Delight with a sting in the tail – Cosi fan tutte at Days Bay Opera

Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte at Days Bay Opera, Wellington

(Producer – Rhona Fraser / Director – Sara Brodie)

Cast: Simon Christie (Don Alfonso) / Tom Atkins (Ferrando) / Kieran Rayner (Guglielmo)

Kate Lineham (Fiordiligi) / Maaike Christie/Beekman (Dorabella) / Imogen Thirwall (Despina)

Orchestra and Chorus

Conductor: Michael Vinten

Canna House, Days Bay, Wellington

Thursday 21st February 2013

It’s presently a feast for aficionados of outdoor theatre, in Wellington – firstly, Antony and Cleopatra splendidly strutting their Summer Shakespeare stuff in the Dell at the Botanical Gardens (on until March 2nd, incidentally); and now this latest delight from the Opera in a Days Bay Garden – Mozart’s and librettist da Ponte’s most exquisitely-contrived work for the stage, Cosi fan tutte.

Cosi’s opening night fortunately caught something of the run of beautifully mellow summery days that the capital’s been experiencing of late – alarmingly, the following morning clouded and drizzled, but forecasts were better both for later in the day and the subsequent days. It seems (moustaches crossed) as though the weather gods, having had a bit of capricious fun, might be on Mozart’s and Days Bay’s side, after all.

But what better an experience to enjoy a subtle masterpiece of music-theatre, splendidly directed, sung and played, in a garden setting redolent with fragrant, easeful airs, encompassed by elements seemingly at peace with themselves and their surroundings?

The audience was here seated on the lawn, looking up to the ascending terraces on which the action unfolded, in front of the house, all beautifully framed by trees and the surrounding hills. In a pre-opening night interview producer Rhona Fraser (owner of the house and garden) commented on the advantage of having this “naturalistic” setting, with real doors, gateways and archways as entrance and exit wings, as well as sufficient spaces in which people could safely “jump around” and be “physical”. And the acoustic supported the singers most gratefully, the voices right from the outset projecting their tones readily to our ears.

It did seem to me, at the overture’s beginning, as if the orchestra might this time be too far removed from the centre of things, and their sounds more dissipated than supported by the open-air environment – the configuration was different to last year’s “Alcina”, when the audience inhabited the terraces and the action took place largely on the lawn, with the singers sounding by and large in the same “space” as the orchestra. But as the overture progressed the music drew our ears increasingly closer and focused our sensibilities on the accompanying action – and it wasn’t long before we had gotten used to the perspectives of what became the evening’s perfectly-proportioned sound-picture.

During this process the “scene” was already being set, as Don Alfonso (Simon Christie), the cynical (and here, somewhat out-of-sorts) middle-aged bachelor made his way into a cafe, in which people at other tables (recruited spontaneously from the audience, to everybody’s delight) were being attended by an attractive waitress. The atmosphere definitely had a “modern” feel, though not a contemporary one (those were the days! – not a cell-phone nor text-messenger in sight!) – perhaps late-1950s/early-1960s, underpinned by the “Navy Lark” uniforms of the two young men, Ferrando (Tom Atkins) and Guglielmo (Kieran Rayner) who arrived and greeted Don Alfonso as an old friend.

The Overture completed, the conversation between the three soon turned towards women, Ferrando and Guglielmo avowing the steadfast beauties and fidelities of their beloved ones and Don Alfonso (having already called their lovers’ steadfastness to question) parrying their indignant responses – here was excellent, energetically-delivered recitative between the three (Simon Christie particularly sonorous and characterful), and what I thought just enough umbrage taken (leavened with their brief ogling of the attractive waitress at “ah, women! – oh, women!”) by the two young men at their older companion’s cynicism. (Incidentally, Andrew Porter’s excellent English translation was the text used.)

