If Friday’s trip to Così Fan Tutte at Covent Garden didn’t resurrect the unalloyed pleasure that I remember from its last outing, the production by Jonathan Miller was not the cause. I thought that it was the sort of fresh and interesting visualisation that this rather curious opera needs in order to have its impact. Looking back over various write-ups of the première in 1995, it seems that it was greeted with the sort of enthusiasm reserved for the three-day week; reviews of this outing seem to have been a little more generous. Whether it has bedded in, or times have moved on, is a matter for discussion. It would seem, though, that the production has changed and developed at each outing (I think the latest addition was the iPhone, doubtless when next we see it there will be an iPad to marvel at).
Set in neutral tones, with initial costumes famously by Armani and subsequently adapted, it presents a sealed world in which, as the programme note by Nicholas Till observes, it “is curiously unspecific in its definition of social detail”. This lack of specificity forms a usefully ‘diffuse’ container for the narrative, which softens such obvious concerns as, for example, exactly what relationship Despina has to her employers, or whether it is believable that they are supposedly Starbucks-swigging fashion designers and yet have never before been parted from their lovers. Crucially, the idea that two best friends’ lovers could go off, get changed (albeit with some clever costuming), and come back on as unrecognisable becomes – well, if not exactly plausible, then not so far outside of the bounds of this particular world that we can relax into enjoying it.
I remember the ‘business’ being in a little sharper focus last time than it was this time, an observation that I also apply to singing and conducting. The mobile phone gags, the UN uniforms and Despina’s doctor/notary get-up were all good and fine, but I seem to recall a brighter, more full-on take from the previous cast. As a denizen of the Lower Slips Left, I also don’t remember as much happening so far down stage left as was the case here… The one thing that I would have liked to have seen was a little more variation in lighting to try and assist the ups-and-downs in the emotional temperature. The whole thing was a little full-on bright and became a little flat to look at as a result, but it’s a minor carp.
Helene Schneiderman was a sparky Despina and seemed to be the most full-on exponent of the comedic aspects. William Shimell has to contend with memories of Thomas Allen, but delivered well, even if that last dash of cynicism came across rather as weariness. I enjoyed all the performances of the four lovers – the two men looking the part in their military gear – and Castronovo singing an elegant Un’aura amorosa. Nino Surguladze as Dorabella obviously didn’t have as much to do in terms of ‘big numbers’ as Sally Matthews’s Fiordiligi but was a strong contributor to the sassy comedy of the two women as well as their pathos. Matthews has a rich voice: I was struck by the richness and ‘heft’ in the lower passages and she brought an intensity to Come scoglio and Per pietà, the latter contributing a welcome darkness amidst the bright perkiness of the drama around it.
It was during Per pietà that the restlessness of the audience became particularly distracting and aggravating, with a near-constant buzz of rustling, coughing, dropping things and subsequent ‘shushing’. By the end of the first act – all 90 minutes of it – the two people next to me had decided to act on their very evident boredom and vote with their feet. Seemingly, others around the auditorium didn’t have the courage of their convictions and sat it out, with little regard to the impact of their disquiet on others. Julia Jones’s conducting may well have contributed to this, since it was a smaller-scale, warmer reading of the piece (and therefore less immediately attention-grabbing for those who are inclined to boredom) than I remember Colin Davis’s in 2007. It made the piece feel oddly unbalanced, all perky narrative in the first half, culminating in a Rossini-esque conclusion, with a more introspective second half which lost some of its momentum. That’s how it’s constructed, but somehow it seemed particularly acute on this reading and I think it lost the attention of those less naturally inclined to opera than the core audience. That said, Soave sia il vento emerged gorgeously from the high angst that preceded it, and the ensemble numbers, most notably the close of the first act and the scene that culminated in the ‘Così fan tutte’ chorale, attained a real brio and sweep. I might have wished for it a little brighter and brasher, but this was a coherent and well-articulated reading.
And the misogyny? Well, it remained debatable in our little group, and how ironic that it was this opera, with all its debatable attitudes to women, that should be accompanied by the hullabaloo about a female conductor. I like the fact that it doesn’t give you any certainties and you have to make up your mind for yourself, but there are individual lines which take some swallowing. A notable example was Fiordiligi’s question about how a heart can be changed in a single day, which brings Dorabella’s response to the effect of “what a ridiculous question: we are women!”. I tend to settle on the interpretation that the opera is more of a debate about how we all are, rather than how women are, and that the emphasis is on removing the rose-tinted spectacles from any pair of lovers to help them each see their partner in more realistic terms. But it’s a tricky one, no doubt. And oddly, I think a modern dress production serves that interpretation rather better than a more classical take in which we are invited to dismiss it with a ‘oh, didn’t they have some odd attitudes back then’. Far rather engage with it full-on, as Miller’s production helps us to do, than try and consign it to the mannerisms of a (supposedly) less enlightened time.