Cosi Fan Tutte
W.A. Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte
Last night I was very lucky to see once again Jonathan Miller’s considered, affecting and touching production of Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte at the Royal Opera House. Time has been kind to this production….like good wine…if anything it has been improved with the inevitable reconsiderations born of repeated performance. Like the famous Zeffirelli production of Tosca for Maria Callas or indeed Miller’s other work for English National opera ( ENO), Mikado, Rigoletto, Carmen and Rosenkavalier – the Miller’s Cosi is almost definitive.
It still is as clever and fresh as when I saw it last in the 1990s. The updating to Iphones and other contemporary jokes meld perfectly into the seamless structure of the comedy as if details from Lorenzo da Ponte’s pen and Mozart’s imagination.
It is such a pleasure to attend a comedy in a foreign language where the audience gets the jokes. Surtitles and a good translation add much to any performance these days. Long gone are those nights of solemn audiences listening to great comic opera as if they were in church.
Jonathan Miller has repeatedly done great things for Opera and has been in the vanguard of creating unstuffy, thoughtful and perceptive opera that is easily accessible as art for all to enjoy. The Opera House is no longer like being in the Steward’s tent at Henley or the Royal enclosure at Ascot. And it’s much the better for its artistic liberation.
By the time Mozart completed Cosi fan Tutte in 1790 the Bastille had been stormed and the French Revolution had cast its long shadow over the age of reason and the optimism of the Enlightenment.
There were five performances in Vienna. It reached London’s Haymarket Theatre in 1811…long after Mozart was dead and buried. It quickly dropped out of the performed canon of Mozart. For almost a century it was the least well regarded of Mozart’s masterworks. In 1897 Richard Strauss conducted Cosi in Munich. It proved a turning point in its history. Gradually Cosi became more popular with opera-going audiences although the first performance at Covent Garden wasn’t until 1947.
Strauss saw in Mozart’s comedic operas…particularly in Cosi...the layers of emotional depth beneath the polished music that’s perfectly formed into aria and duet and trio after quartet, quintet and sextet. And inspired by da Ponte’s collaborations with Mozart, Strauss persuaded Hugo von Hofmannsthal to write the libretto for der Rosenkavalier. The rest as they say is musical history…
When I first saw Cosi in the 1970s I remember one very distinguished director of a London Art Gallery telling me the opera was hardly worth taking seriously as art…a silly story with lovely music. Yet from the moment I first heard ‘Soave sia il vento’ as background music in that wonderful film Sunday Bloody Sunday I was smitten.
It is true that the plot of Cosi has its improbabilities…they are deliberate but nonetheless improbable for being so. Gugliemo and Ferrando are head over heels in love with Fiordiligi and Dorabella. They praise them as perfection akin to Penelope or Diana to their friend and mentor Alfonso. The cynical Alfonso is un-persuaded. Alfonso inveigles the two men into a bet that he can engineer their faithful women to embrace others’ charms. The two heroes are sent off to war leaving the two women behind.
Enter two ‘Albanians’ who naturally are Ferrando and Gugliemo in disguise and, with the manipulations of Alfonso and connivance of the ladies’ maid Despina, the men succeed only too well in their objective. Each man woos and wins the other’s girl. The comedy at moments teeters upon farce and at all times the plot development is as accelerated as the emotions of the characters are exaggerated.
It was this artificiality and the improbability of the emotional switch required of the women that made this so unfashionable to the sentimental Victorians who saw all this as patently absurd. We, however, habituated on the excessive exaggerations of plot and character in TV soaps like Coronation Street and Eastenders or Dallas and Dynasty are better suited to accepting such caricatures for dramatic effect.
Mozart bestows on each of the sextet of deeply flawed and foolish figures humanity and grace. In so doing he lifts the absurdities of their lives and loves above their flaws of character. And in turn Mozart invests all of us and all our loves with a beauty and grace that our prosaic fumbling seems hardly to deserve.
In seeing that Mozart shows the perceptive genius that say Shakespeare shows us in As You Like It or Twelfth Night. As Shakespeare uses extraordinary words to shape hopes and emotions of ordinary characters who just might be us – so, in Cosi, Mozart shares with us music that transfigures the purely pedestrian feelings we own with a sprinkling of stardust. Thereby he raises our imperfect loves to the perfection of the heavens…
Colin Davis conducted a stellar cast who made the music live. Davis also took the music at a very unsentimental pace. I can see some wouldn’t have liked that but it worked brilliantly. Thomas Allen gave us such a rounded, wise and wilful Alfonso beautifully sung and acted. Nicholas Borchev sang Gugliemo; and Charles Costronovo Ferrando. Borchev gave us pure singing and a wonderful comic performance. Costronovo owns a honeyed voice: smooth velvet with a satin sheen to coat its tone. He sang simply beautifully.
The women were equally as good – Malin Bystrom gave us a vivid Fiordiligi and sang those difficult arias with easy artistry. Michele Losier’s Dorabella was equally accomplished and sung with disciplined control – together they made music of pure gold. Despina is sometimes a difficult part as it ranges into buffo characterisations of a Doctor in disguise and later a Notary but Rosemary Joshua sang them without allowing the clowning to overwhelm the music. She also possesses a lovely light soprano voice that isn’t at all brittle at the edges and she has great agility and great technique. Indeed all last night’s singers had the voice, the technique and the vocal range to explore the full range of the music.
Opera rarely comes better than this….this is a production that even a reluctant novice to opera would enjoy from start to finish…and it’s glorious three hours fly by….
As I was lucky to have received this as a Christmas present, I say a special thank you to Brendan for playing Santa and giving me a special night that I will not forget.
Below is another link to one of the great tenor arias from Cosi..…