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!
Conductor and artistic director, Ian Page