Garsington’s Così

Così fan tutte
Garsington Opera, 7 June 2015

Garsington Opera’s 26th seasonWP_20150607_22_18_38_Pro (the 5th in their spectacular new home on the Wormsley estate) saw them spreading their wings with more educational projects and partnerships with the Royal Shakespeare Company and, in future years, Rambert and the Philharmonia Orchestra. As usual, they presented a mixed programme of popular operas, including the regularly returning Mozart, in this case with Così fan tutte.

The action was underway before the audience took their seats (in the award-winning architectural delight of the auditorium), with even more than usually well-heeled couples chatting engagingly and quaffed bubbly in the grounds. It then became apparent that they, and we, were all part of one of those weddings from hell. Outrageously dressed (and overly intoxicated) women, in high baroque wigs and dress, cavorted with drunken soldiers under the rather sinister eye of what seemed to be their (rather drunk and bored) Colonel. The early (and nowadays, almost inevitable) appearance of a mobile phone from one of the party confirmed that this was a present day event, rather than period. A bride and groom (played by actors, and no part of the Così plot) and a Cardinal hovered around in the background – as they did throughout the evening.

An irritatingly fussy wedding planner did her best to hog the limelight from the start, in a clumsily acted comedy turn. She turned out to be Despina in a reversal of her usual maid role and, perhaps even more surprisingly, Leslie Garrett. Other plot tweaks were evident from the start, with the plot hatched between Don Alfonso and the two soldiers in full view, and hearing, of the entire wedding party, including the two sisters. One word from either of them could have stopped the whole thing in its tracks.

John Fulljames’ production continued in this vein, playing up the sexual innuendo and smut in a style that I guess appeals to a Garsington audience, although it struck me as all rather childish 60’s end of the pier stuff. Despina grabbing a soldier for a bit of under-table rumpy-pumpy was just one example, the distracting table wobbling in the background helping those who hadn’t grasped what was going on. And the gift that Guglielmo receives from Dorabella was not the expected heart-shaped locket, but a pair of scarlet panties. The 60’s image was reinforced by the appearance of the soldiers in disguise on a rainbow-coloured tandem with CND T-shirts and easily detachable beards.

Despite the antics that the singers were expected to go through, musically this was a fine performance, with particularly good contributions from the three male singers – Robin Tritschler as Ferrando, Ashley Riches as Guglielmo and notably, Neal Davies’ scheming Alfonso. Kathryn Rudge and Andreea Soare made an attractively balance pair as Dorabella and Fiordiligi. Andreea Soare dealt magnificently with her Come scoglio, the wide leaps apparently written by Mozart to expose the weaknesses of a singer he didn’t like. As if Lesley Garrett’s over-acting wasn’t enough, her singing really was not up to par. I guess her involvement helped to swell an audience perhaps more used to high-profile singers of this ilk, but I’m not convinced that she added much to the evening.

Mercifully, despite the high-energy of most of the staging, key musical moments like the gorgeous trio Soave sia il vento and the musically revealing quartet E nel tuo, nel mio bicciero were dealt with sensitively, the former without the usual silly waving to the audience.  E nel tuo starts with what should have been a mellifluous canon between the four protagonists with their new partners, but is one that Guglielmo refuses to join, instead countering the sensuous intertwining lines of his three companions with a wish that they all drink poison.  I am so glad this wasn’t hammed-up or, as with many of the other lovely moments, subject to distracting stage action.

Mozart leaves the ending potentially open to interpretation by directors. Although the text suggests that everybody lives happily ever after, it is not entirely clear with whom they might live, if anybody. And that is how this performance finished.

Douglas Boyd, the artistic director of Garsington Opera, conducted the modern-instrument Garsington Opera Orchestra, with only the natural trumpets giving an indication of the sound world that Mozart would have known. But it was evident that the orchestra (as with many non-period bands) are finally coming to terms with many of the technical aspects of period performance. This is a co-production with Bucharest National Opera. I just hope they don’t assume that this is the way that we normally behave in the UK.

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