Tag Archives: da Ponte

Concerted Effort

COSI FAN TUTTE

Town Hall, Birmingham, Friday 8th November, 2019

 

Sometimes you see plays that are ‘reconstructions’ of radio studio recordings, where the cast stand behind microphones, holding scripts, and the action is limited, leaving it to the audience to imagine setting, costume and everything else.  This concert performance of the final collaboration between Mozart and librettist Da Ponte reminds me of such plays, with the microphones replaced by music stands and the scripts by scores.  With this material, it works very well, thanks in no small part to a company of singers who can act their heads off.  With them facing out most of the time, we see the characters’ expressions to their best advantage.  And sometimes, they interact, where the limited space allows, bringing out the humour of the situation.

Richard Burkhard is a marvellous Don Alfonso, enjoying his masterminding of the plot’s central scam.  Tenor Matthew Swensen sings stirringly as Ferrando, but he could do with lightening up a bit, especially at the outset of proceedings.  Guglielmo is performed by possibly the most handsome man in classical music today, the mighty Benjamin Appl, who is wonderfully expressive facially and vocally.  His comic reactions and his musical phrasing are both sublime.

Ana Maria Labin, fighting a chest infection but you wouldn’t know it, shows remarkable range and poise as Fiordiligi.  Her ‘Per Pieta’ commands the stage – a virtuoso rendition.  Martha Jones, a late substitution as Dorabella, the giddier of the sisters, is delightfully funny, but the funniest performance of the night comes from Rebecca Bottone as Despina the sassy, savvy maid.  This is a Despina to savour, as Bottone wrings every shred of comedy from the role, distorting her soprano to depict the characters she assumes as part of Alfonso’s plan.  At one point, she dons a pair of steampunk goggles, and it’s the little touches like this that make this concert performance more engaging.

Ian Page conducts The Mozartists with a light touch, bouncing on the spot like Tigger in a black suit, almost teasing the music from this superlative orchestra.  And such music!  From the woodwinds chasing each other through the rousing overture, to the abundance of trios, quartets and quintets, this is playful yet passionate stuff.  Mozart is an exquisite dramatist, blending farcical humour with insightful glimpses into human psychology.  It’s a profound, sweet and silly piece of work, like receiving words of wisdom from a master chocolatier.

The material shines through this pared-down treatment and I enjoy it very much, but I still miss the knockabout comedy of the ‘Albanians’ pretending to poison themselves.  I still want to see their comedy moustaches!

Classical Opera 29 January 2019

Conductor and artistic director, Ian Page

 

 

 


Cosy fun totally

IN PRAISE OF FOLLY

Crescent Theatre, Friday 16th November, 2018

 

Based on the comic opera Cosi fan tutte by Mozart and Da Ponte, this fresh little farce from the Foppish Theatre Company is vibrant with wit.  The script by Dewi Johnson (who also directs) and Andrew Buzzeo (who also appears as ‘Alistair’) adheres to Da Ponte’s libretto after an establishing scene in which soldier buddies, William and Benjamin, accept a bet from their cynical, worldly chum Alistair, who claims that within a day he can make the soldiers’ girlfriends turn to infidelity…  This scene, performed between the three, on the apron with nothing more than a simple bench, shows how direction can keep things engaging by eliciting energetic performances from the actors.

As Alistair, Andrew Buzzeo is hugely enjoyable, a sardonic manipulator and social commentator.  Equally entertaining are Luke Grant’s Benjamin and Zach Powell’s William, posing and posturing in ridiculous disguises (oh, those moustaches!) and flailing around from the effects of poison; Powell provides a superb study in comic playing when Alistair’s scheming bites William in the backside.

As the unwitting participants, the girls, Zoe Birkbeck is a haughty and bookish Fiona, never less than elegant, while Tessa Bonham Jones’s Charlotte is delightfully dim and frivolous.  As Phoebe, the conniving maid, Georgina Morton gives an arch but down-to-earth performance; her appearance as a notary, with a beard as long as she is tall, is ludicrously funny.

Johnson and Buzzeo’s script crackles with witty lines, and the dialogue has an authentic sound, with only the occasionally anachronistic turn of phrase to remind us that this is a modern-day pastiche and not a long-existing text.  I even recognise some lines as direct translations from Da Ponte’s original; well, if it ain’t broke…

The set, by Ludwig Meslet Poppins, consists of white cloth, creating flats and wings, like the ghost of an 18th century stage.  It’s a blank backdrop against which the colourful characters play out the farce, allowing the actors to come to the fore.  Rosemarie Johnson’s costumes are bright, evoking the period setting, and adding to the elegance of the enterprise.

