Cosi Fan Tutte
Graeme Stewart witnesses a masterclass in Mozart's libretto
Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte is a very easy opera to get wrong. Aside from the sheer complexity of the plot - a menagerie of mistaken identities, wrong footing and a scheming conspirator thrown amongst two couples who try to outsmart each other in a series of devilishly cunning maneuvers - there is a lot going on.
Although the storyline was well known in Mozart’s day, it has been said that even his historical nemesis Antonio Salieri had a go at putting a libretto to music but gave up halfway through. This was probably to entice Mozart into the challenge of writing what would become the form's definitive work.
Mozart’s work is strewn with comedy, even some of his sonatas, concertos, symphonies and chamber ensemble music takes a hat off to a comedic and whimsical sense of tomfoolery and mischief, and these qualities are certainly played to the fore in Cosi.
Opera North have a reputation as an opera company of high production values, often taking new perspectives on areas of work which have been overlooked. At the outset, the audience are confronted by a huge overbearing 19th century wooden studio camera, within which da Pont’s characters act out their comedic lives.
The metaphor of the camera is revealing. We are essentially voyeurs looking into the strange world of these characters, a ‘through the looking glass’ set up. We know things that the characters do not, and this allows us to enter into a more personal relationship with the puppeteer, Don Alfonso.
As his plan for Ferrando and Guglielmo unfolds, Don Alfonso is the first person we see, checking the camera is working, making sure it is set. It is the audience's connection with Alfonso that allows us to share in the fun, at the expense, of course, of the sentimental and idealistic Fiordiligi and Dorabella.
And then there is Despina, certainly one of Mozart’s most eclectic and broadly drawn characters. She is to Cosi Fan Tutte as the character Cherubino is to the Marriage of Figaro, eccentrically charged and full of mischief, an Italian Till Eulenspiegel.
Amy Freston's Despina is one of the show’s highlights, bringing a mad charm to the character that is matched by Allan Clayton’s Ferrando and Quirjin de Lang’s Guglielmo. Fiordiligi and Dorabella (performed respectively by Elizabeth Atherton and Victoria Simmonds) could be the ancestors of Absolutely Fabulous’ Edina and Patsy - quirky, funny and with some fantastically sentimental and heartfelt moments. Indeed, the dichotomy of tragic love and comedic larking is one of the fascinating qualities of the work, and one which shows the composer to be a master of the genre.
This delicate balance is captured supremely well by the cast as a whole, helped along by Opera North’s fantastic orchestra, conducted by Justin Doyle and lead by David Green.
Although all are worthy of praise, Don Alfonso, performed by Riccardo Simonetti, is particularly strong - not least as he was the understudy and only to stepped into the character’s shoes at the last minute. His is a performance full of whimisical expectation and energy, completing what is an excellent ensemble cast of singers.
For me, another highlight of the night is Allan Clayton’s aria, 'Un’ aura amorosa' , or 'a loving breath'. This solo stands out as the perfect example of Mozart the forward thinker, a composer way ahead of his time. Some of the aria’s harmonies are incredibly ‘jazzy’ for their day.
In short, the night is a triumph, the fact the libretto is sung in English adding to the enjoyment. Cosi Fan Tutte can be translated in different ways, including 'the school for lovers'. Opera North’s production isn’t just any lesson, it is a masterclass.