloger’s view of the piece is muddled…”

Così fan tutte

Così fan tutte (Photo: Clive Barda)

However, what made this evening so memorable and enjoyable was the quality of the musical performance, which was about as good as it gets these days. Not even in Salzburg would you encounter such a well balanced, starry cast of A-list Mozartians as the Royal Opera had assembled here. As the two schemers, Gerald Finley and Jennifer France both sang like a dream. His forthright baritone is more gravelly in texture these days, which is the perfect fit for Don Alfonso, the schemer who manipulates the young couples’ emotions, while France’s crystalline soprano sparkles as Despina.

Daniel Behle (Ferrando) and Andrè Schuen (Guglielmo) are a perfect match, both vocally and physically. Behle’s essentially lyrical tenor has grown – he was a revelation as Lohengrin in Amsterdam last year – and while there’s more metal in the voice these days, he’s still capable of much spine-tingling pianissimo singing, holding the house in thrall on several occasions. Schuen is a natural stage animal, and it helps that he’s tall and handsome, replete with a richly-produced, bronzed baritone, that fills out Mozart’s vocal lines with warmth and ardour. 

Both Golda Schultz (Fiordiligi) and Samantha Hankey (Dorabella) were making their house debuts, and what auspicious ones they were. Schultz’s creamy soprano beguiled, singing the fiendishly difficult role of Fiordiligi with consummate ease, despatching the high notes without batting an eyelid, while plumbing the depths with plenty of bravura. Her ‘Come scoglio’ was one of the evening’s vocal highlights.

She was perfectly matched by Hankey. This young American singer has taken the operatic world by storm, and it’s not hard to see why. Her richly-coloured mezzo is a thing of wonder, evenly produced throughout the role’s range – bright and incisive at the top, burnished lower down. Her voice blended perfectly with Schultz – their singing throughout the evening gave unalloyed pleasure.

Setting the seal on this magnificent performance was British conductor Alexander Soddy. There was certainly no dilly-dallying in his effervescent reading of the score – the addition of valveless horns and hard-hit timpani helped create a bracing wall of sound. Soddy also played the recitatives on a fortepiano, leading the continuo with style and elegance. Having seen him conduct A Midsummer Night’s Dream (ENO), Salome (ROH), Parsifal (Vienna) and Lohengrin (Berlin Staatsoper), it’s clear that Soddy is that rare breed of opera conductor, very much in the Mackerras mould, who excels in every area of the operatic repertoire – where everything he touches turns to gold. He was rewarded by alert, perfectly-judged playing by the orchestra.

• Details of upcoming performances can be found here.

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