CosÏ fan tutte, Opera Australia

Like his production of Don Giovanni, the
staging of CosÏ fan tutte by the late Gˆran J‰rvefelt served the
company well for decades before being replaced in September by this new take on
the story by Jim Sharman. Sharman is one of Australia’s most invigorating
stage directors whose earliest work was with Opera Australia (then called The
Australian Opera) when, in 1967, as a twenty-one year old, he produced Don
, setting it on a huge chess board and calculating the Don’s
progress to Hell like chess strategies. Sharman’s biggest claim to
worldwide fame, however, is as director of the original The Rocky Horror
and it’s subsequent film adaptation. In Australia he now
counted among the country’s foremost directors with laudable stagings of
classic and contemporary plays, musicals and occasionally operas. His staging
of Britten’s Death in Venice was mounted for the 1980 Adelaide
Festival, barely five after it’s premiere where it garnered favourable
comments from local and international critics before being taken into Opera
Australia’s repertoire where it still holds sway nearly thirty years

Like than early Don Giovanni, Sharman’s CosÏ fan
sadly seems to be trying too hard. But by most accounts
CosÏ is a difficult opera to pull off. The partner swapping
shenanigans and misogynist sentiment have stranded it as a kind of antiquated
boulevard farce like Georges Feydeau set to music!

Cosi_OA_03.gifHenry Choo (Ferrando) and Hye Seoung Kwon (Fiordiligi)

Using a contemporary setting, Sharman reveals during the overture a wedding
party, the couple, a Japanese Bride and Groom, arriving at the reception before
freezing the action and transporting the Bride and Groom to either side of the
stage where they watch the opera unfold before being transported back at the
end of the opera to their nuptials as the cast sing the opera’s moral.
Don Alfonso’s (JosÈ CarbÛ) bet appears to be a the result of a locker
room brag as Ferrando (Henry Choo) and Guglielmo (Luke Gabbedy), under stylised
showers, compare their respective fiancÈe’s virtue (rather, as one would
imagine in a locker room situation, their physical or sexual attributes). The
action unfolds in a white walled set, designed by Ralph Myers, with an arched
floor where the stranded wedding organisers and guests act as chorus and
occasional prop movers. Occasionally the wedding photographer appears with a
live video camera to zoom in on characters during their principal arias and
relay their image to a huge curtain interminably pulled back and forth
throughout the long opera.

While the concept may be puzzling it works well enough until the second act
where these directorial high jinks gloss over the searing bitterness as
Fiordiligi (Hye Seoung Kwon) agonises over her situation and the two men
agonise over the swiftness of their lovers infidelity. Unlike Brad and Janet in
Sharman’s notorious The Rocky Horror Show, the partner swapping
and sexual humiliation is far from funny. In fairness the fault lies with the
opera itself it’s sexual attitudes are as infuriating to modern audiences
as those of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and even the
best directors have a tough job with either.

Cosi_OA_02.gifSian Pendry (Dorabella), JosÈ CarbÛ (Don Alfonso) and Hye Seoung Kwon (Fiordiligi)

The opera is also sung in a modern English translation by Jeremy Sams that
almost matches the famous, mid-twentieth century, Ruth and Thomas Martin
translation for its lumpiness. While getting plenty of laughs for its up to
date casualness (“I might forget myself or even wet myself” sing
the men after Guglielmo’s ‘mustacchi’ serenade sends the
ladies packing), Sams’s choice of words robs the open-vowelled flow of da
Ponte’s Italian text. Nor does Sams even try to be literal about
translating the original words, let along consider their singability “I
have sinned my best beloved” is his substitution for Fiordiligi’s
“per pieta, ben mio perdona”. Sams even suggests that the opera’s
‘motif’’ “CosÏ fan tutte”, when sung by Don
Alfonso should be “That’s how God made them”. If an opera
company must perform a work in translation (and spend good money on royalties
for it) it should at least be better than this.

To their credit, the young cast sing even the most difficult passages
clearly; nearly every word of the unfortunate text is audible. Henry Choo is a
most stylish tenor; his voice has the heft to carry into the big auditorium
without apparent force. He establishes a beautiful and limpid line through
‘Un’aura amorosa’ and is spot-on in the difficult runs in the
act one finale. As Guglielmo, Luke Gabbedy’s light baritone could almost
be mistaken for a tenor and a darker colour might be wished for in the duet
with Dorabella (Sian Pendry) and the act two aria. The same applies to JosÈ
CarbÛ’s as Alfonso, the voice seeming lighter than one would expect for
the role. Of the ladies the most accomplished is Tiffany Speight as Despina.
Speight is one of the company’s best Mozartians, her voice is silvery,
carries effortlessly and her charming stage presence carries with the same
clarity. Hye Seong Kwon handled Fiordiligi’s big moments with
breathtaking ease, long phrases, octave jumps and embellishments all perfectly
judged despite the impositions the English words placed on her. Sian Pendry
handled Dorabella’s music with similar ease; hers is a high, light mezzo,
rather like Gabbedy’s high, light baritone. Kwon and Pendry also make
their first appearance in swim suits and spend the rest of the opera equally
revealing costumes and both have catwalk figures.

Cosi_OA_04.gifHenry Choo (Ferrando) and Luke Gabbedy (Guglielmo)

Ollivier-Philippe CunÈo coaxed a period sounding performance from the
orchestra, the strings occasionally emphasising that wiry sound that passes for
authentic. CunÈo also adopts that peculiar practice of breathlessly playing the
two opening chords of the overture (as evidenced in Arnold ÷stman’s 1986
recording of the opera) and generally rushing things where a little restraint
might have been better. The woodwind were often given a difficult time and the
big moment when Fiordiligi finally succumbs (Mozart’s delectably sudden
change from lurching chords to gorgeous runs on the strings) passed without the
attention it deserves.

With chick costumes and attractive singers to wear them, this CosÏ will
certainly appeal to younger audiences. Sharman is obviously at his best when
dealing amorous absurdities but the deeper musical and emotional content that
is so unique in the Mozart/da Ponte operas are left buried.

Michael Magnusson

image_description=Sian Pendry (Dorabella) and Luke Gabbedy (Guglielmo) [Photo by Jeff Busby courtesy of Opera Australia]
product_title=W.A. Mozart: CosÏ fan tutte
product_by=Fioriligi: Hye Seoung Kwon; Dorabella: Sian Pendry; Despina: Tiffany Speight; Ferrando: Henry Choo; Guglielmo: Luke Gabbedy; Don Alfonso: JosÈ CarbÛ. Conductor: Ollivier-Philippe CunÈo. Director: Jim Sharman. Set Designer: Ralph Myers. Costume Designer: Gabriela Tylesova. State Theatre, The Arts Centre, Melbourne. 19, 21, 24, 27 November 3, 5, 9 & 12 December 2009.
product_id=Above: Sian Pendry (Dorabella) and Luke Gabbedy (Guglielmo)

All photos by Jeff Busby courtesy of Opera Australia