Delightful, witty Così fan tutte from Wanderlust Opera

Così fan tutte (Mozart) in concert
Wanderlust Opera: produced by Georgia Jamieson Emms

Musical director: Bruce Greenfield (piano)
Narrator: Kate Mead
Georgia Jamieson Emms (Fiordiligi); Bianca Andrew (Dorabella); Imogen Thirlwall (Despina); Cameron Barclay (Ferrando); Robert Tucker (Guglielmo); Matthew Landreth (Don Alfonso)

English translation by John Drummond, Ruth and Thomas Martin and Georgia Jamieson Emms

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Saturday 15 August, 7:30 pm

It’s best to start with comment about the somewhat unfortunate timing of this wonderful enterprise. A clash with the university school of music’s double bill, running four performances from Thursday to Sunday. On top of that, many vocal enthusiasts would also have been torn by having to choose between the last day of the Big Sing, the choral competition/jamboree/gala of secondary school choirs, held this year in Wellington.

Because of conflicting commitments among the cast, no alternative date could be found however, and the audience (around 100) was a bit smaller than I’d expected: it certainly deserved a full house.

Though it was not a fully staged performance, there were many other features that contributed to a sparking, highly entertaining show; the mere absence of sets and costumes of the era didn’t deny the singers plenty of histrionic scope. Recitatives were replaced by a ‘performance’ by Kate Mead, named ‘narrator’. She was much more than that; in a flamboyant black and silver costume, she entered arm-in-arm with Bruce Greenfield, took her place on a platform on the right while Greenfield went to the piano, which served very well as orchestra.

He launched impulsively into the overture, hitting the keys with staccato ferocity. But after only a minute the overture was cut short and Kate took over to set the scene, with detail rich in witty hyperbole, insight, oxymoron, cynicism and meticulous Neapolitan geography. (If you’re interested, Piazza Carolina is close to the great San Carlo Theatre; their five-storey house is on the corner of Via Gennaro Serra – check it out next time you’re in Naples).

Kate’s dramatic elan ran the risk of upstaging more than one of the real performers. Like the singers, she spoke in English, which, in theory, negated the need for surtitles; but as usual, they’d often have been a help, as voices vary in clarity and carrying ability. (I have to confess a very strong preference, always, for the original language, with surtitles of course). So the scene was promptly set for a comedy in which there was no hope of rational intelligibility.

The other most important actor was the one-man-orchestra, the piano, which did get in the way sometimes, and made it hard to catch some of the Italian-inflected English. But it was always worth paying attention to the sheer brilliance of Greenfield’s playing of the delicious score.

However, the more important thing is the singing.

The three men, in dinner suits, established their characters at once, voices very distinct, though Cameron Barclay’s self-confident Ferrando was at first a little better projected than the Guglielmo of Robert Tucker whose well-grounded baritone slowly distinguished itself. The sisters’ several duets were nicely differentiated in timbre, and models of emotional excess. Bianca Andrew as Dorabella, the more susceptible of the sisters, used her fine penetrating mezzo wonderfully; Georgia Jamieson Emms benefitted as a result of the different character of her voice and personality, easily capturing the nature of Fiordiligi. They both wore glamorous, timeless, ball dresses.

Matthew Landreth as Don Alfonso did not, early on, quite command the nonchalant, Figaro-factotum character that Da Ponte and Mozart envisaged, but by the advent of the quintet, ‘Sento, o dio’, he was fitting comfortably into the texture of the performance.

It’s true that quite a lot was left out (there were 17 numbers listed in the programme from a total of 31 usually numbered in the score), though none of the well-known arias and ensembles was missing, like the divine trio ‘Soave sia il vento’, Fiordiligi’s ‘Come scoglio’ with a conspicuously splendid piano accompaniment; or tenor Ferrando’s touching ‘Un’ aura amorosa’. As an opera without a chorus, it is famous for its beautiful duets, trios and quintets, and they were often more beguiling than the solo arias.

With Alfonso’s pecuniary persuasion, Despina (Imogen Thirlwall) has entered the fray; her performance is vivacious and her initial hesitation to be complicit in Alfonso’s scheme quickly falls away.

The implementation of Alfonso’s plot is followed by a big sextet, as the two Albanians are introduced, and offer the most taxing of all suspensions of disbelief with the most improbable of disguises in all theatre, sporting moustaches and with unstable fezes (plural?), still wearing dinner suits, but with loosened ties.

Despina assumes great importance in Act II, starting with her perky ‘Una donna a quindici anni’, in her attempt to modify the girls’ self-denying virtue. With a few cuts in the score, we miss the agonising vicissitudes of the four as Despina’s principled counsel slowly takes root, especially in the Fiordiligi, the more virtuous of the two, leading precipitately to a double wedding officiated by Despina the notary.

To be sure, one missed the often hilarious, accelerating marital climax that a well-staged performance can offer, but the combination of fine singing and nearly believable acting was not a bad substitute. The outcome from the collapse of earlier assumptions about human behaviour is often left obscure; though I feel that an enigmatic outcome makes better dramatic, psychological sense, here the return to the original pairing was clear (perhaps it would be more acceptable in the provinces).

This splendid, entertaining, Wanderlust Opera enterprise is a serious attempt to find a way to bring opera to wider audiences. Georgia Jamieson Emms and her co-conspirators are to be congratulated on their courage and success which, given some financial support, has the potential to relieve operatic starvation in parts of the country.

The plan is for this performance to become fully staged under director Jacqui Coats and to travel next year to Wanganui, the Kapiti Coast, New Plymouth and Carterton. What is clearly needed is a change of attitude by Creative New Zealand which has a wretched history over many decades of rejecting applications for assistance by admirable, small opera groups.


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