It’s fast-moving and funny, and irresistible in its appeal.  Johnson’s direction is sharp, like a cut diamond  The sexual mores on display may remind us of the distance between the past and our present, but the machinations of the plot, played here to perfection, show that ‘old-fashioned’ conventions can come across as a refreshing and, above all, entertaining alternative to the pervasive naturalism of the modern-day stage and screen.

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Juan to Watch

DON GIOVANNI

Hippodrome, Birmingham, Wednesday 7th March, 2018

 

Welsh National Opera is back in town and this time they’ve brought my favourite opera, Mozart’s masterly take on the Don Juan legend.  The setting is dark: huge slabs hold doorways (which are put to comic use) but also bear reliefs, friezes depicting human figures in a variety of poses.  Are they souls in torment, and a foretaste of what awaits this dissoluto when he is punito?  Or are they souls in love – which, as the opera demonstrates (in case we didn’t know already) brings its own kind of torment?  These huge pieces, further adorned with statuary, speak of a dominant power, of a ruling class imposing its will on the environs.  Which is what Don Giovanni does in spades, of course, under the guise of generosity and general benevolence.  In these days of sexual harassment cases brought against those (men) who abuse their positions of power, the opera takes on a sharp and contemporary relevance, although I doubt the likes of Weinstein will face his comeuppance via supernatural means!

Against this darkness and walls closing in and moving back, plays out the drama and the comedy of Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto.  Melodrama is countered with wit, high emotion with low, physical gags.  Mozart’s music ties all the mood swings together so we are aware of the contrasts but don’t see the join, and this revival of John Caird’s production serves all aspects, every change of tone, very well.

Gavan Ring’s swaggering Giovanni certainly looks the part and uses his baritone well for seductive decoration.  It’s a pity his voice comes across as somewhat underpowered when singing against the full orchestra: the champagne aria is a bit of a damp squib, alas, whereas La Ci Darem is delicious.  His serenade of Elvira’s maid is ‘accompanied’ by a mysterious, cowled figure, supposedly on the mandolin, thereby aligning Giovanni with the supernatural forces that crop up throughout.  This is the one production choice I query.  If Giovanni is in league with these forces and therefore doing the devil’s work, it doesn’t quite gel with his damnation, brought about by the spirit of the man he murders in the opening scene… Oh well.  I’m not going to let it ruin my night.

David Stout’s Leporello is instantly likeable.  He has the cockiness, the cheekiness and the grovelling down pat, and plays the comedy to the hilt.  Meeta Raval’s Donna Anna provides most of the high drama, while Elizabeth Watts’s Elvira’s melodramatic turn also contributes to the laughs.  Watts is arguably the best actor of this impressive ensemble; her wide-eyed Elvira, like the opera as a whole, balances the dramatic with the comic.  She is a drama queen.  Gareth Brynmor John gives us a solid hothead in his Masetto, while Katie Bray is sweet, funny and charming as his wayward fiancée, Zerlina.  Miklos Sebestyen’s Commendatore is suitably imposing but, for me, best voice of the evening comes out of Benjamin Hulett’s dashing Ottavio.  His tenor soars over the orchestra; his Ottavio is upright, moral and heroic, and not the wet lettuce he is sometimes portrayed as.

The orchestra is in excellent fettle under the baton of James Southall and although the fabulous WNO chorus has little to do, they make an impression with some country dancing at Zerlina’s wedding.

The world is a dark place, the production tells us, and those in charge will seek to exploit us.  Nevertheless, life is to be enjoyed, despite tyrants, despite the tyrannies of love.  At the end, the characters seem unable to embrace life’s pleasures: Anna defers her marriage to Ottavio – who agrees to it! – Elvira heads for a convent – and Leporello seeks out further servitude in a new master.  With Giovanni out of the picture, their lives have lost purpose.  We must allow ourselves a little dissolution, it seems, in order to be happy and fulfilled!

don giovanni

Leporello showing Donna Elvira Russell Brand’s biography – Elizabeth Watts and David Stout (Photo: Richard Hubert Smth)

 

 


Getting Cosy With Mozart

Così fan tutte

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 15th April, 2013

The splendid English Touring Opera brings Mozart and Da Ponte’s effervescent confection of a show to town in a lively and elegant production.  Paul Higgins directs with a flair for comic business that is totally in keeping with the spirit of the piece and supporting Martin Fitzpatrick’s witty translation.

This was the first time I have heard Così in English; I have hitherto been a bit of a purist (snob) preferring to hear opera in their original languages (composers repeat words, phrases and even syllables for a particular sound) but I found not having to keep an eye on surtitles liberating and actively listening to the words as dialogue made the show fresh, and what is usually an amusing and charming piece became laugh-out-loud funny.

It is an unadulterated delight.

It begins with the cast spending the overture tearing around after each other in a game of hide and seek, running in and out of the doorways of decreasing size in Samal Blak’s elegant but simple set.  This matches the instruments that chase each other through Mozart’s coruscating motifs and also sets the tone for fun and game-playing.

