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Saturday, 28 January 2012

Da Ponte "Cycle", Part II: Cosi Fan Tutte

Cosi Fan Tutte is the most perplexing of the Mozart-Da Ponte collaborations, and also the one with the most cultish following. The libretto is full of ambiguity and contradictions (and by extention the characters too), Da Ponte not concerned with detailed characterisation and realistic sentiment here as with Figaro or in extremes and contrast as in Don Giovanni, but in a complete exploration of the games and rules of the human courtship ritual, and how sexuality unconsciously affects our intentions and actions. If we feel a slight etiolation after the intensity of the previous two operas, there is a strange symmetry and poise introduced which is utterly new. Notable too are the amount of nature metaphors, with Mozart rendering them onomatopoeically in the score a la Strauss, most memorably in the always gorgeous trio Soave sia il vento, (here the ravishing highlight of the evening). The implication that human beings are a part of the natural world, beholden to its biological and physical laws rather than separated from it by free will is part of what makes this opera slightly uncomfortable viewing. The score is of course masterful, and again so different from Don Giovanni or Figaro. Here individual characterisation is subordinated to the central themes of the opera, and this too is reflected in Mozart's vocal writing - in ensembles, characters often sing in simple thirds and sixths and the artless fluidity and perfect symmetries that Mozart affects along with its consistent and palpable feeling of Mediterranean warmth make it by turns beguiling and mystifying - the strangest, meanest and loveliest opera he wrote. Although Don Giovanni and especially Figaro are regarded by most people as Mozart's most vital essays in the genre, people seem to obsess most about Cosi and its veiled meanings, messages and music.

Jonathan Miller's production has been revived often at the ROH since its inception in 1995, here with Harry Fehr taking the directing reins. Some things it does rather well - it captures something of the light, open warmth of the score (though not nearly so well as the most recent Glyndebourne production), the youthfulness of the characters in all their vanity, humour and inconstancy, and the feeling of inevitability and perpetual changeability of human nature. It's a sassy, genuinely funny and modern updating, including endlessly interpolated jokes involving mobile phones, laptops and other contemporary paraphernalia, which all seems very in keeping with the spirit of the score - it's the most timeless in setting and modern in sentiment of the three Da Ponte operas. Some things I thought were less convincing such as the two women's progress from proud, pouting lovers, in love with being in love, to their temptation and initial resistance, and final acquiescence to their new lovers - They were both so steadfast in the first act that this change seemed inexplicably sudden in act two, as if there had been a missing scene during the interval which we were not party to. Usually Dorabella is played as a total Flibbertigibbet, with Fiordiligi following suit only with more pained soul searching (making her the more interesting character psychologically, and as Mozart ensures, musically too), but here they seemed too similar in Act I for us to see this contrast. The ending of the opera is famously ambigious, and here there is no resolution offered at all - the lovers simply run off stage, distraught and heartbroken, with Despina genuinely upset for her part in the day's antics.

Malin Byström took on the role of Fiordiligi, one of the most challenging of all Mozart's female roles. While she is clearly a young singer of talent and she can do some very beautiful things with her voice, she didn't seem quite settled here - intonation was regularly slightly wayward and the registers weren't ideally blended. Michèle Losier, has a very bright, light mezzo voice and made a good, if slightly bland Dorabella. In fact she sounded very much like a soprano, and if I closed my eyes it was sometimes difficult to tell the two sisters apart. Both of their acting was funny and melodramatic, if never particularly realistic, though in this production that might not have felt right.

Charles Castronovo was a charming Ferrando, sensitive in his acting, and his unforced lyric tenor sounding truly lovely and youthful in this role. Niklay Borchev as his friend Guglielmo was louder and more forthright in his demeanor, but he never demonstrated anything like a piano phrase, and though the voice has an attractive, fruity timbre, more vocal colours might have been welcome. Rosemary Joshua presented an even more cynical Despina than usual, here seeming more like a superbly dressed nanny to the two girls, than a younger maid; vocally, she was more than a match for the part. The role of Don Alfonso is an absolute walk in the park for the always superb Thomas Allen, who adds a touch of class to this otherwise perhaps slightly indifferent cast. The voice is less vibrant and quieter than it once was, but like John Tomlinson, it almost never seems to be a problem because he's such a consummate master of the stage and just inhabits characters to the point where it no longer seems like you're watching a singing actor on stage, but a true person of flesh and blood.

It was truly remarkable also how much better the playing of the ROH orchestra was under Colin Davis than it had been for Don Giovanni. The gorgeous details of the orchestration were brought out with panache, and under Davis everything was elegance and lightness. A bit more warmth would have been nice throughout and often the ensembles were not vocally very well balanced, with Fiordiligi and Guglielmo's lines coming more to the fore than was comfortable. This was an enjoyable, but not exceptional performance of the work then, and a bit more musical and dramatic intensity would have been welcome, as well as perhaps a deeper exploration of what the work is about.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Don Giovanni at ROH

Final Dress (ticket from a generous friend: you know who you are, Cheers!)

And so in the Royal Opera House's dubiously dubbed "cycles" season, we come to the Mozart/Da Ponte "cycle". It's not a cycle is it, let's just make that clear. Sigh.

It's hard to express to those who haven't had the pleasure of experiencing these three operas quite how extraordinary they are. First and foremost, the quality of the music is just staggering, aria after ensemble after perfect aria pouring from Mozart's pen, covering the full gamut of human emotions, experience and expression. I'll go into why each opera is so special (or at least why I love them so much) when I review each of them in turn, and actually these very differences between the operas is one thing I think is most incredible about them - they each exist so completely within their own world, are so distinct from the others in a way that is just almost without precedent in operas of that or an earlier time. It's hard to imagine any of the arias of Figaro being transplanted into Don Giovanni for instance, or any of Don Giovanni's going into Cosi. That Mozart and Da Ponte play so much with Opera Buffa traditions is very interesting and has been written about at length elsewhere, but maybe the most important thing to remark is how completely these three operas transcend other works in this tradition. To ally the Buffa conventions to characters and situations that we can actually engage with emotionally, makes them seem both more serious and realistic and as a result funnier. No one composes real life more movingly or beautifully.

