Compelling Cosi from Opera North

5 Mar

Tim Albery has had the monopoly on Cosi fan tutte at Opera North for the last fifteen years or so.  His first, with designs by Martin Howland, in 1997 had a set that slowly collapsed in the Act I finale.  His second has designs by Tobias Hoheisel and I caught its third outing at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle on 4th March.

Albery is back to rehearse it with an entirely new cast and this performance had the freshness and questioning that you’d expect in a brand new production.  He portrays it as an experiment by Don Alfonso – the women are in a vast 18th century camera and the action takes place there.  At the end, Alfonso is left alone in there while the lovers have escaped outside.  It is as if he has helped them grow up.

Costumes, rather like Anthony Besch’s Scottish Opera production begin in greys, the officers and girls not too easily distinguishable.  As the opera goes on the colours become more vibrant, characters more distinctive.  Unlike Besch, these people do not revert to convention and the monochrome at the end, but are traumatised, unable to relate to each other.  Both readings work.

The direction of the singers was alert and truthful.  Despina had her doubts about joining Alfonso’s plots – persuaded by money. Ferrando’s love for Dorabella was as palpable as I’ve ever seen in Un aura amorosa – sung directly to Alfonso, who was looking distinctly guilty at this point.  At the end, the lovers hadn’t a clue who was in love with whom.  You sensed that both Alfonso and Despina had had some bad experiences in the past.  You followed the emotions like a play.

The cast is very strong indeed.  Nicholas Watts is stretched to his limits by some of Ferrando’s music, but the sheer intelligence of it and his committed acting made you over look the occasional shortness of breath.  Gavan Ring is a glorious Guglielmo: it’s a splendid, rich voice and he created a fine, impulsive character.

Maire Flavin was an outstandingly good Fiordiligi: she caught the conflict between what she knew to be right and the temptations offered by Dorabella and Despina.  I thought that her singing of both Come scoglio and Per pieta was glorious and she caught the conflict marvellously.  Helen Sherman was rather more anonymous as Dorabella, but she sang well and acted alertly.

William Dazeley was a really strong Alfonso – nasty, certain, in command and really strongly sung.  Ellie Laugharne’s Despina was also excellent – just the right mixture of seriousness and lightness and I thought she sang both arias really well – much more than the usual soubrette.

The piece was sung in English with excellent diction from the men, less clear from the women but, above all, there was the sense that you were following a play in which what happened was natural and true.

Jac van Steen conducted – fast tempi for the overture and for Soave sia il vento – I think he could have allowed that to breathe a bit more.  He slowed down later.  Orchestra was generally pretty good.

Great to see pretty full house for this and an audience that was patently enjoying and engaging with the wonderful opera.  You left disturbed, exhilarated and admiring the sheer genius of Mozart and da Ponte in creating an opera that, even after 28 visits, can still reveal more.

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