Laura Mitchell is a striking Fiordiligi; her duets with Kitty Whately as her sister Dorabella are sublime.  The sisters are a silly pair, given to histrionics and melodrama at the drop of a hat.  When they are faced with real rather than theoretical temptation, they each falter and succumb – although Fiordiligi is harder work.  Her seduction by the disguised Ferrando is one of my favourite moments in all opera.  Speaking of Ferrando, Anthony Gregory is superb, with excellent comic timing and an achingly beautiful tenor voice.  Toby Girling is his mate, the cocksure Guglielmo, is also a fine comedian.  There is a wealth of physical humour going on and the men in particular handle it very well.

Richard Mosley-Evans is a delight as the scheming Don Alfonso.  His trio with the girls “Oh, breezes be gentle” (Soave Sia Il Vento) is absolutely delicious.

Paula Sides steals it, however, as disgruntled maid Despina.  She gets to dress up as a doctor of magnetism to cure the disguised suitors of poisoning (don’t ask) and also an attorney to stage a false wedding.  Her vocal distortions are very funny without distorting the quality of the notes.  It’s a shame her hilarious doctor’s outfit with its rather medieval beaked mask muffles her a bit.

It’s all a frothy bit of nonsense, a rom-com of no import – or is it? Mozart gives us confection but also sneaks up on us with the emotional power of his score.  This is not merely a box of posh chocolates.  It is something more nutritious than that.  Mozart reminds us that even these airheads and ninnies are people too and as we respond to their emotions, points out that our own humanity lies beneath the faces and pretexts we adopt in our own ridiculous lives.  It’s an absolute pleasure to spend an evening in his company.

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Tutte Fruity

Così fan tutte
Birmingham Hippodrome, Friday 9th November, 2012

Welsh National Opera return with their seaside production of Mozart’s delectable rom-com. The setting is the seafront of an English resort, with Victorian street lamps along the esplanade. This is a fish and chips. Punch and Judy world, with Italian seasoning.

Director Benjamin Davis gets the laughs coming as soon as possible. The effervescent overture underscores a silent movie of seaside life: young lovers walk along the prom, dog walkers struggle to keep their canine charges under control… It sets the tone perfectly for what is to follow.

The plot involves a bet made between two soldiers and an older man who tells them even their beloved fiancées will do the dirty on them as soon as the soldiers turn their backs. The soldiers accept the terms of the wager and bid farewell to their girlfriends, pretending to go off to war. They immediately reappear in disguise (as camp holiday camp redcoats) to seduce each other’s girl. Eventually the girls succumb, and the whole scheme blows up in everyone’s faces. (Kate Bush was to explore the same territory two hundred years later with Babooshka!)

There is much silliness to the plot – the suitors pretend to drink poison and are ‘cured’ by the maid dressed as a mystic with a giant magnet –and the score adds charm and humour to the comic business. The girls’ arias and duets, beautifully sung, show them to be giddy drama queens, melodramatic but heartfelt all the same. But, as with all Mozart, there are moments of absolute beauty too. The farewell to the soldiers, Soave sia il vento, is at once stirring and soothing. It is so gorgeous it makes you ache.

Elizabeth Watts is a petite powerhouse as Fiordiligi, the more serious of the sisters. Maire Flavin is the flibbertigibbet Dorabella – and both are very funny. As the faux holiday reps, Gary Griffiths’s Guglielmo is an absolute hoot in a pair of shorts and Andrew Tortise’s Ferrando has something of the Syd Little about him with his prosthetic nose and buttoned up blazer. Neal Davis dons a chequered Max Miller-type suit as Don Alfonso, engineer of the scheme. A man with a comb-over shouldn’t be able to sing so divinely! He is aided and abetted by chambermaid Despina – Joanne Boag having fun in a range of disguises, able to belt out her opinions while cleaning a toilet.

The singing is flawless although I would have liked Ferrando to be a little more forceful in his seduction scene. Mark Wigglesworth’s baton allows for moments of silence, not just to allow for the applause, but as pauses to let the action breathe, as the characters reel from some outburst or turn of events.

It is a feast for the eyes and ears – the sweetness of lettered rock tempered with the saltiness of the seaside air. Everything coruscates with wit and there is something of the fruitiness of seaside postcards in the humour. Max Jones’s design is the colourful package of this box of delights, incorporating fairground attractions and life-size Punch and Judy characters whose conflicts complement those of the main characters.

There is a cynicism to the piece in its claim (and apparent proof) that all women do the same. The men who put this hypothesis to the test suffer the most, caught in their own trap, but such is the other-worldliness of this little society, it operates solely for the purpose of fulfilling the terms of the bet, you go along with it, as the heart-shaped box of confectionery it really is. Mozart’s music tickles and seduces more effectively than any comedy moustache.