Don Giovanni was actually the second of these three to be composed and Mozart was trying to replicate the success of Le Nozze Di Figaro. But it is very different in feel. Where Figaro is all perfect elegance, subtle characters with real feelings, the orchestra teeming with a soft hued delicacy and felicitous brilliance more refined than anything he achieved before or after, in Don Giovanni we find Mozart in state of white hot inspiration, with a burning, almost possessed intensity in virtually every phrase that made later artists of the nineteenth century regard it with a sort of fearful awe. Its humour is broader than that of Figaro and the characters and situations more extreme. The orchestra is treated to some of the most opulent and sumptuous orchestrations and harmonies that we find in Mozart's music, and his characterisation in the vocal writing is so striking - particularly in the three central female roles. In Zerlina we find a girlish eroticism and charm, in Donna Elvira hysterical rage and sentimental effusion, in Donna Anna a vengeful seriousness and genuine pathos. Don Ottavio's gentle nobility, Leporello's plodding humour, The Commendatore's extraordinary supernatural authority are also beautifully delineated, and only the eponymous Don remains a sort of musical enigma - as is often remarked he has no really extended arias of his own. What he does have is delicious though and we know that he lives life with the same intensity we feel in all the music of the opera, even although by the time of the opera's beginning it already seems to be the beginning of the end for him.

Dramatically it is almost as complicated as Figaro, but not quite as perfect - some of the comical scenes don't make dramatic sense, but there is less of a sense of realism in every way in this opera, so this seems like caviling. Mozart did his realistic social comedy in Figaro, and he's doing something quite different here.

OK onto this production. What a disappointing presentation of this masterpiece. First the staging. There is absolutely nothing specific about the sets (designed by Maria Björnson with original director Francesco Zambello), they are almost completely without style or historical referent, and it is only through the costumes that we might guess that the setting is 17th century of the original play that this opera is based on. What is the main curving panel meant to represent? The shape of the stage is changed by rotating this panel, but the dark unreal atmosphere never changes, which strikes me as fatal in a piece of such obvious and extreme contrasts. I hate the surreal multicoloured lighting by Paul Pyant too (the same sort of thing that we got treated to in McVicar's Aida last season) which doesn't help things at all.

Revival direction by Duncan Macfarland is nothing special either, nothing particularly interesting or engaging being done with any of the characters beyond what one usually sees. Never did one feel truly involved in any of it. And it was curiously lacking in humour too - Leporello is the key figure here, and in a good production becomes the sort of glue to the piece, though in this case Lorenzo Regazzo seemed too earnest to be funny. He was disappointing vocally too.

Some of the singing at least was excellent. Gerald Finley is one of the finest singers on the stage of course, and he is on good form here, singing with security and beauty as always - its one of the best produced sounds you can hear in opera today. The best singer in this opera needs to be and should be Donna Anna, and so it is here - Hibla Gerzmava may not be the greatest actress but this is an absolutely gorgeous voice, almost always in tune, and she can definitely do the coloratura, even if it's not the most flexible you've ever heard - the weight, control and beauty of the voice more than make up for it. There were some exquisite pianissimos and everything gleamed with an unforced radiance. Another lovely discovery for me. I'd like to hear her sing Rusalka or Tatiana or even maybe Ariadne if she can pronounce the German.

Irini Kyriakidou was Zerlina and the cast's weakest link vocally and dramatically. She didn't have the requisite charm or coquettishness, and the voice is far too squally and mature sounding for such a youthful role. Zerlina's second act aria, Vedrai Carino, is simultaneously scorchingly erotic and a beautifully genuine expression of tenderness when well sung and played, but here was the most boring number of the night. I don't understand why Zerlina's so often so miscast - sexy young soubrettes are ten a penny out of music school, so it should be the easiest role to cast in the opera. Why do so many casting directors get it so wrong? This is just the sort of thing that Danielle de Niese should be doing actually - she made such a strong impression on me last summer - she'd be exceptional here.

Katarina Karneus doesn't have the world's most interesting voice, and it's not exactly pretty either, but at least she "gets" Donna Elvira. And in this production, Donna Elvira seems really badass initially, rather than the simpering weakling that she can sometimes seem. Although she was dressed in a grubby Miss Havisham wedding dress (jilted as she was by the Don), she also had a shotgun slung round her shoulder, and was carried in in a Sedan chair. Her first entrance was the strongest impression she made however. Matthew Polenzani was a magnificent Don Ottavio vocally and he didn't quite seem as pathetic a character as usual - you see his reticence is because he really is a gentleman and a gentle soul and truly loves Donna Anna. The voice is a real pleasure to hear, shining, never strained, and like his noble wife, the messa di voci were fantastic. His breath control was extraordinary and seemed endless at times.

The Royal Opera Hourse orchestra sounded worse than I have ever heard them, Constantinos Carydis drawing the most bland and shoddy playing imaginable, his tempos always irksome. It's amazing to me that music of this quality could sound so prosaic and boring. It's a dress granted, but the transformation that will need to take place between now and the first performance will need to be elemental and complete for it to even approach acceptable.

The last Don Giovanni I saw was at Glyndebourne last summer with a period band (OAE), and it was one of the most extroardinarily intense readings of the score I have ever heard.