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IOpera: Cosi fan tutte

by Heather Leviston

Così fan tutte. Really? IOpera’s latest offering has asked us to ponder once again the assertion encapsulated in the title of Mozart’s operatic masterpiece. While Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto, suggests that all women – the “e” of “tutte” – are essentially ready to succumb to the charms of the first available seducers when their betrothed are called away, inherent misogynistic attitudes were eclipsed by vitality and some glorious singing in this production.

But perhaps that “e” should be an “i” after all. As a major player in the plot to show Ferrando and Guglielmo that they cannot put their trust in female fidelity, Despina, maid to Fiordiligi and Dorabella – the two females in question, presents a cynical view of men’s capacity for constancy. Don Alfonso, the instigator of the wager, seems to be as much motivated by a personal grievance as by a wish to shock the couples from their romantic stupor. In addition to the sexual politics, the character of Despina reminds us of the class warfare going on at the time. Così was composed at the time of the French Revolution and political ferment casts its shadow over this opera as it did in the Beaumarchais play that Da Ponte and Mozart used as a basis for The Marriage of Figaro. Despina hastily sneaks a forbidden taste of the sisters’ chocolate drink and knows that trying to extricate as much gold from Don Alfonso as possible is an opportunity that she cannot afford to pass up. Besides, she too views a rude awakening to the real world for the four lovers as a highly amusing adventure.

In the duel roles of Despina and Stage Director, Jane Magão made a major contribution to the comic element of Mozart’s final opera buffa. Drinking the chocolate via the pot’s spout was just a taste of what was to come. Her vivacious, relaxed stage presence and sweet light soprano became an energizing connecting thread. The limited stage space of the Lithuanian Club theatre required considerable ingenuity on her part, even without the presence of a chorus – one of the very few deletions from Mozart’s score. Having most of the back of the stage devoted to the chamber orchestra added to the challenge. Even so, most of the action was managed with considerable dexterity by the singers, and the audience was generally more than happy to overlook necessary compromises.

The most significant problem with this setup, however, was having the conductor with his back to the singers. It is doubtful that anybody less experienced than Maestro David Kram would have been able to pull it off. With his electronic keyboard on harpsichord setting, he was able to lead and accommodate the singers in the recitatives effectively when playing alone, and keep things in place for the orchestral recitatives. On the few occasions when singers and orchestra diverged – and they were different on the two performances – he quickly brought things back under control. In a chamber orchestral arrangement by Jonathan Lyness, ten musicians – five string players and five wind players – from the Australian National Academy of Music negotiated their parts commendably. No mean feat for comparatively inexperienced musicians allocated one per part. They played with greater confidence for the second performance, with first violin, Rachael Kwa, making an impressive contribution.

Greater ease was also apparent in some of the vocal work. As Don Alfoso, Peter Tregear added more weight of voice to his characterization of an elderly, slightly doddery plotter of intrigue. Although tenor Zachary McCulloch was still suffering from a cold, he sang with increased assurance as Ferrando. He has a most attractive voice and was a huge asset to the ensembles, blending particularly well with bass baritone Darcy Carroll’s Guglielmo. Both young men threw themselves wholeheartedly into the comedy. McCulloch was simply hilarious during the seduction scene when the four lovers were squashed together on the couch, a Stan Laurel brand of wide-eyed, alarmed innocence increasing the comic tension during a prolonged silence. Carroll continues to grow in stature as a singer with every role he undertakes. Dramatically, he was both uninhibited and thoughtful, while his voice is developing further depth and power.

After opening night, my companion referred to Naomi Flatman as “the complete package”. She was a delightful Dorabella – mischievous and brimming with charming vitality. You couldn’t help but forgive “the little minx” for succumbing so readily to the charms of “Albanian” Guglielmo. Secure musically and vocally, her warm, light mezzo-soprano voice complemented Louise Keast’s splendid lyric soprano instrument beautifully. Their first duet, where the sisters compare the attributes of their fiancés, was a case in point. The way in which both were able to spin high, sustained top notes was one of the great pleasures of the performances. Louise Keast sang the challenging role of Fiordiligi with distinction. It is debatable whether her tendency to emphasise certain notes with such force for comic effect was wise, but that may not have been her choice. She was certainly judicious in the way she sang the lower notes in her two big arias: “Come scoglio” as she rejects her strange suitor, and “Per pietà” as she repents the wavering of her resolve. The latter aria is occasionally omitted, so we were fortunate to hear Keast sing it with such fine control of a leisurely paced legato line and well-shaped dynamics, her soft high notes exquisitely poised.

The team at IOpera deserves a big Bravo! for giving gifted young performers an important opportunity to hone (and display) their skills, and for giving audiences such an enjoyable operatic experience.

Photo supplied.

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Heather Leviston reviewed Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” presented by IOpera at the Lithuanian Club on April 30 and May 2, 2021.

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