The scene augured well for the rest – having heard that the opera’s setting would be “updated” here, my fears that director Sara Brodie might have been tempted into some kind of Peter Sellars-like mastication of the scenario (I had just viewed that director’s “take” on the opera on DVD and found the production singularly and searingly insightful, but over-wrought and ultimately repulsive in effect) seemed thankfully unfounded from this point on!  I didn’t necessarily hold with the view that, because Mozart’s was a comedy of eighteenth-century manners, the scenario should, whatever the travails of the workings, return both the characters and we observers at the end to “reason and normality”. Instead I thought that composer and librettist provided plenty of scope for any production to explore uncomfortable ironies and life-changing emotional refurbishments in the denouement – more than the literal message of the text alone perhaps suggests. But read on……

We then met the “Penelopes” as Don Alfonso wittily called them – firstly, Fiordiligi (Kate Lineham) filling her tones with artless, indolent infatuation, not every note precisely placed at this early stage, but capturing most convincingly the romantic idealizations of a young girl. And so did her sister Dorabella (Maaike Christie-Beekman), less ardent and vulnerable-sounding, a touch stronger and more “controlled” in effect – together, a near-perfect combination, as it transpired, their interaction at once a happy blend and characterful difference. At “If ever my heart should change….” I thought Dorabella’s the shade stronger counterpointing in the duet, but, again, it was a case of “vive la difference”!

Don Alfonso’s entrance into this idyll, complete with tragic mien and utterances, put a cat among the ensemble pigeons momentarily, but the feeling of disruption of peace and order was appropriate to the unravelling. In fact, throughout the performance, such was the teamwork among the singers and the obvious rapport between them and conductor and orchestra, that any brief dislodgements of ensemble (very few) had to my ears a kind of “elastic” quality, which seemed to be able to reconnect the counterpoints at a moment’s notice – very easeful, naturalistic musicmaking! This, the first “big” ensemble of the work brought out further delights, both musical and theatrical – the different “pools of emotion” stirred by each character took on a wondrously antiphonal effect, with almost the whole stage-width being employed, Dorabella to the right and Fiordiligi to the left, and their lovers filling in rather less acute symmetries, but with the focus firmly on the whole, and beautifully held together by Michael Vinten’s conducting. An especially lovely moment for the ensemble was at the words “how my heart is torn when I must leave you”, the whole thrown into occasional relief by Simon Christie’s sly but telling asides, his Don Alfonso replete with the character’s ironic satisfaction.

The lovely “Soft breezes….” trio provided a perfect extension to the sorrowful mood of the leave-taking, with the voices again being able to “separate” but remain pliable and secure in their combination, with Don Alfonso adroitly betraying a weakness for either Fiordiligi’s charms or a touch of generalized sexual gratification. Straightaway, the following scene introduced the “last-but-not-least” player in the scenario, the sisters’ maid, Despina (Imogen Thirwall), throughout bubbling with a mix of infectious energy and insouciance which made her a force to be reckoned with beneath the girlishness! Chocolate played its somewhat indelible part as well, firstly leaving tell-tale smears on Despina’s face for the sisters’ entrance, and then undercurrenting Maaike Christie-Beekman’s delightfully undone, Nabokov-like desperation as Dorabella, in thrall to despair and creature comfort (in Act Two, Kate Lineham’s Fiordiligi righted this attention-catching balance with a stunning appearance complete with plastic hair-net and portable hair-drier!).

But the action moved quickly to complete the ensemble possibilities around which the opera wove its subsequent tangles – after Despina’s pooh-poohing of her mistresses’ anguish, and her “conspiratory” scene with Alfonso, came the entrance of the “Albanians”, the supposedly departed lovers lavishly disguised and richly endowed with hair (a great audience moment!), followed by the sisters’ “getting wind” of the visitors’ presence and their subsequent confusion and embarrassment at the fulsome attentions paid them. It was all beautifully staged, with the men countering every move made by the women, like a dynamic game of chess, with Alfonso and Despina registering their “suspicious indignation” regarding the piteous squawks of the cornered women, interspersed with the sweet nothings of the exotic gentlemen callers.

