A thought-provoking “Cosi fan tutte” from NZ Opera

New Zealand Opera presents:
MOZART – Cosi fan tutte (1790)– Opera Buffa in Two Acts

Cast:  Emma Pearson (Fiordiligi), Hanna Hipp (Dorabella), Jonathan Abernathy (Ferrando)
Julien van Malaerts (Guglielmo), Georgia Jamieson Emms (Despina), Andrew Foster Williams (Don Alfonso)

Director: Lindy Hume
Assistant Director: Matthew Kereama
Set/Costume Design: Tracy Grant Lord
Lighting Design: Matthew Marshall
Chorus Director: Michael Vinten

NZ Opera Chorus Wellington
Orchestra Wellington
Conductor: Natalie Murray Beale

St.James Theatre, Wellington

Wednesday 14th June,  2023

This production of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte opened in Auckland on May 31 for three performances before coming to Wellington mid-June for another three nights, the season concluding in Christchurch in July following another trio of performances. The production coincided with the conclusion of NZ Opera General Director Thomas de Mallet Burgess’s five-year tenure in that role, one which featured plenty of incident and not a little controversy, as well as bearing the brunt of the effects of the pandemic for a good deal of that time. In view of what he called these “extraordinary times” de Mallet Burgess would have been well pleased with having Cosi as a fitting finale to his stewardship of the company, and especially in the light of the critical response garnered in the press by the production’s Auckland season.

Already in Wellington, the reception accorded this, the opening night at the capital’s  splendidly refurbished St.James Theatre has reinforced the general enthusiasm accorded  the new production. Cosi fan tutte has probably been the most trivilised, misunderstood and  belittled of all of Mozart’s operas over time; and even now commentators seem to disagree as to what Mozart’s and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte’s real intentions were in bringing to life a drama whose story-line seems so overtly cynical and even misogynistic. Two young blades make a bet with an older, cynical friend regarding the constancy of their respective lovers, which involves each wooing the other’s amor in disguise – outwardly each succeeds, but with not altogether expected confusions and doubts resulting from the exercise.

Australian director Lindy Hume’s own response to the work has, as she told us in an illuminating programme note, undergone a definite change over the years, one that’s certainly been reflected in other productions I’ve seen and heard from different parts of the world of late, nearly all involving a definite shift in attitude towards human relationships and societal sex-roles. For Hume the essential message concerning the characters and their interactions in the story is conveyed by the “before” and “after” aspects of the various emotional topographies that everybody has tumbled into, which, in effect, turn them all into “strangers to each other”.

As one critic perceptively pointed out, da Ponte might well be accused of misogyny in his libretto, but Mozart in his music more readily refutes such a charge, even given the men’s statement of the “Cosi fan tutte” motto, which rings hollow in the light of both their own connivance, and its undermining of their original partners’ resolve. And the final lines of the work, which propound a “let reason be one’s guide” resolution to the affair, is sung by all of the personalities with bewilderment rather than certainty, conveying the conclusion’s ambiguities with unnerving dismay, rather than falling back on the somewhat relieved “as we were” scenario beloved of countless earlier productions over the years.  Of course both Mozart’s and da Ponte’s work give the listener/observer/reader ample conjecturings along the way, with words and music which seduce and conceal as much as expound and illuminate. What Hume’s production brings out is the extent of the epiphany undergone by all the characters during the evening, disconcertingly made evident at the end.

Set and costume designer Tracy Grant Lord used a fluidly-employed revolving stage brilliantly mirroring the uncongealed nature of the work’s constantly-evolving interactions with the inestimable help of Matthew Marshall’s lighting designs. While from the very beginning the settings established and maintained a contemporariness throughout, other aspects seemed to underline a transformational fairytale air, such as during Act Two’s Garden scene, with shades of The Magic Flute in the appearance of the chorus in animal masks, and the full-length flowing gowns worn by the two girls, in a sense anticipating their transition into proper womanhood which the story and its circumstances bring into bitter-sweet effect.

All involved – soloists, chorus, conductor and orchestra – gave their all in the enterprise, the singers at once doing full justice to the “ensemble piece” aspect of the work (famous sequences such as the gorgeous Act One Terzettino “Soave sia il vento”; and the brilliantly disputatious full-cast finale to Act One were brought off magnificently), as did the various “couples” with their frequent duetting numbers and solos alike. Both sisters, Emma Pearson as Fiordiligi and Hanna Hipp as Dorabella, were nicely differentiated vocally and physically, Pearson’s constancy of character and elegant beauty of voice contrasting well with Hipp’s more adventurous inclinations and her compelling and engaging gusto.

Their lovers, Julien Van Mellaerts as Guglielmo and Jonathan Abernathy were similarly contrasted, the former’s sonorous and outgoing good humour a perfect foil for the latter’s more serious, heroic intensity, qualities which were to be thoroughly put to the test by the plot’s convolutions. Conspirators Don Alfonso (by turns rigorously and urbanely sung by Andrew Foster-Williams) and Despina (with Georgina Jamieson Emms here revelling in not only her character’s upwardly-mobile status promotion as bar-manager, but in her two famous cameo appearances as a doctor and a notary) brought their different kinds of  gravitas and comedy to bear at cardinal moments.

And conductor Natalie Murray Beale’s vital, pliable direction held cast, chorus and orchestra, together with distinction, making the most of the NZ Opera Chorus’s Wellington contingent’s infrequent but always mellifluous and characterful contributions to the settings; and securing from Orchestra Wellington a richly-varied set of reponses, both solo and corporate, to Mozart’s ineffably beautiful score. In this way conductor and players became the fulcrum around which the opera’s equivocations were most successfully and thoughtfully delivered throughout, for our pleasure!


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