Così fan tutte at the Royal Opera House

Jan Philipp Gloger’s rendition of Così fan tutte places Daniel Heartz’s assessment of the work as an ‘opera about an opera’ centre stage. It is a so-called meta-reading. Thus, for example, the production begins at the end as members of the cast emerge from behind the curtain during the overture to take their yet-to-be-earned bows. During this awkward charade, an increasingly unruly Ferrando and Guglielmo watch from their box in the Grand Tier, trying to catch Don Alfonso’s eye, then leaping onto the stage as the opera proper begins – or is it beginning again? You get the idea.

Golda Schultz (Fiordiligi) and Daniel Behel (Ferrando)

Based on their costumes, the characters appear to be inhabiting different centuries throughout the evening. Don Alfonso is clad as a 17th-century Dutch schoolmaster while Despina struts in skinny jeans. The set pieces further complicate our sense of time and place in a slightly whimsical way. We encounter Fiordiligi and Dorabella in an 18th century palace, dressed like sisters from a made-for-TV musical; although the walls are adorned with period paintings, Fiordiligi views a ‘portrait’ of her beloved on an iPhone. Characters assist stagehands in scene changes, singers give musical cues to the orchestra, and so on. As with earlier runs, audiences will be divided as to how effective these decisions are and to whether they ultimately enhance or distract from the story. Gloger explains: ‘We aren’t just telling the story of a partner-swap. We’re telling it within the context of a theatrical world.’ Fair enough. Nevertheless, one wonders whether this production simply does not trust contemporary audiences to be discerning enough to catch the complexities that are already inherent in Da Ponte’s libretto. Under the weight of so much meta-commentary, some of the original levity struggles to take wing.

Jennifer France (Despina)

Whatever one may feel about the success of the staging, this production is bolstered by a fine roster of singers. Gerald Finley is pitch-perfectly cast as Don Alfonso, with an unwaveringly rich tone and sensitivity to detail. Finley’s acting is equally admirable. He embodies each subtle turn of Alfonso’s character, alternatingly convivial, cynical, manipulative, seedy, and strange. Out of the whole cast, a peppy Jennifer France (Despina) is certainly having the most fun. There is a West End frivolity to her Despina, which contrasts refreshingly with the production’s suffocating self-awareness. Samantha Hankey (Dorabella) and Golda Schultz (Fiordiligi) both make commendable Royal Opera debuts in this production. Hankey maintained a fine expressive balance between Dorabella’s resolution and vulnerability. Schultz, a South African soprano who trained in America and Germany, has an impressive power that never loses her inherent warmth. Together, Hankey and Schultz have playful chemistry. Baritone André Schuen (Guglielmo) and tenor Daniel Behel (Ferrando) are fine, vocally suave performers but not quite as convincing as their female counterparts. Both men appeared stiff on the stage. To be fair, this might be a deliberate decision on the part of the director as a commentary on their essentially being marionettes in Don Alfonso’s plot, but it is difficult to tell.

Samantha Hankey (Dorabella)

In the end, the staging tries so hard to makes its point that it risks imposing an emotional distance, mistaking pretension for wit. One gets the sense that the cast suspects this, too. The subtitle of Così fan tutte may be ‘The School for Lovers’, but that does not necessarily mean that it should feel like a lecture.

Eric McElroy

Così fan tutte
Composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte

Cast and production staff:

Golda Schultz – Fiordiligi; Samantha Hankey – Dorabella; André Schuen – Guglielmo; Daniel Behel – Ferrando; Gerald Finley – Don Alfonso; Jennifer France – Despina

Jan Philipp Gloger – director; Oliver Platt – revival director; Karin Jud – costume designer; Bernd Purkrabe – lighting designer; Katharina John – dramaturg;  William Spaulding – chorus director; Genevieve Ellis – chorus master; Sergey Levitin – concert master; Alexander Soddy, conductor; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 26 June 2024

Top Image: Cast of Così fan tutte.

All photos by Clive Barda.