CosÏ fan tutte, Holland Park

For the problem remains, as I have doubtless said far too many times
before, Mozart’s music, and not just his operas, requires but one thing:
perfection. It is the most unsparing music of all, with nowhere, but nowhere,
to hide. Every note must be considered and sounded both in itself and in
connection to every other. Place a wrong or even slightly excessive accent upon
a single note and the fault will be glaringly magnified; misjudge a tempo,
which is not to say that there is only one ‘correct’ tempo, and the entire
apple-cart will be upset. However, conduct CosÏ fan tutte like Sir
Colin Davis — or rather, as Sir Colin Davis — and it is an experience that
will remain with an audience for the rest of its life, opening doors one had
never expected to be there in the first place.

Yes, the comparison is odious, but Thomas Kemp — a name new to me though
his biography suggests considerable experience in houses across Europe and
beyond — is no Colin Davis. I have heard worse, most obviously from the
aggressively ‘authenticke’ brigade; Kemp did not seem actively to be trying
to make Mozart’s music sound unpleasant. Nevertheless, on this evidence, he
is not a conductor who could claim any particular or even general sympathy with
Mozart. The opening bars of the Overture were taken far too fast; thereafter,
far too many numbers never hit upon the just tempo. (It is worth repeating at
this point that I do not for a moment think there is one ‘correct’ tempo;
the trick is to make whatever is chosen sound right, to perform with
conviction, sympathy, understanding, and of course, a sense of connection to a
greater whole.) ‘Smanie implacibilie’ was breathless in quite the wrong
way. Other sections of the score dragged, not so much because they were slow
— I doubt that anything was as ravishingly, heart-stoppingly lingering as
Davis would so often nowadays present it — but because the tempo seemed
arbitrary, applied from without, with little connection to anything else, above
all with little or no sense of harmonic motion.

The City of London Sinfonia played decently, though the strings could tend
somewhat towards the anonymous. (At least they lacked the acerbic nature of a
‘period’ orchestra.) For the most part, as so often in Mozart, it was the
woodwind section that most delighted; there was some fine work indeed here from
a number of principals. The kettledrums, however, were often bizarrely
prominent, not helped by the employment of hard sticks. Karl Bˆhm would have
rolled in his grave.

Cosi2012-243a.gif(Left-Right) Nicholas Garrett as Alfonso, Elizabeth Llewellyn as Fiordiligi, Andrew Staples as Ferrando, Joana Seara as Despina, Julia Riley as Dorabella and Dawid Kimberg as Guglielmo

Had they been supported by a more sympathetic conductor, the cast of young
singers would doubtless have appeared in a stronger light. As it was, there was
nothing really to which one could object, but there remained a sense that
things might have been better. (Perhaps that will dissipate during the run;
first nights are rarely the best time to catch singers in particular.)
Elizabeth Llewellyn, whom I admired greatly last year at Holland Park as the
Countess, delivered what was probably the strongest performance overall, as
Fiordiligi. The beauty of her tone-production could not be gainsaid, though her
diction was sometimes, for instance in ‘Per piet‡’, occluded. Julia
Riley’s Dorabella sometimes lacked focus, though when that was achieved,
showed considerable promise. Hers was a forthright portrayal, doubtless in part
so as to achieve greater contrast with Fiordiligi, but was it sometimes
excessively so? There second act duet between the two veered dangerously close
to crudity on Dorabella’s part. Andrew Staples’s tone is very much of the
‘English tenor’ variety. I was not always convinced that this served
Ferrando so well, but it is a very difficult role to get right; in other cases,
often one ends up thinking the music sounds too close to Puccini. ‘Un’ aura
amoroso’ was beautifully sung, though there were times elsewhere when greater
presence might have been achieved. Dawid Kimberg’s Guglielmo was blustering,
swaggering even, able to call upon considerable vocal reserves. Joana Seara
offered a lively Despina, though her tuning sometimes went a little awry.
Nicholas Garrett, 2010’s Don Giovanni, presented an intelligent portrayal of
Don Alfonso.

What of the production? It was, for the most part, difficult to say anything
much about it at all. I do not doubt that it would have pleased self-proclaimed
‘traditionalists’, since the costumes were all impeccably, almost
aggressively, ‘period’ — if hardly Neapolitan. Of course, CosÏ
is in no sense whatsoever ‘about’ eighteenth-century Naples, but the logic
of the literalist position is that it must be. It was difficult to detect in
Harry Fehr’s production any idea of what CosÏ might be about, any
attempt to probe beneath its painfully beautiful surfaces, or even to celebrate
the pain upon the surface. We had a ‘period’ set, ‘period’ costumes,
and that was really just about it. There was a nod to directorial clichÈ in
placing an audience on stage, supposedly ‘reacting’ to the events
witnessed, but have we not seen that sort of thing far too many times before?
Such framing can be interesting, even refreshing: I think, for instance, of
Nicholas Hytner’s production of Handel’s Serse for ENO. However,
if the intention were to highlight the artificiality of the drama — the
artificiality is absolutely necessary to permit Mozart’s agonising
psychological explorations — then it failed to come across; it appeared
instead rather more as an attempt to generate stage ‘business’ in the
absence of any other ideas. That is, until, part way through the second act,
Fehr suddenly decided to add a few more, which jarred hopelessly given the
uninvolving nature of what we had seen hitherto. Ferrando was laughed at by
members of the ‘audience’: it might have been movingly cruel, yet here
simply came across as an intrusion upon the music. Fiordiligi took off her
dress, put on a soldier’s uniform — a very odd, quasi-literalist
interpretation of her attempt to persuade herself to find her (erstwhile) lover
— and then had that taken off by Ferrando. (No need to worry: there was
plenty beneath the dress and the uniform.) Such ‘action’ merely came across
as a realisation, too late in the day, that nothing much had happened. This is,
of course, an extremely difficult opera to direct, yet Lloyd-Evans barely
seemed to have tried.

Mark Berry

image_description=Julia Riley as Dorabella and Elizabeth Llewellyn as Fiordiligi [Photo by Fritz Curzon courtesy of Opera Holland Park]
product_title=W. A. Mozart: CosÏ fan tutte
product_by=Fiordiligi: Elizabeth Llewellyn; Dorabella: Julia Riley; Ferrando: Andrew Staples; Guglielmo: Dawid Kimberg; Despina: Joana Seara; Alfonso: Nicholas Garrett. Director: Harry Fehr; Designs: Alex Eales; Lighting: Colin Grenfell. City of London Sinfonia/Thomas Kemp (conductor). Holland Park, London, Friday 8 June 2012.
product_id=Above: Julia Riley as Dorabella and Elizabeth Llewellyn as Fiordiligi

Photos by Fritz Curzon courtesy of Opera Holland Park