Monday, 20 November 2017

Mozart - Così Fan Tutte (Belfast, 2017)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Così Fan Tutte

NI Opera, Belfast - 2017

Nicholas Chalmers, Adele Thomas, Kiandra Howarth, Heather Lowe, Samuel Dale Johnson, Sam Furness, Aoife Miskelly, John Molloy

Grand Opera House, Belfast - 17 November 2017

Opera in Ireland is going through a period of change at the moment with a new national opera company being formed in the south of the country and a new director taking over the running of opera in the north. Considering how successful Northern Ireland Opera has been over the last few years, there would undoubtedly be some interest to see how Walter Sutcliffe would follow, taking over from Oliver Mears. I don't think there would have been any concerns about a high standard being maintained, but it remained to be seen whether there would be any change in repertoire and style. I'd say that things have got off to a very good start with Così Fan Tutte.

It's been a while since I've seen anyone approach Così Fan Tutte as a pure comedy. With Mozart's third collaboration with Lorenzo da Ponte is often regarded as being a lesser work than The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, perhaps because it is a little more overtly frivolous. In order to give it the true stature that many think it undoubtedly deserves and address the genuine social commentary that is hidden behind the gender comedy, directors like Michael Haneke and Christophe Honoré have tended to work extra hard to try and give the opera a little more of contemporary edginess that is worth exploring, but perhaps doesn't really match the true spirit of the work.

It was refreshing then to see that this first new production with Walter Sutcliffe in charge of NI Opera didn't set out to make a statement, or if there is a statement to this Così Fan Tutte it's that the intention is to be true to the spirit of the works rather than impose any kind of inappropriate modern revisionism upon them. That doesn't mean either that there can't be a refreshing and original approach taken to the work, and one interesting development is that this Così Fan Tutte opera is directed by Adele Thomas, who - judging from her biography in the programme - is a theatre director with no previous experience of opera.

Whatever her background, there's no question that Thomas's setting of Così Fan Tutte in the era of the Hollywood silent movies of the 1920s is completely in the spirit of the work. Or it is for the first half of the opera anyway; the second half perhaps needed a little more. For the first half of this production however there was a permanent grin on my face all the way through to the interval. Conducted by Nicholas Chalmers with attention to mood and played with spirit and a lightness of touch by the Ulster Orchestra, this was joyous, glorious Mozart at his most playful, buoyant and brilliant.

Trying to give some credibility to the rather innocent couples of Così Fan Tutte can be difficult, unless one does indeed set it in a more innocent age. The 1920s is not such an innocent age as an idealised one, where the excess and indulgence of an America that hadn't fully experienced the horrors of the Great War in Europe and had yet to suffer the impact of the Wall Street Crash at the end of the decade. For many, particularly in Hollywood, this life was an endless party and not to be taken too seriously. And it's delightfully depicted that way in this production, with a few bottles of champagne always ready to hand and a conga line of revellers with balloons and streamers weaving through the proceedings at regular intervals.

For the first half of the opera at least, this captures the spirit that Mozart weaves through Così Fan Tutte perfectly, and you could even say that it anticipates the darker side of the opera in the second half when the party inevitably comes to an end and the characters have to pick up the pieces. Heedless of the consequences, they belatedly discover that there is a price to be paid when the fun comes to an end, and that life can also involve deception, betrayal and disappointment. In Hollywood, the reality would also hit home with scandals, affairs and alcoholism destroying the promising careers of many of the silent film actors - the lifestyle ending more careers than the advent of talkies.

Adele Thomas tries to bring out this aspect in the direction of the characters and Nicholas Chalmers certainly finds the rich sophistication of how Mozart depicts those contradictory sentiments, but the necessary tone isn't quite as well established in the second half of the production. I think the limitations of Hannah Clark's set designs don't extend as well into the second half. Wonderfully colourful and vibrant, with curtains revealing stages within stages to match the play acting of the comic drama, a little more could have been done perhaps with flickering projections or silent-movie imagery to differentiate or vary the tone in the latter part of the show.

Thomas however clearly worked hard with the singers to bring real personality to each of the characters, and it's a measure of the individual performances that each one of them made a good impression. The most confident performances were from the most experienced members of the cast; John Molloy and Aoife Miskelly. Molloy was an outstanding Don Alfonso, neither calculating nor manipulative, but one rather who wanted to enlighten the younger innocents with his experience of life. The role was comfortably within Molloy's range and he sang it unimposingly but with characteristic aplomb and with deference to character and situation. His double-act with Aoife Miskelly's similarly unshowy, comically nuanced and delicately expressive Despina was a joy to watch.

As you would expect, there was a playful innocence to Flordiligi, Dorabella, Guglielmo and Ferrando that was well brought out in the production, and the casting of young lyrical singers is key to making that convincing. There was nothing sinister suggested in the male roles, which are played with the same kind of youthful fervour as the female roles. If there was perhaps a tendency to overact by Samuel Dale Johnson and (more so) by Sam Furness in the male roles, that could however be seen in keeping with the silent movie acting style. The girls were really deserving of the production's focus however, Kiandra Howarth impressing as Fiordiligi and Heather Lowe bringing that extra little characterisation to Dorabella with little interpolations, gasps and sighs fitted into the singing expression.

And it was in Italian! That might not be the most significant change of direction in the new NI Opera, and I'm sure other works (such as the forthcoming Threepenny Opera) will suit the previous English language singing only policy, but it's a good to have a more flexible approach and Mozart's well-known operas always work better in the original language. It also meant that the occasional 20s-era touches to the surtitles, which might have been inaudible in singing performance, took some of the sting out of Da Ponte's libretto and got plenty of laughs. The lyrical Italian singing and rapid-fire recitative (to a suitably silent-movie like fortepiano) certainly posed no problems for the cast. Or the chorus, who were in wonderful voice and an energetic presence. Hugely entertaining, this was a very promising start to a new NI Opera season.

Links: NI Opera