MOZART’s comic opera, Cosi Fan Tutte, has some of the most glorious music he ever wrote. So many wonderful arias, so much fun – with four of the silliest protagonists you can imagine! Its basic premise that “all women are the same” – that is, incapable of fidelity – jars with a 21st century (female) audience. It is innately, indeed offensively, sexist – we might think that the only way to play it is to have Fiordiligi and her sister Dorabella recognise their fiances Guglielmo and Ferrando in their preposterous Albanian beards and costumes, so that it becomes a double-bluff.
Or … you can play it “for real” in a period when sexist jokes were the norm and nobody batted a heavily mascara’d eyelash. The 1950s, for example. And that’s what director Fred Broom does with his production for Salisbury’s Celebrate Voice festival. Performed in the elegant setting of the Guildhall, with the wonderful Philip Thomas at the piano (the overture was played at turbo-charged speed!), the opera is moved from 18th century Italy to Da Pontins, an English holiday camp (think Hi-De-Hi! and Wakey, wakey, campers!)
The story is simple – we have two happy, newly-engaged couples. The men boast about their fiancees’ eternal love, but cynical old Don Alfonso expresses his scepticism to the point that he persuades them to carry out a test. They are to be summoned off to war, and reappear a few hours later, heavily disguised, and set out to woo the distraught, abandoned women.
With the help of a quick-witted maid, who is as cynical about human love as he is, Don Alfonso lays his trap, and first Dorabella and then, reluctantly, Fiordiligi, fall into it, finding themselves attracted to the exotic and romantic strangers.
It is a small-scale opera with a cast of just six, and it would be hard to imagine a better line-up than this, led by Natasha Page’s conflicted Fiordiligi, with Leilani Barratt as her sister Dorabella, Matthew Siveter as her suitor Guglielmo and Frederick Jones as Dorabella’s Ferrando. Andrew Mayor is every inch the wicked old MC (Don Alfonso) and Celebrate Voice director, soprano Lynsey Docherty is in her comic element as the canny maid, Despina (here called Betty and prototype Mrs Overall if ever there was one).
The famous arias are gloriously sung with energy and deep emotion – notably Fiordiligi’s Come scoglio, as she pledges to remain faithful to Guglielmo “like a rock” – and the great Act 1 Sc 1 trio, Soave sia il vento (“May the wind be gentle”) is hauntingly beautiful.
Lynsey Docherty has a wonderful time as the resourceful Despina/Betty, cheeky, outspoken, with swift costume and wig changes and great comic timing.
This is the third of the Mozart/Da Ponte operas produced by Celebrate Voice, following a powerful Don Giovanni and a delightful Marriage of Figaro. Like last year’s Pirates of Penzance, it provides hearty laughs as well as musical thrills. Look out for Matthew Siveter bringing his splendidly flexible bass voice and comic skills to HMS Pinafore in a Come and Sing performance at the Guildhall on Sunday 22nd October.
Incidentally, a much-praised production of Cosi Fan Tutte at ENO at the London Coliseum in 2014 also took the 1950s route, setting it in a faded Coney Island fairground.
There are two more performances of Cosi Fan Tutte at the Guildhall on Wednesday 25th October (at 6.30pm) and Saturday 28th (at 7pm), the final day of Celebrate Voice. Listen out for the ABBA joke.
Pictured right is one of the happy camp employees, Caroline, who was asked to turn the musical pages for the MD Philip Thomas. She is seen waiting apprehensively for her big moment.
Photograph by Adrian Harris