By the First Act’s end all of the characters had stamped their mark on the proceedings, the sisters each performing beautiful instances of teamwork and individual characterization which would engage and fascinate our sympathies to the end. Kate Lineham’s Fiordiligi floated her tones with ever-increasing surety throughout, and made something many-jewelled of her aria “Like Gibraltar”, strong and imperious at the beginning, and with her conductor, judging the strength/energy ratio to perfection as the music reached fulfillment. As well, her softly-voiced moment of eventual capitulation to Ferrando’s attentions in Act Two touched our sensibilities, so completely drawn-in were we by that stage at her plight as a helpless plaything of emotion. Her sister’s portrayal by Maaike Christie Beekman brought out plenty of necessary contrasts of manner and vocal tone, strongly establishing a more confident and adventurous character, more volatile and playful than serious and sensible, thus more suggestible to the suitors’ flirtations. Her full-blooded, forthright singing of “Desires which torture me” in Act One made a marked contrast with her kittenish post-coital-like posturings for the benefit of her new “lover” in the Second Act.

Their lovers, real and disguised, contributed as much to the performance’s success, both together and individually – Tom Atkins as Ferrando used his true-voiced tenor to excellent lyrical effect, contributing to a true, knockabout partnership with his fellow-officer, Guglielmo (Kieran Rayner), as well as making much of moments like his Act One aria “The soft breath enchanting”, his voice having a lovely, “open” sound. His desperate and ultimately successful attempts to seduce Fiordiligi during Act Two were more effortful, in places a little breathless, but his urgency and purpose were strongly conveyed. As vivid and mellifluous-toned a characterization was Kieran Rayner’s Guglielmo, with his ardent Act One declarations of love and gently-mocking anatomical self-descriptions, more confident on the surface than his friend, but beneath more vulnerable and volatile. His encompassing of the character’s range of moods brought us great delight, from the irony of his admonition of women for their deceptions (“Dear Ladies…..”) to his anguish and bitterness at his belated betrayal by Fiordiligi.

These various couplings of friendship, love and betrayal underlined the ensemble nature of the work – and the “unholy alliance” of Don Alfonso and the maid Despina not only added to but twanged the strands deliciously. Both Simon Christie and Imogen Thirwall were compelling to watch and listen to from each of their separate entrances, and through their somewhat barbed interactions, right up to their part in the work’s unexpectedly eruptive conclusion. Christie made every one of Don Alfonso’s utterances “tell”, while conveying glimpses of a somewhat middle-aged-lecher aspect, which held a place but without exaggeration. Despina’s impersonated roles of doctor and notary were similarly treated, more characters than caricatures, and stronger as a result – her use of Dr. Mesmer’s “magnet” had the right mixture of hocus-pocus and suggestiveness, even if the trills, both vocal and orchestral, might have been a touch more outlandish.

I’ve already mentioned instances of the strengths and delicacies of Michael Vinten’s conducting, and the sterling efforts of his players throughout. Musically I took away as much a feeling of partnership and artistic interchange as individual expressions from singers and orchestra players – and I thought that, in this opera especially, it was as it should be. Very great credit, I feel, is due to both producer Rhona Fraser, and especially to director Sara Brodie, whose vision and dramatic instincts here, I think, provided a model for the idea (which I habitually shrink from) that opera production can successfully take in updated elements and “speak” directly and viscerally to different eras, without doing violence to the original. We were taken to a specific time-frame with the help of certain iconic objects and modes, but none that in appearance or use sharply contravened Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s content and style.

As to the true climax of the convolutions, it was definitely “come-uppance” time at the end for at least two of the characters, the action having wonderfully appropriate “shock value” for being so swift and focused, and a lot to take in all at once! Despina dealt to Don Alfonso with the classic “bent over double” result, and Ferrando landed a haymaker on his erstwhile friend Guglielmo’s jaw. What the two sisters did, if anything, I couldn’t say (it happened all too quickly!) – but perhaps, like me, they were too taken aback to do anything except go with the flow! No apocalyptic nihilism – merely just desserts! – and what happened to the couples then became anybody’s guess, speculation of which I’m certain both Mozart and da Ponte would have heartily approved, as they would our appreciative delight of what we had just been so generously given.











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